How to Build a Bonsai Terrarium (and Choose the Best Trees)

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.

Bonsai Terrarium

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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, and so different bonsai species all have their own environmental wants and needs.

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

The challenge with bonsai in terrariums is that trees on a 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 are probably going to be off limits.

Picking the Best Bonsai Trees for Your Terrarium

In reality, bonsai terrariums aren’t a practice that tend 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 = Ficus

When it comes to bonsai terrarium that are sold professionally, they are overwhelmingly made using Ficus species. That’s a great vouch for their suitability!

Ficus bonsai terrarium
The dark leaves of the Ficus contrast so well.

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 ginseng are the most common choice, but I’ve seen Ficus retusa used to great effect too.

Intermediate

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

  • Schefflera

Hawaiian Umbrella trees have also been used in terrariums due to their love of humidity, and general ease of growing.

The fact that I often see them sold attached to lava rock over a water tray gives me plenty of confidence that they’ll handle having their “feet wet” just fine.

They offer 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 โ€“ Buy it here from Bonsai Boy.

  • Premna

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

This little Premna obtusifolia could be a good option if you’d like to try this species out for yourself โ€“ Buy it here from Bonsai Boy.

Experienced

Alright, here we’re getting into more unknown territory.

I found the following species suggested on a Reddit thread, but I definitely got the impression they were speculating more than recommending from experience. So take this advice with a pinch of salt.

Bonsai Terrarium Care

When it comes to watering, humidity and warmth, your terrarium is going to be very dependent on the tree you choose and the type of terrarium you make (i.e. open vs closed) โ€“ so there’s not too much to say on those topics.

However, when it comes to substrate and lighting, there are some important points you’ll want to consider.

Lighting

Unlike most tropical terrariums, bonsai trees are going to need full sun โ€“ and plenty of it.

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

So, window ledges are going to be your best bet (South or West facing ideally if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere).

If you don’t have such a spot in your home, I’d absolutely recommend getting a dedicated grow light for your terrarium bonsai.

Soil/Substrate

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

You can buy akadama soil here on Etsy.

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, drainage and it’s tough enough to resist compaction over time.

I’d even recommend akamama soil in a terrarium period, so I have no qualms 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.

Over to You

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!

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