Growing A Succulent Terrarium? How To Keep It Happy & Healthy

If you’re anything like me, your Instagram feed will have been inundated recently with photos of beautiful terrariums filled with delightfully arranged succulents, and Pinterest is no different. The thing that I’ve started to wonder though is whether they are real, I mean can you really grow succulents in a terrarium? Having an inquisitive mind (which I guess helps if you’re a writer) I decided to research the question and was very surprised by what I found.

Will succulents grow in a terrarium? Succulents are slow growing so can work very well in an open terrarium. Their ability to hold water in their leaves also means that they don’t need a lot of care either. From an aesthetic point of view, smaller succulents work better because they won’t crowd each other.

Should you plant succulents in an open or closed terrarium?

Both open and closed terrariums have their advantages and disadvantages, depending on where you place them and the plants you use inside but when it comes to succulents which are best? The simple answer is that open terrariums are far better than their closed counterparts, but why?

By their design, closed terrariums encourage humid conditions which lead to a lot of moisture being trapped inside them. This, in turn, means that the soil remains damp at best and waterlogged at worst, conditions that succulents hate. On top of this, they also hold heat which can make it too hot for some plants, especially succulents. You can get special closed terrariums with holes but they don’t tend to allow the air to flow properly so the problem still remains. It’s a sad fact that 9 times out of 10 succulents will die very quickly in a closed terrarium with the rest normally dying shortly after that. In essence, closed terrariums should be avoided if you want your succulents to survive.

Open terrariums, on the other hand, are far better for succulents as the openness of them allows the air to flow and the moisture to escape. That said though, not all open terrariums will work as well as each other, those with small opens (such as bottles) won’t work as well as those with large openings. It’s also worth pointing out that, for the moisture to be able to evaporate properly the opening should be facing upwards.

Succulents won't survive in a closed terrarium

How long do succulent terrariums last?

When being asked how long plants live for it’s difficult to give a simple answer because there are so many different factors but, with the right care and conditions succulents can live for many years, if not decades. [source] Sadly though most will only last a few weeks due to a poor choice of plants, not being set up properly, or a lack of care.

I know that might sound like it’s all doom and gloom when it comes to growing succulents in a terrarium but the good thing about terrariums is that they’re an ecosystem rather than a single plant. This, of course, makes it harder to gauge how long they’ll live for, but at the same time, it makes them easier to keep. After all, terrariums are designed to encourage new growth and can function just as well if one or two of the plants dies.

This means that, if you care for your succulent terrarium there’s no reason why it couldn’t live for many decades. 

Which succulents can be planted in a terrarium?

Most succulents can be used in a terrarium but that doesn’t mean you can go out and buy a range of plants and they’ll live happily together. When deciding what succulents to put in your terrarium you need to think about the space you have. There’s nothing stopping you from putting a fully grown snake plant in your terrarium but you won’t have a huge amount of space left for aything else. Most terrariums are limited in space which is why many people opt for smaller plants.

If you are going to plant multiple succulents then you also want to choose ones that have the same needs in terms of light and water. While putting a zebra plant next to an agave may look good, they have different light needs.

To some extent which plants you opt for are down to personal preference, although that said they are some succulents that are particularly suitable for terrariums.

  • Jade
  • Echeveria
  • Sedums
  • Tiger jaws
  • Aloe
  • Hens and chicks
  • Zebra plant
  • Lithops
  • Paddle pant
  • Chocolate soldier
  • Ghost plant
  • Cacti
Small succulents work better in terrariums

How do you care for your succulent terrarium?

The most important rule when caring for a succulent (regardless of whether it’s in a terrarium or not) is to not overwater it. Being drought-loving plants they can survive far better with not enough water than they can with too much. It’s always better to wait until the soil is completely dry and then give it some water before allowing it to dry out again. Every region is different, as are the conditions within your home, but as a general rule, you should be watering it around every 4 to 6 weeks.

Once you’ve got your watering routine sorted you then need to make sure you remove all of the dead material from your terrarium, leaving it there for even a few days can lead to rot setting in. While we’re on the subject of removing dead leaves you might want to think about trimming any leaves that are touching the sides of the terrarium. This won’t help to keep your plants healthier but it will make them look nicer.

Deadheading your succulents? How, when, and why succulents need to be deadheaded.

Another thing you can do to really help care for your plants is to add a few bugs to the terrarium. Yes, you did read that right, I am seriously suggesting you add creepy crawlies, but not just any ones. I’m talking about springtails, tiny little critters that will actually make your succulents healthier and help them to live longer. They do this by eating all of the decaying matter and dead leaves lying around your terrarium. You don’t need many at all, just a small pot of them will be more than enough for most terrariums. The only drawback to springtails though is that they are jumpers so I wouldn’t advise using them in smaller terrariums.

How do you water a succulent terrarium?

Like so many things in the plant world, how you actually water your succulent terrarium is down to personal preference. Using a spray bottle is the most popular choice but it’s better for general watering, for direct (or targeted) watering I like to use a small watering can instead. It allows me to water the soil directly and stops the glass from getting covered in watermarks.

Whichever method of watering you choose the best thing to do is to soak the soil and then allow the plants to drink what they need. This means that any excess water is able to drain away from the roots. Once the soil has dried out completely then you can water it again. 

Some people like to spray the leaves but I personally don’t like doing this because I think that it magnifies the sun’s rays and can burn the leaves. Also, I live in a fairly humid climate so watering the leaves would just encourage the water to evaporate before the plants have taken what they need.

Do you need charcoal for a succulent terrarium?

The general consensus is that you only need to use charcoal in closed terrariums because it helps to trap and bind microparticles as well as trap gases and odors. It also helps to filter the water and absorb plant pathogens and toxic substances which means it’s a good idea to use it in your open terrarium too.

When it comes to choosing which charcoal to go for though make sure it’s ‘activated charcoal’. This is charcoal that has been treated at extremely high temperatures and is made from wood bamboo, coal, and coconut shells. Barbecue charcoal, on the other hand, adds peat, wood pulp, and petroleum to the mix. The ‘activation’ of the charcoal is what makes it so good for absorbing nasties in your terrarium.

Putting a layer of charcoal at the bottom of your terrarium will help to keep it clean and fresh

Why are my terrarium succulents dying?

Succulents are known for being easy to care for but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to dying with the most common reasons for this being overwatering, under watering, too much light, not enough light, or rot. Luckily though most succulents will give you obvious clues as to what’s wrong so you can hopefully address the issue before the plant dies. The main things to look out for are a change in the color of the leaves, unpleasant odors, or the leaves stretching.

Brown leaves

The leaves of a succulent start to turn brown when they’re hydrated but that doesn’t mean you need to rush in and give them plenty of water. While it’s possible you’re not watering the terrarium enough it could also be because the sun has dried all of the water out of the leaves and effectively ‘burnt’ them. 

To start with move your terrarium out of direct sunlight, once you’ve done that you need to check the soil to see how dry it is. If it’s bone dry and your substrate looks dry too (or if you can feel it is) then add a little bit of water to the soil. Doing it this way, rather than spraying the leaves, means that the plant can take only what it needs.

Yellow or translucent leaves

If the ends of your leaves have turned yellow or have a translucent appearance then it’s a pretty good indication that you’re overwatering it, especially if they’re starting to drop off too. Mold in the terrarium can also back this up because the water in the terrarium can’t get out which causes the mold to develop (that said though this is in extreme cases).

Depending on how overwatered your plants are you can simply refrain from watering them until the soil dries out (and then give it a little bit of water) or remove all of the wet soil and substrate and replace it with clean dry stuff. Once your soil is dry, and I mean completely dry, give it a little bit of water and then repeat every 4 to 6 weeks.

Black, brown, or mushy leaves

If your leaves (or the stem) are starting to turn black or brown then it’s a good indication of rot, the presence of mushy leaves and stems is further evidence of this. In some circumstances, you may also notice a rather pungent, sulfur like smell coming from the terrarium. The main culprit for plant rot sadly is overwatering but it can also be caused by decaying dead matter being left in the terrarium.

While it can be difficult to save the plant, removing all dead material from the terrarium and allowing the soil to dry out properly will also help. In extreme cases, you may have to remove the offending plant, but before doing that try to remove all of the blackness from the paint. This can easily be done by using a sharp knife below the affected to remove it.

Do you know what the signs of a bug problem are? Everything you need to know about dealing with bugs

Stretching or reaching

All plants crave light (although some more than others) and if they’re not getting enough they’ll stretch or reach out in an attempt to get more light. Luckily though this can easily be fixed by moving it to a bright spot, such as a window, or by using grow lights. I’ve tried a number of different grow lights but my favorite are these, they’re cheap but effective.

Succulent terrariums ca be very effective

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

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