Terrarium Layers: A Step-by-Step Guide

Making a terrarium is a lot like building a house.

They all need a solid foundation, some supporting structures, and finally – a whole bunch of plants.

Though the materials and shapes may differ, the fundamental terrarium building process is the always the same. It’s all about layering from the ground up, and thankfully, I have a blueprint.

So, in this article we’re going to survey the terrarium layer order, step-by-step, so you can make sure you’re on track to a stable and beautiful build.

The Foundation

A strong terrarium foundation underpins the whole structure.

It should be tough to resist compaction, and non-uniform to create space for water drainage.

After all, just like the real world, our terrariums need a drainage mechanism built-in. A way to stop water pooling on the surface, which would inevitably cause rot and spell the end of your terrarium.

But not everyone approaches this problem the same way.

The False Bottom Approach

The false bottom approach is one way to artificially reinforce this mechanism.

Essentially, the false bottom is a reservoir created by a layer of large rocks, pebbles, or other such objects. Here the water can drain from the substrate before evaporating to perpetuate the water cycle.

The false bottom can be as simple as just the pebble layer, but it’s often kept separate from the substrate via a barrier that’s either natural like sphagnum moss, or artificial like carbon-fiber mesh. A layer of charcoal is also regularly used to purify the water, though just how much it helps is up for debate.

The All-in-One Approach

As the name suggests, this approach doesn’t separate out the various foundational layers, and instead creates a single mix that serves as the foundation and the substrate.

It’s certainly more difficult to achieve a mix that has the right amount of drainage and support for plants (nutritionally and physically) but it’s arguably more aesthetic, as the overall level of “ground” is going to be much lower.

The Substrate

There are a whole bunch of options when it comes to terrarium soils and substrates. In some builds there can be various terrarium substrate layers, or as with the all-in-one approach, it can be a single layer.

Some like to keep it natural with different types of terrarium soil layers, whereas others prefer a sterile fibrous medium like coir, and instead opt for adding fertilising elements themselves.

Either way, as long as it provides the necessary minerals to support plant growth (and is physically capable of supporting plants inside it) it should do the trick. Drainage, aeration and stability are all factors, but there’s no one substrate fits all.

The Hardscape

In the art of terrarium building, hardscape is a term for the tough, physical elements that you might add.

Rocks and driftwood are the most common kind, but the likes of crystals and pebbles would fall into this category too.

Hardscape isn’t used in every build, but it can elevate a terrarium in a variety of ways:

  • Helps build a solid base – embedding large physical objects in the substrate can really help to stabilise it, especially if it’s uneven (if you’re making a higher background for example).
  • Create a sense of depth – you can physically manipulate the terrarium landscape, using scale and focal points to create a sense of depth. Adding a large object at the front and smaller ones at the back is one way to do this.
  • 3D planting opportunities – rocks and branches are able to comfortable grow a variety of plant species on them. This allows for much more creative expression in how you plant your terrariums.
  • Pure decoration – if nothing else, hardscape is beautiful unto itself, and can often be a prime feature on its own.

Hardscape elements should generally be added straight after the substrate as they’re often the main feature, but also because their addition can alter the landscape so much. There’s no point spending hours creating a beautiful green landscape, only to have it warped by a large stone.

The Softscape

Softscape is a term I’ve borrowed from the aquascaping industry (something I do a lot) to describe any of the soft, horticultural elements in a terrarium. So we’re talking plants, flowers, mosses – generally anything that’s alive.


You’ll generally want to start planting with your biggest, and most important terrarium plants.

Not just because bigger plants will be harder to place when your terrarium is full, but also because your feature plants should take priority in the best viewing spots.

Once you’ve planted your focal pieces, then you can arrange the rest of your plants to accentuate them.


Mosses typically come last (unless you’ve planted them on wood or rock before adding to the terrarium). This is because they’re primarily there to cover exposed earth for a more natural look, and you don’t know what’s left exposed till the end.

Generally, terrarium moss is great for pulling together the final look.

Final Decorations

It’s entirely up to you how you decorate your terrarium, and what you use to do it.

Whether you prefer to preserve the pristine plant environment or you want to construct an entire Jurassic Park set with dinosaur figurines (a solid choice) it’s your decision.

Common ways to add decorative layers are by covering the soil with decorative stones, placing figurines amongst the plants or even adding waterfalls features.

*One thing to note is that you’ll definitely want non-reactive decorations. That’s why stones, petrified wood and crystals are a great idea as they won’t degrade or rot away over time.

Now it’s Your Turn

Hopefully you’ve got a good idea of how to layer a terrarium now and what terrarium supplies you may need.

Which foundation approach do you tend to favour? Are you a fan of the false bottom method?

Let me know in the comments.

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