Jungle Magic: How to Make a Captivating Rainforest Terrarium

I may be biased, but rainforest terrariums really are the best terrariums.

Is there a better (or more beautiful) way to bring lush greenery and vibrant colors into your home?

Now, as you might expect, attempting a tabletop replica of nature’s finest ecosystem comes with its challenges. However, with the right setup, plants, and style choices, it becomes a lot easier.

In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know to create something truly spectacular that you’ll love for years to come.

Let’s make a rainforest!

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How to Make a Rainforest Terrarium – 8 Key Principles

1 | Go Large (For Your Glass Container)

Making a rainforest terrarium is all about encapsulating the enormous scale in a miniature space.

If that space is too miniature, you won’t be able to capture that essence.

For this project, you’ll be utilizing different types of planting styles, with plants of different sizes. So, to really do it justice, you’ll need a fair amount of space to work with.

Choose a large, uniform glass terrarium container. The more room you have, the more fun you can have!

glass container with cork lid
This is about the minimum size I’d like to work with.

Repurposed fish tanks and vivarium tanks are even better.

In a cylindrical container, it’s best to make the center the focal point for a design that looks good from all angles.

But if you have a square or rectangular container, the back will be the focal point, which is much better at creating the depth you see in a rainforest.

2 | Build the Foundation Properly 

There’s more to a rainforest terrarium than what you can see.

If you want your terrarium to go the distance, then replicating the conditions at play in the natural environment is essential.

The earth from which the jungle grows is the finest quality that mother nature can provide. It provides nutrients, retains moisture, and drains exceptionally well.

So I recommend two things here:

  1. Grab some leca or aquarium gravel and build in a drainage layer (also known as a false bottom). This provides a space for any excess water to move into, where it won’t damage your plants’ roots.
  2. Use a high-quality terrarium substrate. You can make your own substrate mix, or purchase a ready-made bag – just avoid one with peat moss in because of its negative environmental impact. Our signature tropical terrarium mix is ideal here (but of course, I’m biased).
bulk terrarium substrate mix and hands
If I’m building a small terrarium, I’ll buy a ready-made mix such as ABG mix. If I’m building several or a large project, I like to make my own mix in bulk.

Coco coir is a good base; it’s light and stays moist.

Elements like orchid bark, tree fern fiber, and charcoal are great for drainage and root aeration, and earthworm castings are a fantastic slow-release natural fertilizer.

3 | Think 3D

Rainforests have four layers: forest floor, understory, canopy, and emergent.

A simple tropical terrarium may just have one or two small plants in the “forest floor”, but a rainforest terrarium needs to bring the whole ensemble.

Of course, you’re not going to have a literal tree canopy or emergent layer in your terrarium, but we really want to create the illusion of both a forest floor and a dense understory.

rainforest layers
This image really helps illustrate what I mean, imagine plants growing from every area.

So, the best way to approach this project is to think as 3D as you possibly can.

You want just as much going on in the top half of your container as you do in the bottom half, and there’s one key way to achieve that…

4 | Use a LOT of Hardscape

Terrarium hardscape is going to be your number one tool for fully fleshing out your scene and achieving this 3D look.

Rocks and (in particular) wood will help to create verticality and depth in your build and provide surfaces for moss and epiphytic plants to grow on.

Perfect for creating that signature density.

Terrarium hardscape: Mopani wood and Dragon Stone
I use hardscape in almost every one of my terrariums, and there are so many different types to choose from. 

Backgrounds are also ideal for this purpose if you’re working with a tank-style container.

👉 See our terrarium hardscape article for our favorite picks.

5 | Choose the Right Plants

With such a huge range of terrarium plants out there, it can be intimidating to know where to start, so I’ve broken it down into three(ish) handy categories for you.

I recommend choosing plants from each to ensure enough variety and visual contrast.

1 | Foliage will be the attractive focal points and pops of color in your piece.

(Examples: AlocasiaCalatheaMarantaPileaCryptanthusBegonia, Orchids).

placing lightning jewel orchid in terrarium
Depending on the size of your container, just one or two will look incredible.

2 | Ferns will be bringing the texture and bulk to the build.

(Examples: NephrolepisAdiantumDavalliaPterisMicrosorum).

Fluffy Ruffles Fern terrarium
I particularly love Nephrolepis ferns (such as this ‘Fluffy Ruffles’ Fern) in terrariums.

3 | Vines will make the piece more cohesive – connecting the “forest floor” and the “understory”.

(Examples: SyngoniumMonsteraSelaginellaFicusRaphidaphoraPothosMarcgravia).

Ficus pumila (Creeping Fig) on tree
Ficus pumila climbs its way up a terrarium container the same way it would a tree in the wild.

Extra | Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants or objects but they aren’t necessarily a category of their own – many rightly belong to the previous three categories.

Choosing plants that can be planted epiphytically on hardscape or background is going to take your build from zero to hero.

(Examples: Air Plants, DischidiaPyrrosia).

giant birds nest fern in asia
Many ferns are epiphytic – they can be seen growing from every nook and cranny in the tropics. Here’s one I saw in Malaysia.

Before you run to the plant store, I have a few final plant design tips:

  • Stay clear of anything too ornamental – the likes of Fittonia and Polka Dot Plants can really take you out of the immersion.
  • Choose a variety of leaf sizes and shapes for contrast.
  • Go heavy on the green but bring in pops of color.

👉 For more guidance, see our Terrarium Plant Index.

6 | Go Crazy With Moss 

Terrarium moss is the finishing touch that will bring everything together.

Broadly, moss can be categorized into Pleurocarpous moss (grows in “carpets”), Acrocarpous (grow in “clumps”), and aquatic mosses.

Choosing a few different mosses will help create a dense, natural look.

Mood moss
For an Acrocarpous moss, I recommend choosing Mood Moss as you can see here. Cushion Moss looks a little too organized and uniform for a rainforest look, but Mood Moss is much more lush and wild. 

Aquatic mosses are more challenging to work with, in that extremely high humidity needs to be maintained, but they look absolutely exceptional.

Mosses like Java Moss and Christmas Moss can grow on the hardscape itself for the ultimate jungle feel.

There are two ways you can do it.

  1. Tuck it into natural crevices in the hardscape. I like to pop a little fresh sphagnum moss beneath, which can help to maintain consistent moisture.

You can do this in tandem with epiphytes. Gently stuffing the roots into a nook with moss is a good way to keep a little plant in position.

  1. Chop the moss up finely (it won’t hurt – I promise!) and spread it over the hardscape like a paste. Keep it topped up with a little water until it’s established.
Fish tank terrarium with lighting
My friend did the paste method on a big branch in his terrarium, and it looks brilliant.

7 | Add Microfauna 

Microfauna plays an integral role in the decomposition cycle.

Even the very best plant parents can’t stop plant material from decaying.

At some point, a plant will perish, or a plant will drop an old leaf for new growth – both of which are perfectly natural.

In a closed ecosystem, this can all too easily turn into a mold bloom, but luckily, this problem has an easy solution… Add in some tiny detritivorous critters to take care of that for you!

Springtails are the perfect cleanup crew for rainforest terrariums. They don’t need any feeding or looking after (they literally eat the mold and fungi problem) and they’re barely noticeable in a setup.

👉 Grab a set of springtails here.

It’s worth noting that prevention is much better than cure here, and adding them at the start will help them stay on top of it. Adding them, when you see mold, is often too late.

Springtail culture up close
Springtails are absolutely tiny. 

To be fair, a combination of both springtails and isopods is even better for the overall health of an ecosystem. Check out our cleanup crew isopods for sale on our store and see if any take your fancy.

panda king isopods on leaf litter
Isopods can be super cute!

The only thing to consider is that isopods will need additional care considerations.

8 | Leave Your Terrarium to Grow In 

Now, all that’s left to do is sit back and let the plants do the work.

Rainforest terrariums look incredible when they’ve been left to their own devices for a little while.

Vines will expand in all directions, ferns will produce spores and sprout all across the terrarium, foliage plants will get bushier and bigger, and epiphytes will grow across your hardscape.

(Not to mention, if you’re anything like me, you’ll get into the habit of dropping a new plant cutting in every now and again).

Ficus pumila in closed terrarium
This picture was taken about one year after I built the terrarium.

So sit back, and watch your creation get more and more fabulous over time.

It’s a Jungle Out There 

That’s all for today. Which plants did you choose? Just how big did you go with your container?

Let us know in the comments! If you like, show us your creation by tagging us (@terrariumtribe) on Instagram – we’d love to see it. 😊

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