Terrariums: Distracting hobby, or mental health exercise? Both?

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.

Coming soon…

Home Goods Tree Scene
IKEA Cookie Jar
IKEA Mason Jar
Joanne’s Terrarium Scene
Reconditioned snake tank!

And maybe a few other experiments!


By jjdeprisco

Sonic explorer, sound artist, guitarist in Fricknadorable, software designer.