Make a Mini Terrarium

Creating a mini terrarium is a fun project any time of year, but it’s particularly appropriate for National Teacher Appreciation Week, which begins Monday, May 7. Help your children honor their teachers and learn a little basic biology in the process. Here’s a list of supplies you’ll need to complete this project:

  • Clear glass or plastic container
  • Chalkboard craft paint
  • Chalk or chalk pen
  • Small rocks
  • Activated charcoal
  • Potting soil
  • 1 – 3 small plants
  • Decorative figurines

Terrariums come in two basic forms, open and enclosed, each of which caters to different varieties of plants. Open terrariums are best suited to drought-resistant plants, such as cacti and succulents. These plants are very hardy and require little maintenance — great gifts for people who don’t have a lot of extra time.

Enclosed terrariums, on the other hand, require more attention and provide the ideal environment for tropical plants, such as ferns and mosses. While these terrariums are higher maintenance, they also provide more opportunities for learning because each forms its own miniature ecosystem.

Once you decide on a terrarium setup, gather your plants. Choose small plants that won’t grow to more than 6 inches tall. In the interest of keeping our terrarium small, we decided to use a single plant. If you want a grouping, keep in mind that odd numbers and varying heights usually look best. Also, it’s essential to choose plants that require the same kind of care. Check the labels on the plants to be sure they’ll get along well.

The next step is to choose a container. You can find glass or plastic containers, with or without lids, at dollar stores, craft stores, or big box stores. (IKEA always seems to have a good variety.) The size you need depends on how many plants your child wants to use. Make sure the container is large enough the plants don’t touch the sides or crowd each other.

We decided on a smaller plastic container that could easily be tucked away and wouldn’t be dangerous if dropped. A large glass bowl in a setting with young children has disaster written all over it.

To personalize your container, apply three to four thin layers of chalkboard paint. Allow about an hour or so of drying time between applications. The wild popularity of this paint means you can now buy it in pretty colors and small quantities at your local craft store. Bright hues would be especially cute for an elementary school teacher.

When the paint is thoroughly dry, clean your container with hot, soapy water. Have your child put in a drainage layer of small stones about 1 inch thick so the plant’s roots won’t sit in water. (Gather stones on a nature walk or buy them at your local gardening center.)

Next, add a thin layer of activated charcoal to help filter the water. The best place to find this is in the aquarium or terrarium section of a pet store.

Finally, add a layer of soil suited to the type of plants you’re using. For our open-air, drought-resistant terrarium, we used a slow release soil meant specifically for cacti and succulents.

Combined, the drainage and soil layers should take up about one-quarter to one-half of the terrarium’s vertical space. (Keep this in mind when selecting your plants. In the end, our vibrant red cactus didn’t make the cut because it was too tall.)

Depending on the size of your container’s opening, use either a spoon or a skewer to dig a hole about twice the size of your plant’s root ball. After loosening the plant’s root ball, place it into the soil. Add a little more soil and pat everything down. Finish up by watering the soil.

Now’s your chance to add a little whimsy. Let your child pick out something, or someone, fun to keep the plants company.

If the terrarium is a gift for a teacher, have your child write the teacher’s name on the chalkboard label. If he has trouble writing on the small space, try using a chalk pen instead of traditional chalk.

A quick care reminder: Drought resistant terrariums need lots of indirect sunlight and the soil should dry out before waterings.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Morgan