How to Build a Terrarium Even Serial Plant Killers Can’t Mess Up

Learning how to build a terrarium is not as hard as you might think—and it’s a great option if you’re looking to add some greenery to your home that won’t require much maintenance to keep alive (hello, serial plant killers).

“Terrariums are great because, depending on the choice of plants, many do not need a great deal of sunlight or watering,” says Sara Gatanas, creative director of Urban Garden Center in New York City who teaches workshops on how to build terrariums. “They can be as big or small as you like; you can really customize [them] to reflect your style; and they’re a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to add a really interesting design element to a room.”

So if you’re craving a bit more nature in your abode, check out these steps on how to build a terrarium.

How to build a terrarium: Materials you’ll need

  • Terrarium vessel (generally a glass container)
  • Stones, rocks, and/or sand
  • Horticultural charcoal (if a closed terrarium)
  • Soil (cactus-succulent mix or regular potting soil, predicated on your selection of stones, moss, or plants)
  • Moss, bark, and/or wood chips
  • Plants (tropical or terrarium)
  • Decorative elements (optional)

Step 1. Choose your terrarium vessel

There are many types of vessels, and deciding which one to use may be one of the hardest parts of the process. In general there are two types of vessels: open and closed. The steps may vary slightly depending on which you choose, but the general layering will be the same.

For a closed terrarium, Gatanas particularly likes Mason jars. If you want something that hangs, try a glass orb (below, available at for $4.50 to $9.99).

With a flat bottom, these terrariums can sit on a table, or hang from a hook.
With a flat bottom, these terrariums can sit on a table, or hang from a

Step 2. Start with your drainage materials

Building a terrarium is sort of like making a parfait: You build layers from the bottom up. Accordingly, the first layer needs to be some type of drainage material.

“The bottom layers are usually stones or pebbles for drainage, but you can also use other materials if you like, such as broken pots,” says Gatanas. “I love using different materials here because you can see the layers and make it fun.” Marbles? Beads? Whatever floats your boat.

Bottoms up—that's how you build your terrarium layers.
Bottoms up—that’s how you build your terrarium layers.Urban Garden Center NYC

Step 3. Put in a layer of charcoal (for closed terrariums)

If you are making a closed terrarium, now you add charcoal.

“This helps clean the air and prevents bacteria and molds from growing inside with all the humidity and vegetation,” says Gatanas.

Step 4. Add soil

In general, you should use a good potting soil here. However, Gatanas says, if you are planting succulents or cacti, you might want to use cactus soil.

“If you can’t find it, mix some sand with your potting soil,” she says. “In both cases, you’ll need enough for your plants to be planted into it, usually a couple of inches, depending on the size of your vessel and plants.”

Step 5. Pick some plants

Tropical plants are usually the best to withstand the humidity and moisture that may collect in a terrarium. Your best bet is to select some so-called terrarium plants (think ivy, fern, succulents) from a nursery. These can be used in open and closed terrariums and don’t typically require a lot of care.

“The general rule is, they like bright, indirect light; though, some are more tolerant of low light than others,” Gatanas explains. Gently cover the roots of these plants with some of the soil from the previous step and make sure they’re able to stay up on their own.

Succulents and tropical plants are great choices for a terrarium.
Succulents and tropical plants are great choices for a terrarium.Urban Garden Center NYC

Step 6. Put moss or bark as a top layer

“I love using moss as a top layer, but bark also works nicely,” says Gatanas, who adds that sometimes she’ll use fine pebbles. Her favorite top layer is moss, though, thanks to the colors and varieties available. (If it’s a living moss, you can even make entire terrariums out of the moss alone.)

Great mosses to get for terrariums include reindeer moss, which comes in funky colors, or green sheet moss, which is a low-cost and living moss (if it starts to brown, just spritz it with water and it’ll come back to life).

Your top layer can be moss, pebbles or a combo.
Your top layer can be moss, pebbles or a combo.Urban Garden Center NYC

Step 7.  Add some decorative elements

Though this last step is optional, it can be fun to add a little personality to your terrarium by adding decorative elements, which could include everything from fairy figurines to plastic animals.

“I love adding little figurines or a cool mossy rock or a piece of wood with lichen to my creations,” says Gatanas. “Sometimes I forage for these items in the yard or a park. Other times I will go to a dollar store. Or even my kid’s playrooms. … I’ve even used a Lego person. Have fun with it!”

Decorative additions can give personality to your terrarium.
Decorative additions can give personality to your terrarium.Urban Garden Center NYC