How to Make a Desert Terrarium (Step-by-Step)

Hi! My name is Joe. I run ome; a bespoke terrarium design and retail website and media platform. Check out our terrariums and products. 

If you’ve been browsing the internet for a crash course in how to design your own beautiful desert terrarium, you’ve probably noticed there’s two pretty distinct schools of thought.

Many articles give the impression that a succulent or cacti build couldn’t be simpler, and that with only a few materials and whatever plants you choose; you’ll have a healthy planter in no time.

Other articles, however, will tell you that it’s basically impossible to create a sustainable desert terrarium.

Well, they would first point out (correctly) that what we’re talking about are more accurately described as planters, rather than terrariums, but we’ll use the terms interchangeably just to keep you on your toes.

But, terminology aside, the largest of concern are with poor choices of vessels, plants and substrate. Most notably the difficulty of creating a great desert planter comes down to maintaining proper drainage.

Though the former group may have a bit too casual of an outlook, the latter could probably stand to have a little faith. I’ll take you through all the details to give you the best shot at creating something beautiful, low maintenance and, most importantly, long lasting.

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Why Make a Desert Terrarium?

When done right, cacti and succulent terrariums can be absolutely stunning.

The open containers required give you a great opportunity to create some beautiful layering and an eye-catching 3D design.

Although admittedly handling cacti can be a little troublesome (I cannot count how many needles my body has accidentally absorbed), one’s ability to maintain an open planter is greatly enhanced by the open space.

Not to mention there are a range of beautiful plants that can give your design an exciting edge!

Right, let’s get into the good stuff!

Choosing the Right Container

Typically, cacti and succulents are famed for tolerating a little neglect.

It’s easy for one to make the jump, then, to assume they’re just as placid inside a terrarium setup.

These plants typically enjoy a good amount of water to pass through them followed by a period in which they can dry completely.

Already, the issue becomes clear. As there is no drainage hole at the bottom of a terrarium, it’s easier for water to build up, soaking the soil and ultimately rotting the roots.

To navigate this challenge we’ll need to get a bit clever. Let’s start with your glassware.

The ideal glassware for a desert terrarium will be one of a decent depth, for the best drainage we can achieve, and one which is not ‘enclosed’.

This latter point is important.

Cacti and succulents are not big fans of humidity. Even if your terrarium isn’t sealed, a semi-enclosed setup is still going to facilitate a damp environment.

While it’s important to note a semi-enclosed vessel isn’t a guaranteed death sentence for your desert terrarium, we’re not leaving anything up to chance.

It’s All About Drainage

Nailing your desert planter is about regulating water properly.

As is well known, overwatering cacti and succulents is a far greater risk than underwatering. This rule goes double inside a terrarium set up.

Even a decent drainage layer can be overcome with too much water. And even more than this, over time as your roots grow they will be inching closer to the bottom of your glassware, which means an increased risk of root rot.

We’ll address maintenance later, but for now let’s talk about the staple terrarium feature – the drainage layer, sometimes referred to as a false bottom.

You’ll want to choose a gravel that promotes airflow. I personally prefer to use Leca (clay aggregate that absorbs water) but any round gravel that would promote an aerobic environment is a good option. See Leca on Etsy.

Aim to fill at least 1 and a half inches up of the bottom of your container.

You can forego the drainage layer in favour of combining this element with your substrate and having one thick layer of everything, rather than each element separated.

It doesn’t really matter, but from an aesthetics point of view you might get a little more from separating your layers.

What Substrate for Which Plants?

Plants

Up until now we’ve sort of been grouping succulents and cacti together. In so far as glassware and drainage are concerned; they have pretty much the same requirements.

The real key to a successful desert terrarium is going to be combining the right plants.

For example, it’s important first to make a distinction between the two groups of cacti; jungle and desert.

We are explicitly talking about the former, so we’ll exclude often popular options such as Rhipsalis from our design. Combining plants found in a desert with those found in a rainforest… well, it’s obvious. Don’t do it!

The same goes for succulents.

Now, while technically all cacti are succulents (a leafless one that stores moisture in its stem) not all succulents are cacti.

Again, many succulents hail from colder climates, mountains, forests and jungles. It’s important to research a little bit about all of the plants you’re hoping to include before you get started.

A desert cactus is easily identifiable; thick, and prickly – you know the ones. Rather than give you a definitive list of any and all combinations of plants to use, start off with a selection of classic desert cacti. Cross reference their specific care requirements online to see if there’s anything anomalous about any of your choices.

Substrate

The substrate requirements for cacti and other succulents will differ. Again, the best advice we can give is to research the requirements of the plants you’ve chosen to use. That being said there’s a few things to take into consideration as a whole.

Your substrate mix will ultimately need to be:

  • Nutritious
  • Porous
  • Aerated

While accounting for nutrition, we want our substrate to allow for good drainage and to dry out as quickly as possible. Choosing a pebbly mix that is not dense in nature will encourage dryness.

Considering how susceptible cacti and succulent roots are to rotting, it’s important you get this bit right.

As mentioned earlier you may consider using Leca as a component within your soil mix to promote aeration and to allow water to be absorbed to prevent pooling. You may also consider including activated charcoal tubes; these are highly porous and are famously excellent filters, and again their shape will promote drainage and aeration.

In regards to nutrition, you will want to consider using an organic-based soil mix including either peat moss or coconut fibres. If you want to get technical, the ideal PH level for your soil will generally be in the region of 5-6.

Choosing your Hardscape Materials

Open planters are the perfect opportunity to show off a sleek or striking piece of hardscape.

It may be a spiralling chunk of driftwood you’ve found or a variegated and complexly beautiful maple leaf stone. One thing to remember when making your choice is to ensure they’re not going to harm the plants.

Wood, for example, could end up soaking up so much water that it keeps your cacti / succulents moist above the soil which is, as we now know, no good.

To remedy this problem, I would recommend sealing your wood with some sort of varnish or sealant (which can be found in pretty much any hardware or garden store!)

Step by Step

Ok. We’ve given you an in-depth look at the considerations that need to be taken when selecting your materials and prepping for your design. Now all there is to do is to create!

I would recommend wearing some gloves if you’re going to be handling cacti.

  • 1) Clean your glassware with hot, soapy water and allow to dry. It’s always best practice to ensure you’re clean from the outset.
  • 2) Pour in your drainage layer. Push the material around with a brush to ensure an even courage or maximise depth in the areas you know your roots will develop. (if you have combined drainage within your substrate, skip this step)
  • 3) Go in with your substrate layer. Again, push the material around with a brush to ensure an even courage or maximise depth in the areas you know your roots will develop.
  • 4) Organise your hardscape. If you have a large centrepiece, it’s best to insert this first and work your plants around it. If you’re only using smaller hardscape elements, you may want to add these in after your plants.
  • 5) Using the end of a brush, stick or other utensil create a hole where you will place in your cacti or succulents. Carefully place in your plants and surround the base with your substrate.
  • 6) Add any finishing hardscape materials. These may be smaller stones, figurines, or models of some sort. You may also want to ‘top’ your substrate with a sand layer to strengthen your desert aesthetic. Doing this will also help prevent fungus gnats from breeding below the surface (pro tip right there, you’re welcome).

When considering your design my advice would be to think about height. The best desert terrariums have a variety of sized plants descending from one or two areas.

For example having a tall cacti at the rear or centre, with increasingly smaller cacti surrounding it. Don’t be afraid of using the creative work of others as a source of inspiration.

Care and Maintenance

Watering

All of the above means diddly-squat if you don’t give your new terrarium the proper care and maintenance it needs. As mentioned, the real danger is overwatering your ecosystem. Cacti can be comfortably ignored for a while, but for too long and they will eventually die.

In a planted pot you would typically gush your cacti or succulent with water periodically, ensuring it’s thoroughly soaked. It would then, given correct drainage, dry out and remain dry for several weeks.

However, as we are operating within a finite amount of space we need to play it smart.

Rather than soaking the roots, and rather than ignoring them altogether, you should periodically give each plant a bit of water every few weeks. It’s hard to be specific on quantity but just remember you are trying to ensure the plants get to drink without ever sitting in water.

A tablespoon at the base of each plant should suffice. Adjust accordingly to the seasons.

Oh, and don’t use a spray bottle. You’ll only risk intensifying the humidity levels.

What Type of Water?

As we’re being thorough, I’ll also make a note that the best type of water to hydrate your planters with is rainwater. Tap water can contain excessive amounts of potentially harmful chemicals, like sodium.

Rainwater is well balanced and will encourage a healthy PH level.

Alternatively, if rainwater is an impractical route for you – don’t worry too much, a little bit of activated charcoal in your layering mix will help to bind away those toxins.

Trimming Roots

Over time, if you’ve done things right, your plant’s roots will grow stronger and grow downwards.

This means, however, that they’re creeping ever so slowly down towards a potential body of water and are unknowingly endangering themselves.

Although it may seem laborious, if you really want to ensure a healthy set-up I recommend trimming off any rotting or excessively long roots a couple of times a year.

To do this, gently remove the plant from the soil (tweezers can make this easier) and use a pair of scissors to snip the excess or damaged roots. Replant as per the step-by-step instructions.

Light requirements

As a responsible craftsperson you will have already researched your plant’s light requirements. Well done!

Typically, desert plants will enjoy a high amount of light. If you’re struggling to find a spot to suit, you can always use grow lights set on a 12hr cycle.

The benefit of a grow light set up is your ability to adjust the lighting exactly to the requirements of your plants. The disadvantage is of course the extra digits on your electricity bill. Otherwise, consider a south facing window.

Over to You

And there you have it. See, naysayers? We’ve figured out a sustainable method. Go us.

Of course, you can forego these guidelines and you could still have your plants survive for up to a year in substandard conditions, but that’s no way to treat your plants. Like any lifeform (mosquitoes aside) you want to maximise health and longevity to ensure your plants can live happily for as long as possible.  

Thank you Dan for having us here, it’s an honour to be a part of the terrarium tribe!

If you’ve enjoyed this article, consider checking out my business, ome, either at our website or follow us on Instagram. We specialise in crafting intricate, beautiful, and sustainable ecosystems. We’ve a wide range of products on offer; from premade terrariums to handmade jewellery, moss walls and more. We’re working hard to stock our shelves with everything you might need to make a terrarium yourself.

Kind Regards,

Joe Rees

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