DIY Desert Terrarium

Add otherworldly flair to your home, desk or office with desert terrariums.

desert terrariums on table

Succulents and cacti require adequate light, but are generally low maintenance in most other gardening respects.

Photo by Ramsay de Give and Maria Lawson

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Indoor plants play a large role in the design and feel of a space. And for those without a yard, they’re a way to stay connected to nature. Add simple, stylish indoor plants to your home design with Rooted by Design (Ten Speed Press, 2015) by Tara Heibel and Tassy de Give, the owners of Sprout Home gardening stores. Create minimal, otherworldly beauty for any space with these DIY Desert Terrariums.

Modern and minimalist, with an appearance straight out of a science-fiction movie, desert terrariums require a lot of light, an open container, and dry soil in order to thrive. If you want to use a closed container, moisture must be able to escape, so make sure the lid does not seal the opening completely. Desert terrariums use the desert landscape for inspiration and utilize cacti and succulent plants in numerous configurations. The design can be sparse and barren, featuring just one succulent and a bit of tumbleweed, or it can be full and flowerlike, brimming with numerous Echeveria, Sedum, and Sempervivum.

Some succulents look like marine plants and animals, which seems contradictory given their typically waterless living environment. Crassula mucosa looks like long and lean drifts of seaweed. Crassula ‘Moonglow’ twists like coral and has a phosphorescent glow. The flowers, shapes, and colors of these succulents mirror the sometimes otherworldly look of flora from a coral reef. Putting these plants into a terrarium gives you a mini replica of this underwater world.

When planning a desert terrarium, you’ll first want to verify that you have adequate light. You will need full sun from an unobstructed south- or west-facing window. Then, you can then select the plants. Some succulents to consider are Aloe, cacti, Crassula, Echeveria, Fenestraria, Gasteria, Haworthia, Kalanchoe, Lithops, Sedum, Sempervivum, and Senecio. If not given enough light, the plants may start to look long and sparse. However, if you have part sun and are determined to create a desert terrarium, fear not. There are some succulent and succulent-like plants that can tolerate a little less light. These include Aloe, Crassula, Cryptanthus, Haworthia, Rhipsalis, and Sansevieria.

Succulent gardens are strikingly beautiful, low maintenance, and prolific. There’s nothing easier and more gratifying than throwing a Sempervivum into a glass vessel and watching it multiply. We think that everyone should have at least one desert terrarium in their home, and instructions for making one follow. What are you waiting for?

Make Your Own Desert Terrarium

Materials List:
• Glass container (8” to 12” in diameter by 8” to 12” high)
• Rocks for drainage (lava rock or river gravel are recommended)
• Activated charcoal
• Succulent potting mix
• 2” succulents (5 to 7 specimens with different heights and textures, such as cacti, Aloe, Echeveria, Haworthia, and Sedum)
• Sand (optional)
• Decorative material (optional): colored stones, preserved moss, and figurines

Step 1: Place 1 to 2 inches of rocks into the container.

Step 2: Place a light dusting of charcoal on top of the rocks. (Charcoal can be messy. Apply a light spritz of water on it before you pour it into the glass container to help keep the mess in check.)

Step 3: Place 2 to 3 inches of succulent potting soil on top of the charcoal.

Step 4: Now you’re ready to start designing! Before you commit to planting anything, set the plants into the container to see what configuration you like best.

Step 5: Once you’ve settled on the placement of the plants, begin potting them. Place the largest plants in the container first. The exception to this would be if you were planting cacti, in which case you might want to place those last so that you can work without getting poked! Take each plant out of its plastic grower’s pot. Do not massage the roots as you would normally with other types of plants. Succulents prefer their roots to be tight. Create a small hole in the soil where you would like the plant to go and place it into the hole. Fill in the sides with soil and press firmly around the base of the plant so that it is nice and snug. Don’t worry if some parts of the succulent fall off while you are doing this. Succulents root easily and the pieces that fall into the soil may become new plants for your terrarium.

Step 6: Repeat step 5 until all of your plants are potted. Ground cover or other low-growing plants should be planted last.

Step 7: Now that everything is planted, you can either leave the soil exposed and consider the terrarium done, or you can cover the soil with rocks, sand, preserved moss, or any combination of the three. Consider black sand for a sleek, sci-fi look. White sand and desert sand have a modern, clean look. Preserved moss makes the terrarium feel more lush and gardenlike. Use shallow layers of top dressing so that it doesn’t pile up next to the plants’ bases.

Step 8: Add in any special details. Quartz, agates, and other minerals evoke a mystical landscape. Miniature figures or animals make it more playful. These small details are what make your terrarium personal and can elevate it to an artistic level.

Want more stylish ways to add plants to your décor? Learn How to Make Kokedama, also from Rooted in Design.


Reprinted with permission from Rooted in Design by Tara Heibel and Tassy de Give, copyright 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Photography (c) 2015 by Ramsay de Give and Maria Lawson.