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Make a Desert Terrarium

A Desert themed terrarium is a fun project to make and it is something that is relatively easy to care for. You are using a variety of cactii and succulents which don't require a lot of water and are very tolerant of sunlight. You also do this kind of terrarium in an open dish which is easier to make than in a closed container.

This tutorial take you through all the steps on how to make one of these terrariums.

I also have a video of this project here And Amazon.com has lots of nice Terra Cotta Planters and pots




A Desert Terrarium


A Note about changes to this project: I have recieved some helpful advice from an expert desert terrarium maker and he advises me that there really is no need for the Spaghnum moss or the pebbles in this kind of a terrarium. The Spaghnum moss will hold and release moisture which works counter to the concept of a desert terrarium and the pebbles are unnecessary. All you really need is a hole in the bottom of the container and a small piece of screen to keep the soil from falling out. He has tested various configurations and this is the best way to do it. So, no need to use the Spaghnum Moss or the pebbles which saves you time and money! My thanks to R. for this expert advice!!


Here is a list of materials you should have for this project: (Recommended but not all are necessary)

  • A Container (terra cotta or arizona themed is perfect)
  • Several plants, cactii or succulents (generally an odd number is best 3,5 or 7)
  • 1 bag of sand, do not use sand you get at the beach - there are lots of contaminants
  • Potting Soil, can be specifically for cactus or can be general potting soil
  • A dozen stones in a variety of shapes and colors, go find them!
  • Pebbles, Pearlstone or small rocks as drainage in bottom of container (1 or 2 cups is enough)
  • Spanish Moss or Sphagnum Moss (Acts as a barrier so soil doesn't work its way down into the bottom of the dish or pot
  • Arizona or desert themed ornaments


The Desert Terrarium layout

The Basic Layout

The illustration here on the left shows the basic layout for your desert terrarium. It is very similar to a regular terrarium but here are some things to note.

If you are using some large stones you should embed them rather deep into the soil. I put a couple of inches of soil in the dish, placed the stones then placed more soil.

The sand is also something not seen in a regular terrarium. I have put a thin layer of sand on the top of the soil. This was before placing the plants. Then after the plants were placed I touched it up with more sand.


Here is the basic Procedure:

  1. If there is a hole in your dish place a small piece of screen over it to protect from soil and stones falling out
  2. Place about an inch of pebbles or pearl stone in the dish
  3. Place a half inch to inch layer of activated charcoal (this purifies the water and soil and is totally optional in an open dish like this
  4. Place an inch thick layer of sphagnum or spanish moss (this prevents soil from seeping down into the bottom of the dish)
  5. Fill about half the intended final volume with soil
  6. Place your larger stones and arrange them in a pleasing manner
  7. Place the remainder of the soil
  8. Put your plants in an attractive arrangement and one nice way to do it is to try to get a plant or two between the stones and try to get one or two of them on a higher level. The whole arrangement is shaped like a volcano with the center of the dish being where the highest point is.
  9. Place some smaller colored stones in the dish
  10. Touch up the sand by adding more sand
  11. Add any ornaments or artistic touches (I have added a lizard)

Care of your terrarium

The plants have been shocked by being transplanted so for the first week you need to watch them carefully. Keep any tags or guidelines that came with the plants. These are valuable instructions that will help you in watering and sunlight needs.

Further Notes

I bought several different kinds of succulents and cactii from a local home improvement store. This kind of plant often has a plastic container that is full with a number of plants. i gently separated them and used them both as individuals and as small clusters. I also cut away a lot of the excess roots before I planted them in my terrarium.

Need some Cactus Plants? Amazon.com has them.

Instant Cactus collection Instant Cactus/Succulent Collection - 8 Plants 1





Cactus plants come and go, but there is always a great selection on amazon: Cactus Plants on Amazon.com


Or How about a REALLY big one!

I don't have a tutorial for this one but here is a very big glass terrarium with a desert theme. It was made by a web visitor (Badia A.) This just shows that the sky is the limit!

Desert terrarium



Pots in the garden

Pots in the Garden: Expert Design and Planting - Rogers points out that many people have a limited space in which to plant a garden and don't have a lot of time to pursue their hobby. He writes that one of the most space-saving and time-efficient ways to enjoy gardening is to include container plantings...Rogers discusses basic design elements, including color, line, form and mass, spece, and texture. Included are 240 splendid photgraphs." George Cohen, Booklist ( Booklist )

"Rogers points out that many people have a limited space in which to plant a garden and don't have a lot of time to pursue their hobby. He writes that one of the most space-saving and time-efficient ways to enjoy gardening is to include container plantings...Rogers discusses basic design elements, including color, line, form and mass, spece, and texture. Included are 240 splendid photgraphs."
-George Cohen, Booklist ( Booklist )


The complete book of cacti and succulents

Complete Book of Cacti & Succulents - features the history, cultivation, and imaginative use of more than 300 plants -- in step-by-step color stages. This is a feast of in-depth information and eye-catching photography. DK's new line of paperback titles combines all the qualities of its hardcovers with the advantages of the soft cover format. Each of these already popular books will now be available to a large new readership who will delight in the essential elements of every DK title: clarity, educational value, and visual appeal.


Mixed Melocactus

Mixed Melocactus Cactus 20 Seeds - Mixed Species





Wild West Cactus Roundup Terrarium

Wild West Cactus Round-up - Complete Kit to Grow Over 20 Types of Cacti from Seed!




Hothouse terrarium

Desert Hothouse - Create your own desert landscape. Contains over 20 kinds of plants. Seeds sprout in one week, easy to grow, and lasts for years! Create your own sandy, dusty desert scene. It contains Joshua Tree, Saguaro, Century Plant, Organ Pipe Cactus, Yucca and more. Complete kit includes: seed packets, windowsill greenhouse, desert boulders, natural desert sand, natural desert gravel, desert critters, snakes, lizards, planting mixture, and instructions and information sheet. Ages 4+


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