There’s nothing worse than starting a new terrarium project, cleaning and preparing all of the plants, and then finally realising you’ve forgotten one key component.
It’s probably not going to be the soil let’s be honest, but there are some key terrarium supplies involved in almost every build – and they’re not always quite so obvious.
So, in this article I’m going to give you a shopping list of everything you need to get started.
Some can be easily found at a supermarket, others at common plant stores, and a few that might need a little more specialised outlet (or if all else fails, Amazon).
Ready, set, go!
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The Essential Terrarium Supplies Shopping List
Terrarium literally translates to “earth container,” so you’ll definitely be needing something to put your plants in.
There’s generally two routes to go down.
First is the DIY approach, where you can upcycle any appropriately sized/shaped glass containers. Think mason jars, fish tanks, bedside tables even. Ideally it’ll have a lid but there are options to get one made if they don’t come with one (more on that later).
Just remember, the narrower the opening, the more challenging the build!
Check out the blog post, “How to Choose the Right Terrarium Container” for more help.
Second is the more specialised approach, where you buy a purpose built terrarium container. These tend to come in a few forms, and I’ve included some examples on Etsy for each:
- Geometric terrariums (like these)
- Vases, domes and spheres (like these)
- Wardian cases (like from Leadhead Glass)
Or, to see more sellers of stunning terrarium containers, see this post of Best Etsy Terrariums.
There’s generally no functional advantage to a purpose built terrarium – it’s more about the aesthetics and better build quality – but vivarium tanks do give you more flexibility in adding artificial elements like lighting or fans.
For our first building task, most people employ some sort of drainage layer to help with moisture control and to facilitate the water cycle.
You can make use of all kinds of materials for this base layer, but there are also a couple of additional layers that can help to increase the longevity of your terrarium.
For this you’ll need:
- Gravel – Something large and granular that will create spaces between it when placed in a layer at the bottom of a terrarium. Common choices are aquarium gravel, houseplant top dressing rocks, small stones you can find in your garden… Or LECA makes a fantastic option.
- Activated Charcoal – A layer of this (or some mixed into the substrate) can help to keep your terrarium clean and fresh, reducing the risk of mould and rot.
- *Optional Fibreglass Mesh – Separating your drainage layer and substrate with a barrier can help to keep the terrarium systems in check.
The substrate is a term used to describe what you’re planting in, and it’ll usually be a mix of components designed to give you a balanced function.
Your choice of substrate will depend on the plants you choose, and to an extent what you have available to you.
Soil used in terrariums comes in many forms, ranging from pure potting soil to custom potting mixes. It’s always worth reading the label as we don’t typically want any artificial fertilisers and we don’t really need peat (let’s save the environment where we can).
Generally I’d recommend avoiding pure potting soil. It’s often too fine, compacts too easily and doesn’t retain moisture well without turning into a muddy cake. ABG mix is a classic all rounder which will work in almost all situations.
Substrate as a broader term includes a lot of different things that don’t necessarily include soil at all.
Depending on your plants, you may need a dryer sand-based substrate, or a much wetter coir or moss based substrate. Whatever your plant choices, there is almost certainly a way to optimise your substrate mix for better results.
For a more in-depth analysis, check out “Terrarium Substrate & Soil – Which is Best For You?” or see our Essential Guide to Tropical Terrariums where we break down the individual components of our signature substrate mix in depth for you
Thankfully, terrariums aren’t a hobby that require an expensive kit of tools.
Half the fun is in getting your hands dirty, but there are tasks where your hands aren’t suited, or just won’t fit in the container – then what?
- A spray bottle to evenly water your new terrarium without disturbing the setup (or a mister if you want the aesthetic option).
- Tweezers go a long way for placing plants delicately and effectively (or chopsticks in a pinch).
- Scissors really come in handy, I find curved ones are best for working around plants and hardscape.
- A long spoon (like a cocktail spoon) works well for digging depressions and moving earth.
- A long handled brush comes in handy for dusting off your plants, cleaning up the terrarium and moving around the topsoil if you need to.
There are other helpful tools depending on the project (e.g. a long necked funnel for directing gravel and substrate to the right areas in containers with narrow openings) but the above are the ones you’re going to want to have at hand.
These days you can save yourself the bother of sourcing everything individually and buy a terrarium kit instead.
Otherwise, to see the full list of tools, see “7 Must-Have Terrarium Tools for Any Budding Builder (+ Bonus Items)”.
Sometimes I’ll find a stunning glass container that I’d like to use for a terrarium, but it doesn’t come with a lid.
Thankfully, I have a few solutions to this.
- Acrylic cut-to-shape – For terrariums with wide openings, it’s best to simply get a custom disc (or square) of acrylic to place on top. It’s inexpensive, but often doesn’t perfectly match the glass.
- Cork – For terrariums with narrow openings, a cork is usually the most effective choice. It’ll form a nice tight seal, and it’ll look like it was made for the job – which it was. Finding a company that sells corks in a range of sizes and diameters shouldn’t be too hard.
- Cling film (Saran wrap for the Americans) – This is my go-to solution for new “closed” terrariums that I haven’t ordered lids for yet. This will form an effective seal (more effective than many lids I might add) and then you can trim the edges till they’re nice and neat.
Terrarium plants come in all shapes and colours, and the best species are going to depend on your setup.
If you’re looking to build a tropical terrarium, this list of Closed Terrarium Plants should keep you right. Or if you’re building an open terrarium (e.g. succulent or cacti terrarium) then this article on Open Terrarium Tips should direct you to the right plants.
Experimenting is one of the most exciting elements of terrarium building, so I’m not going to recommend any specific terrarium plants, but you might want to consider picking from these types so that you’ve got a balanced range.
- Ferns are perfect for terrariums. They love shade, moisture and warmth, and they add so much texture to a terrarium.
- Foliage plants draw the eye and provide a striking focal point.
- Vines add that element of natural disorder to a terrarium as they weave their way around.
- Epiphytes (plants that grow attached to things) can help to bring a more 3 dimensional aspect to your terrarium.
- Moss ties together the whole scene and makes it look a lot more natural.
Check out the Terrarium Plant Index for a full list and breakdown of the wide range of terrarium plants on the market. Or, see our guide to Etsy Plant Shops to find more gorgeous terrarium plants for sale.
A bioactive terrarium is one that has been set up to be as self-sufficient as possible.
As great as that sounds, getting the perfect balance is difficult to achieve, but there are some simple steps we can all take to get the process started.
The main one I’d recommend?
Add some springtails to your terrarium. These tiny bugs eat dead organic matter, mould, fungi and more. Super helpful for keeping your terrarium healthy.
Seriously, springtails are the best solution to combating mould in terrariums, I recommend everyone uses them where possible.
That being said, there’s a wide variety of cool looking creatures (rubber ducky isopods I’m looking at you) that can be great for a terrarium too. Check out Rubberduckyisopods.com to see a wide range of exotic isopods.
For more on this, see “Call in the Clean-up Crew: Terrarium Insects & Bugs”.
Over to You
Okay, I’ll admit it, there are a LOT of moving parts with terrarium building, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not crazily fun and rewarding with the right guidance (because it is). Check out our Essential Guide to Tropical Terrariums for an even more in depth run down of every step of the process.
Have I missed anything off this list?
Let me know which kind of terrarium container you chose to run with!