How to Build a Serene Bonsai Terrarium (The Easy Way)

Growing a tree in a terrarium seems like the ultimate horticultural challenge, but it’s possible thanks to the wonders of bonsai.

When you think about it, Bonsai (the art of growing and shaping miniature trees to look like their full counterparts) is a fitting companion to the art of creating miniature worlds in terrariums.

Of course, you’re not going to be growing a mighty oak in a glass container any time soon, but with the right species of tree you can easily get started.

In this article we’re going to cover the best species of bonsai tree for different terrarium environments, how to set them up, and how to care for them.

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Can You Grow a Bonsai Tree In a Terrarium?

Well, clearly yes, but like any terrarium plant, there are going to be caveats,

Every tree is unique, so different bonsai species have different environmental wants and needs.

As with any terrarium, you will need to recreate those ideal natural environments as best you can. *Not that perpetually sculpting a tree to keep it small is particularly… natural.

bonsai terrarium close up
Regardless, I think we can all agree they’re gorgeous.

The challenge with bonsai in terrariums is that trees, on the whole, don’t like to be constantly sitting in water (or to have “wet feet,” as they say in the bonsai world).

Meaning we can rule out a lot of different species.

Of course, we can mitigate this to some extent – as we would in any tropical terrarium – with good drainage, but we’ll have to accept that some species will probably be off-limits.

Picking the Best Bonsai Trees for Your Terrarium

In reality, bonsai terrariums aren’t a practice that tends to be explored much at the advanced level. Even growing trees indoors is seemingly frowned upon by the bonsai community, so as you might imagine, the appetite for trees in terrariums isn’t exactly overwhelming…

So, I’m afraid if you’re looking to really push the limits with some exotic trees, you’ll likely have to wing it somewhat.

However, if you’re a beginner to bonsai (like me), then you have some great options to start with.

By that, I mean there’s one clear choice for most people.

Beginner = Ginseng Ficus Terrarium

Bonsai terrariums that are sold professionally are overwhelmingly made using Ficus species.

That’s a great vouch for their suitability!

But that doesn’t mean you need to be a professional to use them.

Liking lots of humidity, light, and water, they’re a great fit for closed terrarium life. Not to mention the fact that they’re super small (as far as trees go) and very affordable (as far as bonsai trees go).

All of that makes them very forgiving as a starter terrarium bonsai tree.

In particular, Ficus macrocarpa, also known as the Ginseng Ficus, is the most popular choice.

ficus above terrarium
The dark leaves of the Ficus ginseng are beautiful – I had to choose it for my bonsai terrarium.

👉 Shop Ginseng Ficus (small) on Bonsai Boy.

If you want something a little different, Ficus retusa and Ficus benjamina are solid choices, too.

Other Notable Bonsai Picks

These options are uncommon but still have some documented usage, so you have some confidence that they will work as a bonsai terrarium.

  • Schefflera (Umbrella trees) have been used in terrariums due to their love of humidity and general ease of growing.
schefflera close up
Schefflera plants are absolutely fabulous.

They’re a great alternative for those looking to explore something beyond the typical Ficus terrariums.

The Dwarf Umbrella tree, *Arboricola schefflera* ‘Luseanne,’ is a fantastic starting point.

  • Premna terrariums seem to be on the rarer side, but I have found some gorgeous examples online.

Premna obtusifolia could be a good option if you’d like to try this species out for yourself.

How to Make a Bonsai Terrarium (3 Steps)

Now we’ve navigated what tree to use, it’s time to approach building it.

For this, we’ll be closely following a tropical terrarium how-to, but it is tailored to bonsai trees in a few key ways.

1 | Drainage

First things first, you’re going to want to avoid this whole “wet feet” thing the experts warn us of.

The best way to do that is by creating a small layer of pebbles that provide a space for any excess water to pool, serving as a buffer to protect against overwatering.

You can use gravel, pebbles, or my favorite, leca.

drainage layer of pebbles and mesh
You can also use a thin mesh barrier layer on top to prevent the roots from growing into the drainage material.

👉 Shop leca for terrariums and mesh barriers on our store.

I’d actually run out of leca when I did this bonsai project, so I went without on this occasion. In theory, it could be okay, but I’ll have to be extremely careful not to overwater it.

It’s a “do as I say, not as I do” moment! 😬

2 | Soil/Substrate

In the bonsai trade, they use a very specific kind of Japanese soil called akadama soil.

It’s essentially a baked clay substrate that forms a hard pellet-like consistency. It has all the great qualities of a terrarium mix in that it has excellent water retention and drainage, and it’s tough enough to resist compaction over time.

bonsai terrarium substrate in hand
The akadama soil is the pale yellowish element here – I used a good helping in my mix.

Akadama soil is a good substrate to add to a terrarium period, so I have no qualms about recommending it as part of a bonsai terrarium mix.

To make up the rest of the mix, you can consider coco coir, pumice, and lava rock. I put a bit of horticultural charcoal in too.

50% tropical substrate mix and 50% akadama soil is a good ratio.

👉 You can grab tropical terrarium substrate on our shop and akadama soil here on Etsy.

3 | Planting

After you’ve added your drainage layer and substrate layer, you can plant your baby bonsai. Yay!

planting bonsai in terrarium
I like to use a telescopic trowel to maneuver the substrate around the plant and fix it into place.

Once I had the star of the show (my Ficus) right where I wanted it, I added Cushion Moss tufts all over the container to cover the surface of the soil. 

adding moss to bonsai terrarium
Placing moss is fiddly, but rewarding work!

And lastly, it’s time for any accent plants you like.

I chose a few Pilea glaucaPilea depressaHypoestes, and Fittonia cuttings to dot around on top of the moss. These species don’t need to be planted, cuttings will just root up wherever they’re placed.

It’s a good idea to choose accent plants that won’t outshine your bonsai.

Small, bright, ornamental plants are best.

bonsai terrarium close up
I’m very happy with the result.

Bonsai Terrarium Care

Though care advice will differ depending on your bonsai choice, there are some good practices that are fairly universal.

Watering

Those of you who have made a terrarium before will know that watering is quite challenging to get right.

Ultimately, it’s far easier to add more water than it is to remove excess water, so your best bet is to add a few sprays at a time.

watering bonsai terrarium
A spray bottle makes it a lot easier – you’re less likely to add too much as opposed to pouring it in.

The substrate should never look wet. And the moss should feel a little moist to the touch. A small amount of condensation is typically a good sign too.

Lighting

Unlike most tropical terrariums, many bonsai trees will need full sun – and plenty of it.

Experts at Bonsai Boy recommend having your tree as close to the windows as possible (no more than one foot away) to preserve as much energy as possible. This is even more important with the added glass layer of a terrarium.

The problem with this, of course, is that if you pair it with other terrarium plants and mosses, they simply won’t be able to withstand the direct sunlight.

So, I’d absolutely recommend getting a dedicated grow light for your terrarium bonsai.

Thankfully this is going to be less of an issue with Ficus bonsai. They’ll be just fine with bright indirect light.

bonsai terrarium lighting
I’ve been keeping mine near an East-facing window and both my bonsai and other plants have been happy here. It’s getting a decent 300+ footcandles even in the afternoon.

Show Us Your Bonsai Terrarium!

Do you have any experience with bonsai terrariums? Let us know in the comments.

I’m genuinely interested to see what tree species people have had success with.

Check out my guide to Japanese Terrarium Culture for more inspiration.

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