Learn These Pro Terrarium Design Skills to Level up Your Game!

There comes a time when a terrarium builder gets to grips with basic terrarium design and execution, and needs just a little… more.

I remember looking at a recent tropical creation and thinking it’s good, but it’s not great

What is it that takes a perfectly lovely container of plants and turns it into a jaw-dropping piece of natural art?

Something more is needed to elevate my terrariums.

Then I discovered aquascaping!

We’re talking professional (and even competitive) landscape design and creation. Sure, these are all underwater environments, but the principles still apply for terrariums

In this article, we’re going to mine the secrets of professional aquascapers, so we can model their success in our own miniature worlds.

1. Change the Perspective

In aquascaping, perspective is everything.

It’s all about maximising the visual space in the container to make it seem as deep as possible.

Great terrarium design benefits from the same principle. But, creating perspective (or better, multiple perspectives) is more than just for depth, it’s about creating a truly dynamic environment.

You can experiment with a range of variables to adjust scale and perspective:

  • Size – To create a sense of distance from the front to the back, try placing larger objects (plants, rocks or branches) at the front, and smaller objects at the back. Using scale to create a false sense of perspective is key.
  • Substrate – Very few environments on Earth are naturally flat, and those that are tend to be boring… Bring your substrate and your terrarium elements in at different heights to elevate (literally) your environment. You can do this by sloping the soil to the back or centre, or using hardscape to anchor different points.
  • Composition – The more elements you have positioned at different distances from the front (I like to think of them as vertical slices going backward) the more pronounced your sense of depth will be.
Terrarium design perspective
A (very early stage) example of me creating multiple perspectives in a terrarium. It doesn’t look natural yet, but it does look cool!

2. Tell a Story

Like turning a random assortment of words into a novel, creating a theme for your terrarium and telling a story with your composition – that’s what really brings it to life.

A terrarium theme can be created with any one (or all) of its elements. 

Natural landscapes like desert and jungle are perhaps the most straightforward terrarium designs, but you can take it way further!

Why not create a Martian theme? Or Pandora from Disney’s Avatar film.

Terrariums are living art, and they’re limited only by your creativity.

There’s generally two approaches to creating a theme; material-led and design-led.

In material-led themes, you let the natural character of the materials you have dictate the theme. So, if you buy some Japanese seiryu stone for your hardscape, you might let that guide you towards an Iwagumi style terrarium, or maybe a nice zen garden.

Iwagumi style
Iwagumi style of aquascaping.

With a design-led theme, you have a specific vision in mind, and you need to source – or personally craft – the materials you’ll need. These can still be natural themes, but sometimes you simply won’t find the perfect material on the shelf. You’ll have to break and combine pieces to get it right.

Design-led themes will most often be your unnatural landscapes too; like a Star Wars world or a Harry Potter scene. These can be challenging, but a fun way to combine your passions!

3. Use the Tools of Composition

Imagine yourself taking a photo of your friends at the beach. 

Your friends are the most important element (I would hope) but the location provides context and meaning. So, you’ll try to get everything to fit perfectly into the frame, right? 

You might take a step back, try a new angle, or swap some of your friends around. 

Of course you do, because composition is important.

All of your key elements should be composed in such a way that they guide the eye and  accentuate each of their features.

The same is true of a terrarium design.

If you consider the edges of your container to be a frame, everything inside is your composition. Which is an advantage of a terrarium, in that we can control all elements of composition.

However, unlike a photograph, terrariums can have multiple viewing angles. Which can be challenging to find a composition that works in multiple ways, but it can be done with practice.

Throughout history painters – and now photographers and videographers – have used a series of composition tools to help guide their works. 

Turns out, the way in which humans like to observe and interpret images is predictable. Which means there are various mathematical formulae that map out the ideal way to compose your elements. 

The Rule of Thirds

To make use of the rule of thirds, you simply divide an image using 2 horizontal lines and 2 vertical lines to create 9 equal rectangles. These lines – and especially where they intersect – should be where you line up your key elements.

The grid guides you to where you should be focusing, and helps show you where negative space should be used. Though it’s arguably most effective on landscapes and minimalist scenes (placing the horizon and such) which makes the next tool a little more useful for us as terrarium designers.

Rule of threes
The rule of threes grid overlaid.

The Golden Ratio

The golden spiral (otherwise known as a  fibonacci spiral) is a more complex, but arguably more useful composition tool we can use in terrariums. It comes from the Golden Ratio ( 1:1.618). A figure that shows up everywhere in the natural world, and one that’s considered “magical” in many ways.

As humans, we tend to prefer images that are in harmony, and the golden spiral is one way to do this. Our eyes tend to follow the line of the spiral and end in the centre. So, that’s where the focal point of your terrarium should be.

Golden ratio
The golden spiral works in multiple directions. Upside down in this case.

4. Create Contrast 

Contrast is an important element of design and terrariums alike. In essence, it’s what makes them interesting and emotive.

Obviously, a terrarium full of the same type of plant is going to be as dull as dishwater.

But contrast is more than just an obvious way to spice things up, it’s another valuable tool at your disposal.

Like other tools in this article, contrast lets you highlight elements or areas, and helps to create a truly dynamic environment.

But, I think this biggest benefit of contrast is its ability to establish a mood or feeling.

  • Use shadows and blacks to create a dark and sinister scene. 
  • Rich emerald leaves against a vivid green undergrowth to make them pop.
  • A large, rough textured rock inside a soft broad-leaved forest.

You can play with texture, scale, lighting, positioning, and more.

The possibilities are endless!

5. Observe the Natural Order

If you want to create a convincing natural world, you must follow the natural order.

For example, when was the last time you saw a big ass rock on its own? (Except for my above early example of course).

Unnatural lone rock
Does this look natural to you?

Generally, you don’t. 

In nature, you most often find rocky outcrops, with a variety of sizes and shapes. Try to recreate this in your terrariums by breaking up larger rocks and clustering them together. Also, make sure to follow the striations in the rocks when grouping them together.

With plants, this means planting in odd numbers

The human brain is incredibly good at spotting patterns. This means you’ll subconsciously pick out pairs of plants or symmetrical arrangements – because they’re unnatural.

The rule of three is a concept often used in general gardening. It says that you should group exactly three plants together for maximum visual effect. The minimum amount required to set a concept without seeming unnatural.

It works, but three isn’t the only odd number that has a distinctive effect:

  • One is a powerful statement piece on its own.
  • Five creates a strong theme, and can be used to balance two rows.
  • Lucky number 7 is used to powerful effect in all sorts of applications. Might need a big terrarium to fit 7 of one plant in though!

Though, it’s important to mention that you don’t need a natural look for a spectacular terrarium. It’s just one way to do it. In fact, sometimes breaking away from “normal” landscapes can bring about some incredible results. Which leads me on to the next point.

Model the Masters of Terrarium Design

Professional aquascapers put so much effort and artistry into an award-winning tank. 

It’s not surprising that when we look at an empty new project, it can feel a little daunting to put all these terrarium design skills into practice.

As with all things, the most effective way to get started is to model success.

Rather than trying to develop your critical design eye on a completely novel design, take a look at some of the previous award-winning aquascape tanks here – and see what elements you could recreate.

These masters really are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in terms of creating dynamic landscapes in containers. Terrarium design hasn’t quite come as far as an industry or practice, but it has so much potential.

Take inspiration from the best and use it to create some incredible pieces!

Now It’s Your Turn

Which of these terrarium design skills are you going to implement first in your next terrarium?

Let me know in the comments!

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Hi! I’m Dan. Welcome to Terrarium Tribe. We’re a collective of people who love to build and care for natural plant terrariums. Join us!

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