The Complete Terrarium Hardscape Guide (+ Aquascape Secrets)

Building a terrarium or vivarium without hardscape is like creating a meal but not seasoning it.

Will it fill you up? Of course. But will it ever truly satisfy? 

Hardscape is the flavor, the spice, the metaphorical salt! 

Whether you prefer a neat-and-tidy polished look or a wild organic build, hardscape gives scale, texture, and contrast to a piece.

In this article, I’ll take you through your terrarium rock and wood options, teach you how to use and style it, and show you where you can buy it.

If you’re ready to geek out about rocks and wood, you’ve come to the right place. 

Let’s go, nerds! 🤓

Terrarium hardscape: Mopani wood and Dragon Stone

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Terrarium / Aquascape Hardscape 101 

Okay. We’re jumping straight into the deep end with the age-old question: can’t you just put any rock or wood into a terrarium? 

Well, no. You can’t…

As the aquascaping industry has found out through a lot of trial and error, and a far wetter environment, there are parts of nature we don’t want to replicate.

The whole point of a terrarium is to create a somewhat self-sustaining ecosystem (and to an extent a vivarium – but reptiles inevitably need care). The wrong hardscape can surprisingly throw this delicate balance off. 

Terrarium hardscape: Mopani wood and Dragon Stone
Hardscape is aesthetically pleasing, but could it be…deadly? 

Specifically, the three things we need to be aware of are:

  • 1. Decomposition. Rotting wood or any other organic matter isn’t a particularly good idea in a closed ecosystem – unless you have some trusty isopods on board to take care of it of course. Softwoods tend to break down much more easily, so hardwoods are a better fit.
  • 2. Toxicity. Certain saps and pesticides found in certain woods can be detrimental to any animals in your build, and potentially even plants. 
  • 3. Chemical alteration. Some rocks aren’t waterproof. They can consist of chemicals that will leech and change the ph of the water within a system. Igneous rocks won’t, but some sedimentary and metamorphic rocks will, though sometimes the effect is minimal.

Ultimately, you really need to know what you’re putting in your build, or it could spell disaster.

Without further ado, let’s tuck straight into our hardscape top pics that will work harmoniously in your project.

Terrarium Rocks

When I was younger and asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I don’t think I’d ever imagined that I would be here, giddily talking to you lovely people about rocks.

In fact, I think my younger self would have thought of me as incredibly lame. But here we are. 

Here are my three favorite terrarium hardscape rocks:

  • 1 | Dragon Stone/Ohko Stone. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be Dragon Stone. It’s a stunning earthy stone, a fabulous jagged structure and it’s incredibly easy to work with. It’s lightweight and relatively soft, making it easier to break into smaller pieces, and because it has a neutral ph, is completely inert.

Read more about this wonderful stone and how to style it in our Dragon Stone (Ohko) Guide.

👉 Shop Dragon Stone on Etsy.

Jewel Orchid Terrarium with dragon stone and lightning jewel orchid.
I used two pieces of Dragon Stone to create a little cavern in this build.
  • 2 | Seiryu Stone. This stunning Japanese rock is about as pretty as they come. With a gorgeous blueish grey color and white calcite veins, what’s not to love? It’s extremely heavy and hard so it works best as a showstopping centerpiece.

Learn more about it – and how to use it in a terrarium – in our Seiryu Stone Hardscape Guide.

👉 Shop Seiryu Stone on Etsy.

Tropical terrarium with seiryu stone, peperomia, syngonium and pteris fern.
This Seiryu Stone is the backbone of the landscape.
  • 3 | Gobi Desert Stone. Originating from the Gobi Desert across Mongolia and China, this stone certainly brings an exotic feel to any terrarium or vivarium. With a glorious sandy color and somehow both linear and curved shapes, I’m certain you won’t be able to resist its charm.

👉 Shop Gobi Stone on Buceplant.

Beach terrarium with gobi stone, peperomia, air plant.
Gobi Stone is perfect in a desert or beach-themed piece.

Honorary mentions: Pagoda Stone, Lava Rock, Petrified Wood, Elephant Skin Stone.

Terrarium Wood

You’re not out of the woods yet, there’s still plenty of hardscape to explore…

Here are my three favorite hardscape wood/driftwood pieces:

  • 1 | Mopani Wood. This swirling, two-toned African hardwood isn’t just a pretty face. (Though it should be noted, it is absolutely gorgeous…) It’s also one of the most resilient woods for terrariums and vivariums you can get your hands on. Mold and rot have nothing on this wood.

Read more about the marvelous Mopani Wood.

👉 Shop Mopani Wood on Amazon.

succulent terrarium with mopani wood and air plant
Mopani Wood looks absolutely exceptional in my succulent terrarium build.
mopani wood
You’re getting two images for Mopani because it’s THAT STUNNING. 
  • 2 | Manzanita Wood/Driftwood. If there were a prize for versatility, Manzanita would for sure take it. From thin twisting branches to chunky textured logs, there’s something for every terrarium build within this wood. 

Head to our Manzanita Wood deep-dive to learn more.

👉 Shop Manzanita Wood on Etsy.

Manzanita Wood
Manzanita has such an interesting texture (Image Credit: TheIdealConditions on Etsy). 
  • 3 | Spider Wood. A fabulous gnarling softwood from the roots of the Rhododendron shrubs. While softwoods tend to decompose faster than hardwoods, this one holds up pretty well provided that it’s properly prepared (more on that in a second). 

Learn more about this unusual wood root in our Spiderwood Guide.

👉 Shop Spider Wood on Etsy.

Moss terrarium with spiderwood
Spider Wood has such a captivating twisted shape (Image Credit: Ome on Etsy).

Honorary mentions: Malaysian Driftwood, Californian Ghostwood, Bonsai Wood, Amazon Wood.

How to Use Hardscape

Sterilizing Your Rocks and Wood

The first thing you need to do before you pop your hardscape into your new terrarium or vivarium build is give it a good clean.

No nasties hitching a ride here, thank you very much. 

First, you’ll need to take an old toothbrush to the problem and scrub off any excess dirt or debris.

Once there are no visible unwanted substances on your hardscape piece, you can take care of the invisible unwanted substances. 

The best way to sterilize both rocks and wood is to boil them for 10-20 minutes in a pan. Just don’t boil it any longer as some pieces could begin to break down.

Once it’s cooled and dried, you can pop it in your piece.

Styling Your Hardscape

In your creation, you can ultimately use your hardscape however you please. But here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Use it as a centerpiece – place your item in the middle.
  • Mix things up and use multiple pieces together.
  • Put a larger piece in the background to frame and contrast the planting.
  • Choose smaller pieces for a totally different aesthetic.
  • Expand your horizons. How about using crystals, or bark?
  • Make use of the nooks and crannies for epiphytic planting.
Ficus pumila in a tropical terrarium
That’s right, you can mount moss and plant it directly into your hardscape piece!

Where to Buy Hardscape

There are two ways to stop in the industry:

  • 1. Getting a random piece of your hardscape item – usually by rough weight or dimensions.
  • 2. Buying a ‘WYSIWYG’ piece – which stands for ‘what you see is what you get.’ That means you will literally get the item photographed.

As you might have guessed, specialist hardscape stores like Buceplant are a great place to buy either way, and there are lots of reputable aquascaping retailers on Etsy too.

Amazon has some rock and wood options that are worth a look, but it can be more challenging to find the origins of your piece. 

You Made It!

This ended up being quite the mammoth piece – thanks for sticking with me. What’s your favorite piece of hardscape? One I’ve mentioned, or one I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

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