By the end of May and early June, I still had some drift wood, lots of rocks, and substrate materials left over from my first round of builds. My springtail culture was also going strong, and the isopod culture I started in April was doing well too.
During a flea market outing, we also chanced upon Ott’s Exotic Plants in Schwenksville, PA. It was totally unexpected and turned out to be an amazing place! I picked up some unusual plants that I had not seen before, and will definitely be going back.
Ott’s is probably the best terrarium and gardening place I’ve ever seen outside of Longwood Gardens. They have a wide selection of just about everything, complete with a indoor rainforest that you can walkthrough. The pictures below only scratch the surface.
Combined with the plants left over from my first batch of builds (some from The Rhoads Garden, also a great supplier close to me), I really needed to find containers for everything. Several trips to flea markets and other outings resulted in some great finds. On a single day I scored two of my best large terrarium jars at Berwyn Flea Market and Quakertown Flea Market.
For some inspiration, we also traveled to Longwood Gardens for a day and got to see much more of the place than we had seen in the past. At other times that we’ve visited, we’ve focused mainly on the indoor displays, but there are also substantial paths, trails and outdoor gardens.
If you are not familiar with Longwood, and you love plants, you simply must check it out. Plan to spend a large part of the day to take it in. I didn’t take many pictures this time because, honestly, they don’t do the place justice. What you see above from Ott’s… times 100? Maybe that captures it. Just go!
Each season, Longwood has different displays, fountain shows, entertainment and some of the most spectacular plants, trees and flowers from all over the world. There’s also a huge pipe organ on site. Go figure!
Anyway, with all that galavanting as context… here’s a quick overview of my June 2021 builds, presented with some original music.
When I lived at home with my parents, I went through a phase of keeping some reptiles. I think it started with a chameleon, and later (after it died), I tried keeping snakes.
At one point, I captured a mid-sized brown garter snake from our backyard. What I didn’t know was that it was a pregnant female and later it would have 13 babies. The tank we had (from the chameleon) was not really appropriate for one mid-sized snake, let alone a brood. It did not go well.
I was feeding the mom and babies with crickets, and at one point even got a white mouse to feed to the mom. Eventually the snake babies cannibalized themselves. I think the mom may have even ate some of her own brood. The mouse ended up becoming a last-minute pet instead of someone’s dinner, but after that I don’t remember what we did with it. It was a mess. We eventually let the mommy snake go.
Suffice it to say I was not educated enough about snake keeping. I still feel bad about it. Since that time I have not had the interest (or time) for pets of any kind. I’ve stuck with plants, and have done quite well. They require a different level of commitment, but are far more forgiving.
Fast forward 30 years when I am now into terrariums…
I have no intention – even now – of keeping anything beyond cleanup crew insects and terrarium critters. But I thought that the tank from back then – if intact – could be a good challenge to scape and setup.
The first issue to solve with the old tank was that a crack had formed on what used to be the front.
The crack got worse within the first day of moving the tank from my paren’t place. Since I had no plans to fill the tank with water, this crack was not a complete show stopper, but obviously it had to be addressed.
After some web research, I opted for a multi-pronged approach. I checked the tank for leaks, and there were none. So after drying out, I resealed the entire bottom with silicone as an extra precaution. Then I used a gaffer tape on the crack on the outside, and applied superglue to the crack as best I could. After the glue dried, I also smeared silicone over the entire area of the crack.
Once dry, the front of the tank (which looked like crap) became the rear of the tank, and I designed everything with the idea of hiding that entire area.
The next issue to address was the lid. When I was keeping reptiles, they needed a lot more air, so the original home made top was plywood with a screen center. Since I wanted a closed terrarium, I had to either replace this lid completely with something else, or rework this lid. Since large pieces of plexiglass are expensive and hard to cut, I opted for the rework option.
After removing the screen, I sanded the lid down a bit and repainted it. Then I found an 11 x 14 piece of plastic that was easy to cut, and set that in place with silicone. The plastic is frosted a bit, which isn’t ideal, but it is all that was available.
I knew that this was not going to be the most beautiful tank. But I wanted to give it a shot. I think it came out OK considering the thing is 30 years old and was sitting in an attic for most of that time.
The next issue was finding a good place to put this thing. After a week or more on the dining table, I finally found a space for it what worked better.
I found an unused halogen light in my collection, and thought it would be perfect for this application. That turned out to be a mistake.
The first day the light was in use, I noticed how hot it was getting, and knew I’d need to replace it eventually. The next day, after the light was on for a few more hours, I noticed the heat from the light had begun to warp the plastic installed on the lid. This spurred an emergency lid repair and I took the halogen out of service. Another trip to IKEA for a proper light!
This project was a lot of fun, despite the setbacks. I planned everything out over a couple weeks to be sure I had time to think things through. This build used everything I learned up to that point about terrariums, and it felt good to finally see the tank used again rather than have it rotting in an attic.
The dragon stone is from Ebay, and the drift wood is from Amazon (boiled for a couple hours to remove tannins). The moss is all locally sourced. The large, darker ivy branch is from our yard, and it appears to be taking root.
I want to let it stabilize for a few weeks before I tweak anything.
During my earlier terrarium builds, I had some left over bits and needed to get them into a container quickly. I grabbed a large canning jar from the basement, but it didn’t have a proper lid, so I had to improvise something with a canning lid band and some plastic wrap. This worked as a temporary fix, but wasn’t going to work long term.
On the trip to IKEA to replace the bamboo cookie jar lid, I also picked up one of their larger canning jars with built-in lid and gasket so I could redo my temporary mason jar setup.
I affectionately call this one a “bastard” terrarium because it was not planned, not intended to be a full build. It’s doing OK, but was not designed in any way. It’s also serving as an overflow home for the explosion of springtails that have reproduced from the initial small culture from Ebay.
Next up is a container that I found at JoAnne’s Fabric on sale for $10 with a coupon. This is purpose-made for a terrarium and worked really well. This is probably the perfect container for anyone starting out.
The centerpiece is an interesting orange quartz specimen from my collection of finds accumulated through the years.
The medium rocks on the surface are from a local stream. The smaller rocks in the false bottom are from a large bag from Lowe’s since we were also doing some other gardening and needed some stone. For $5 you get get a huge bag that is more than enough for a few terrariums, though you’ll want to rinse the rocks to get a cleaner look and make sure nothing else is transferred.
The long succulent (Crassula) is from the back yard, and has grown extremely fast in a short period of time. The rest of the plants are store bought, and the moss is locally sourced. You’ll also notice that I’ve been including a little bit of lichen for color in my terrariums.
Inhabitants include springtails from my ever growing culture and isopods that I’ve started to collect. More on those in a separate post.
I know these posts must sound like advertisements at times, but I just haven’t found a better way to name my terrariums yet. I’m also not an affiliate marketer, at least not yet.
After making a number of closed terrariums, I wanted to try an open terrarium with no (intentional) inhabitants.
HomeGoods continues to have great deals on glass containers, and I found this one for $11! It appeared to be a factory second, with a very minor flaw in the glass, but no cracks.
I’ve seen containers smaller than this go for $40 at Target and other places.
The white rocks are from Dollar General, and I’m still not sure what I think of them. They seemed like a good idea at the time, and they have grown on me. But they are just SO WHITE.
The other rocks are from a local stream, and the plants are all store-bought, still left over from my other plant buying trips.
This sits in our NW facing bay window that gets hammered with light during the second half of the day. I’m still monitoring how it is doing. There’s a bit of shade provided by some other plant holders and pots, but I am concerned that by midsummer, it will be too hot.
As my terrarium journey continued, I had a lot of left over materials, so it was time to branch out. We live quite close to an IKEA outlet, and they have a great selection of containers that are purpose-built for terrariums, or can be used as such.
During the first iteration of this build, I used the bamboo “365+” lid that fits this model of jar. For about a week or so that was fine, but eventually I saw some mold starting to grow, dangling from the underside of the lid.
What I didn’t realize at the time of purchase, was that there is also a plastic, snap on lid. IKEA’s web site shows a glass lid option too. When I returned to IKEA, they didn’t have the glass type, so I got the plastic version and it works great: no mold!
This build features store-bought plants, local moss, rocks from a local stream. I also include leaf litter now as foot for the isopods. The leaves are baked to avoid the introduction of pests. The gray/white rock was part of my collection of nature finds over the years, though I don’t recall the original source.
Inhabitants include springtails, a couple isopods, and worms. I’m still learning about isopods, so I try not to crowd them to much. More on this aspect of things in a future post.
The original bamboo lid will fit another 365+ container, and after deep cleaning, it was fine for use – just not for plants. I am sure we’ll be seeing more from IKEA both in terms of closed and open terrariums in the future.
The lazy Susan is from Big Lots, and I now have several of them for the circular terrariums to make them easier to explore.
With a little success under my belt with two smaller terrariums, it was time to try something larger. I found this rather interesting Polish glass container from Home Goods, on sale for $8!
Following the guidance of my terrarium gurus, I planned this one out a bit more, and waited until I had all of the elements on hand before diving into the build. The result is one of my favorite terrariums.
The idea with this one was to create a definite scene with some height to take advantage of the unique shape of the vessel. I got the cork bark from a supplier on Amazon. All of the plants are store-bought, but the moss is locally sourced.
One of the positive outcomes of working on terrariums has been the motivation to get out to some of our local parks to see what types of moss or plants might be available. It’s been interesting to see just how many types of moss are available in our area, and the different places it grows.
With this build, I also got more brave with the number of plants and the selection of inhabitants. Aside from springtails and isopods, this one has a very active millipede and some other critters. There’s a small beetle that is very hard to capture on camera . I didn’t consciously put him there, so my guess is that he came in on some moss.
This has been a very stable terrarium with minimal maintenance required. Every day I see something interesting. I’m going to do a video on all of my terrariums eventually, so stay tuned for more.
My second terrarium experiment was a rework of a terrarium that Audra made during an education retreat a number of years back. It had completely died off, even before our recent moves, and needed a major overhaul.
This has done quite well, needing only minor maintenance. I will feature a video of this one in an upcoming post.
During the Spring of 2021 as COVID still raged, I wasn’t getting out much. Between significant computer screen time and evening Netflix couch time, I knew that I had to force myself off of the machines and back into something more natural.
Many years ago, during a trip to Chicago, Audra got me a very nice terrarium container made in Poland. My green thumb was focused for years on growing hot peppers outdoors. I didn’t spend as much time on indoor plants, except for my many clippings of Pothos (aka Devil’s Ivy). The terrarium container was never properly used, and found its way into storage. Thankfully, it survived several moves, waiting for the day when it would have a proper place to display.
A few Google and YouTube searches turned up plentiful resources on terrarium builds. The most helpful resource by far has been the YouTube channel SerpaDesign, run by a guy named Tanner in the Pittsburgh area. Aside from bringing an artistic sensibility to everything he does, I found Tanner’s site most helpful because he’s in a similar climate and uses the same type of resources I can access near Philly. And yes, there’s some irony here in the desire to get away from screens, only to turn to YouTube to get up to speed on a new hobby.
Later I’ll note a few other resources, but for now I want to get into showing some things I’ve done.
First up is the “Chicago Terrarium”. This actually went through two iterations so far, the first of which didn’t look very good and only lasted a couple weeks before I wanted to redo it using things I learned online.
The current iteration of the “Chicago Terrarium” uses a combination of local moss, store-bought plants, and locally sourced rocks. I decided to remove the jade buddha because he didn’t look natural in this setting. The springtails came from an Ebay vendor, and the isopods came from local parks.
Following Tanner’s advice, I made a very good false bottom with store-bought aquarium rocks from Lowe’s. I kind of have a problem buying rocks when I can get them from nature, but for this first build I wanted it to be as clean as possible.
The false bottom also uses carbon fiber screen (Lowe’s) and activated charcoal (Ebay). I’m using Serpa’s typical substrate mix of sphagnum moss, sand, orchid bark and sometimes coconut fiber. For this first build, I used some indoor potting soil I already had on hand.
If a terrarium is made correctly, it should not need a lot of maintenance. But one of the highlights of my day right now is looking in on these little worlds and seeing what’s happening with them. Not only does this get me away from the computer, it gets me outside a bit more as I search for moss or other elements to incorporate.
I suppose like anything else you enjoy, terrariums can become addictive. The “Chicago Terrarium” was successful enough that I started looking for other containers to try.
The one thing I’ve noticed about the terrarium enthusiasts is that they seem to fall into three categories. Tanner, who seems to fall in the middle, is very thoughtful about what he does and approaches things with a bit more of a plan and an eye for aesthetics.
Others – particularly some of the terrarium builders from Japan who incorporate bonsai techniques – are even more detailed and show an amazing level of artistry and complexity. The other end of the spectrum are those that just grab whatever is in their backyard, toss it in a jar, and hope for the best with little thought! All of these approaches have their charm.
In future posts, we will take a look at my other creations, and I’ll share some other things I’ve learned along the way.
Home Goods Tree Scene IKEA Cookie Jar IKEA Mason Jar Joanne’s Terrarium Scene Reconditioned snake tank!