Don’t have a big garden area? No problem!

By Abigail Keys

9 Steps to creating a desert terrarium using succulents & cacti.

No need for endless garden space, for beautiful yet quaint miniature gardens that can even be kept indoors!

Terrariums are like mini-ecosystems, so for those of us who love deserts and see beauty in the harsh nature of those environments, recreating these worlds on a miniature scale holds a special sort of appeal.

Better yet, they’re easy to grow, seriously low maintenance and offer great architectural aesthetics for the modern home.

What you’ll need

  • A glass vessel with a wide opening
  • Activated charcoal
  • Succulent soil
  • A spoon
  • A chopstick
  • Tweezers
  • Fine mist spray bottle
  • Decorative stones, sand or figurines
  • Various succulents

Note: You can buy ready-made succulent soil from a gardening centre. Or, you can make it yourself by combining a fine potting mix with grit (such as pumice or non-soluble cat litter). Activated charcoal is found at pet shops and specialist nurseries.

Top tip: Check out your local charity shop or $2 shop for suitable containers at bargain prices.

Selecting the right plants

  • Find plants that will fit the dimensions of your container;
  • Choose plants that will be good neighbours. Some succulents are thirsty, others prefer more sun or shade;
  • Avoid plants where growth is thin and pale coloured – this suggests they’ve been kept in poor light conditions.

Top tip: Succulents are excellent because you can grow cuttings from established plants. Just be sure to ask permission before you go raiding your neighbour’s garden.

Step 1

Create the first layer by pouring decorative pebbles into your container.

Good drainage is essential for success. Fill no more than one third high.

Step 2

Using the spoon, create a thin layer of charcoal over the top of the first layer (0.5-1cm).

Step 3

Begin to spoon the soil into your container. Be more generous with this layer than the first, as your plant needs sufficient soil matter to grow – some succulents actually grow extensive root systems.

Pat it down with your fingers.

Step 4

Using your chopstick, create indentations in the soil for where you want your plants to go (a long thin tool like a chopstick allows for more control when planting).

Step 5

Remove the plants from their pots and gently loosen their root systems.

Step 6

Pop your plants in.

If your plants and container are quite small, the tweezers will help you position all the elements.

Use the fat end of your chopstick to tamp down the soil around the base of your plants.

Be sure to keep the succulents away from the sides of your terrarium because they’re liable to burn on a hot day.

Step 7

Sprinkle a final layer of decorative pebbles or sand, and add some cool figurines for a bit of atmosphere (dinosaurs look ace).

Step 8

Find a well-lit, sheltered location inside your home.

Step 9

Be gone, dirty glass – simply shoot water on the inside walls to wash off residual soil.

Now you’re done, here’s how treat your terrarium with care so you can enjoy it for years to come…

A happy plant is a healthy plant

  • Succulents thrive in bright light, low moisture conditions so find a place where they can enjoy lots of indirect light;
  • If light is low, your plants will stretch or become thin and elongated;
  • They need decent air circulation, so avoid vessels with small apertures (I’m looking at to you fish bowls);
  • Succulents are sensitive to temperature change – many will actually bloom given a cool, dry period;
  • During the growing phase (spring/summer), water only when the soil becomes dry;
  • During the dormant period (autumn/winter), water sparingly;
  • Use a light, gentle formula once a month to fertilise.

Common terrarium mistakes

Overwatering – succulents HATE wet feet. If the roots rot it can kill the entire plant. So let the soil dry out between waterings and gently mist around once a week.

Underwatering – while succulents can tolerate long periods without water, they do enjoy an infrequent shower. If you notice leaf shrinkage, mist 2-3 times a week.

Growing succulents in closed terrariums – the environment is far too humid.

Sunburn/Heatburn – remember, the glass in a terrarium will radiate and amplify the sun’s rays onto your little plants. Sure, succulents need light but you’d be surprised how badly a cacti reacts to being cooked. Don’t put them near a heater either. Ensure they get both light and shade in moderate quantities.

Combining succulents with non-desert dwelling plants – standard indoor plants have different nutrient, sun, and water requirements to succulents. I’ve seen many fancy new terrariums, landscaped to look like mini-rainforests that also feature succulents for decoration. Within weeks the succulents are dead and the owner is left wondering what they did wrong. Too little sunlight and too much water/humidity are the likely culprits.

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