How to Make a Cheap Terrarium (For Free?)

Making a terrarium can be surprisingly expensive.

Often the materials wind up costing far more than you initially budget for, and it can end up feeling more like a financial splurge than a crafty project.

But thankfully, over the last few years, I’ve found plenty of ways of keeping costs low and often skipping them altogether. 

With these trade secrets, making a cheap terrarium has never been easier. If you’re smart, you can make a fabulous creation for very little.

So put your wallet away and get your bargain hunter hat at the ready!

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Cheap Terrarium Ideas (What You Need + How to Do it on the Cheap)

I’ve split this post is split into three key spending areas; we’ll be deep diving into:

  • Glassware.
  • Plants (and moss).
  • Layers & extras.

So if you’re ready for absolutely every trick I have up my sleeve for keeping terrarium costs low, let’s jump in.

4 Best Places to Get a Terrarium Glass Container

Take a Look in the Pantry 

The kitchen is a terrarium container goldmine.

If you love mayonnaise, tequila, and olives(*), as much as I do, then you’re bound to have a future terrarium sitting patiently in your pantry.

*Not together; I’m not an animal…

If it’s made of glass and not currently home to a condiment, it’s a terrarium.

The best thing about upcycling these kinds of containers is they typically come with lids, which is a huge win.

Upcycled mason jar terrarium
I repurposed this old mason jar for a terrarium build – it had been lying around my cupboard for years.

Facebook Marketplace

While it is my personal incarnation of hell on Earth, Facebook Marketplace is undeniably a great place to look for cheap/free terrarium containers.

The best searches (at least in my area) are “glass vase,” “glass container,” and, of course, “fish tank.”

There’s a bunch of high-quality stuff on there – you’d be surprised how many ex-fish owners are trying to get rid of their tanks!

Upcycled fish tank terrarium container
My friend made this amazing piece with an old tank.

Wedding Centerpieces

Obviously, I don’t recommend stealing a centerpiece from your friends’ wedding, but I’ve never met a couple who want to keep 10 glass vases forever.

So many couples choose terrarium-inspired arrangements for their tables.

Thrifted glass geometric terrarium container
I went home with this hot geometric terrarium piece after a wedding.

It wasn’t waterproof, but a little hot glue gunning did the trick, and it was perfect for an open terrarium approach.

And it only cost you an overnight stay in a hotel, a full evening of booze, and a fancy dress! Bargain!

TJ Maxx and Ikea

Ikea is both a 5-star afternoon trip and the ultimate go-to for cheap glassware.

Grab yourself some Swedish meatballs and a bargain container

Ikea glass terrarium container with lid
I grabbed this candy jar-style piece from Ikea.

TJ Maxx is also an excellent place to look. I’d estimate that I get around 75% of my glass from there.

TJMaxx large terrarium container
This large piece is a thrifty TK Maxx find (the British version of TJ) – it was less than $20!

It didn’t come with a lid, but that leads me nicely to my next point.

Bonus – Makeshift Lids

If your thrifted container comes without a lid, fear not; saran wrap will do the trick.

Airtight, transparent, and inexpensive. Tick, tick, tick.

Saran wrap temporary terrarium lid
A saran wrap lid can look neat if you’re careful with application.

For a more permanent solution, you can grab an acrylic lid from Etsy.

I wouldn’t say it’s particularly cheap, but it’s definitely cheaper to get a lidless container and a custom lid than it is to buy a purpose-built container with a lid in the first place.

Read more about the terrarium lid options here.

Cheap Terrarium Plants – 3 Places to Look

Plant Swap Facebook Groups 

Plant swap groups are ideal for populating your new terrarium project.

Got a cactus? Swap it for a terrarium-ready Peperomia. Got too many seeds for your garden this year? Swap it for a dainty Tradescantia.

Sometimes you’ll even find an extra lovely person giving away some goodies for free!

Even if you don’t find what you’re looking for, I promise it’s a wholesome community you’ll want to get involved with.

Plant swap Facebook group social
Our group even has meet-ups and charity events – usually in a brewery (hurrah). 

Houseplant Cuttings

Many popular houseplants are perfectly appropriate for closed terrarium conditions.

And we can use these plants to make more plants.

  • If you have any Ferns, you can try splitting off a smaller section.
  • If you have a Pilea offshoot, you could tease it away and let it shine on its own.
Syngonium cutting in propagation station
I always have something on the go in my propagation station for my next terrarium project.

Garden Center Rescues / the Horticultural Bargain Bin

You know that shady corner of the plant nursery – where plants that have been neglected are sent to decline further? Well, the inhabitants of that corner come with a significantly reduced price tag. 

Ideal for those with tight budgets but also the patience and expertise needed to nurse a poorly plant back to health.

So next time you’re at the garden store, swing by that spot. Who knows, that sad Calathea, tattered Aglaonema, or parched Syngonium could be the superstar of your next project.

Thrip infestation on Philodendron Birkin
Just be extra careful when checking for pests! Sometimes the plants are looking iffy for a sinister reason.

Bonus – Driveway Moss

While I completely discourage foraging for moss from public land due to the environmental impact, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from collecting it from your own land

“But I’m not a member of the aristocracy; I don’t have my own land!” I hear you cry.

Well, me either, but what I do have is a relatively dirty front yard with plenty of mossy clumps growing between the concrete. 

Simply pluck it off and stick it in your terrarium! I can’t really predict how well it might fare, but many temperate moss species thrive in tropical conditions.

Cushion moss for terrarium build
Driveway moss won’t ever look quite as lush as this healthy chunk, but it’ll save you some pennies.

For me, moss is worth splurging on. Check out my live moss buying guide if you’re curious.

Other Terrarium Components

Terrarium Layers

How do we source the foundation of your terrarium without it costing an arm and a leg?

  • Drainage material is easy to source inexpensively; just grab a scoop of gravel from your front yard, give it a wash, and there you go. Or, you can pick up a bag of aquarium gravel for super cheap from most pet and plant stores (or Amazon).
  • Charcoal is easily done too. Despite being a popular terrarium additive with some benefits, charcoal isn’t necessary, so you can just skip it, and not using it is free – whoop!
  • Substrate (soil), however, isn’t so easy. Well, you can use cheap potting soil, but you’d really pay for it in terrarium longevity. It’s too dense, compacts too quickly, and doesn’t provide the drainage a terrarium needs, so your piece is unlikely to go the distance. 

Substrate is the one thing I’d advise against scrimping.

👉 I like EZ Botanicals’ take on an ABG mix.

Terrarium substrate mix in hands
A healthy terrarium really needs a light and airy substrate mix like this.

Hardscape and Accessories

Provided that it won’t degrade in moisture or leech anything unwanted into your ecosystem, you can really add in whatever you like for decoration. 

Hardscape is the typical choice (rocks and wood), but I’ll bet you already have something lying around the house you can use.

How about a crystal, sea glass, or random pebble you picked up at a beach 10 years ago and still have for some reason? Just me…?

You could even use toys; lego people are ideal for making a miniature scene.

Check out my terrarium decor ideas post for more.

How Cheap Did You Make It?

If you’re ready to get stuck into your build, check out our guide to closed terrariums

And if I missed any thrifty tips – share them in the comments. 👇

Thanks!

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