I get it. Building a terrarium from scratch seems intimidating as a total beginner. There are so many plants to choose from. And it’s not entirely clear which ones will do well in a terrarium, specifically your terrarium. What you’re probably looking for is a list of terrarium plants that will “just work” for total beginners.
Terrarium experts recommend the following plants for beginners:
- polka dot plants
- nerve plants
- creeping figs
- bridal veil tradescantias
- Foliage plants
A list of plants is great and all, but as you can probably guess, the real answer is it depends. There are actually several factors that can help you choose what plants might work for your particular situation as I’ll explain in this article.
I’ll also explain why each one of those plants works great for a terrarium.
Table of Contents
How to choose plants for your terrarium
A lot of beginners are tempted to just grab the plants that look the prettiest or most interesting. That can actually be a big mistake because there hasn’t been any thought as to whether or not that plant will thrive or even survive at home.
So before we start talking about the “best” plants for beginners, I think it’s helpful to first understand how to choose the right plants for your terrarium.
Choosing plants for open vs. closed terrariums
First of all, I want to make a distinction between open and closed terrariums.
Open terrariums are pretty similar to common house plants. The plants are exposed to the open air because the container has a wide opening for the plants.
Closed terrariums are probably what most people think of when they hear the word “terrarium”. Plants in a closed terrarium are completely sealed off from the open air. Water evaporates and condenses inside the container creating an endless water cycle.
To learn more about the differences, check out this article or explain that in more detail.
The reason this distinction matters is because open and closed terrariums offer very different conditions for your plants.
Open terrariums are better suited for plants that enjoy full, direct sunlight and dry, arid conditions. If you want to grow succulents, open terrariums are the way to go.
Closed terrariums on the other hand are best suited for plants that enjoy high humidity and indirect light conditions.
So before deciding which plants you should use, you should first decide if you want to build an open or closed terrarium. That’s going to determine if you’re going to get high humidity loving plants or plants that might prefer dry conditions with more sunlight.
If there’s anything to take away from this, don’t put succulents in a closed terrarium.
Why lighting conditions matter for terrarium plants
I mentioned this briefly, but sunlight can be another factor that will determine if a plant will do well in your home.
Some plants prefer bright, direct sunlight while others prefer less intense, indirect sunlight.
To learn more about this, I reached out to Tassy from Glasswing, a boutique/gardening store in Seattle, Washington. Here’s what she had to say about how to find the best plants for your terrarium:
I would recommend choosing plants based on where the terrarium receives light. For direct afternoon sunlight, succulents are the best choice. For direct morning sun, ferns and foliage plants (pilea, peperomia, etc) work best.Tassy, Glasswing
This one also ties in with your choice of open and closed terrariums. If you want to give your plants direct afternoon sunlight, you might want to go with an open terrarium.
One way to figure out which type of sunlight will come out of which window is to figure out which direction they are facing (East, West, North, or South).
This table explains what type of sunlight you can expect from each direction:
|Direction||Sunlight Type||Best for|
|North||Least amount of sunlight, never direct||Closed Terrariums|
|South||Most amount of light, bright, direct sunlight within 2-3 feet||Open Terrariums|
|East||Morning sunlight||Closed Terrariums|
|West||Evening sunlight||Open Terrariums|
So if you’re planning to place your terrarium near a North or west facing window, you should stick to closed terrariums with indirect light living plants.
If you want to place your terrarium near a south or east facing window, you should probably pick plants that enjoy bright, direct sunlight and would go great in an open terrarium.
So now that we have those disclaimers out of the way, let’s get into which plants will work best in most conditions.
Types of plants that do well in most conditions
If you don’t want to worry too much about getting the conditions just perfect and picking the perfect plants appropriately, you can always pick plants that have a high chance of success.
For the most part, that just comes down to the fact that these plants just check off all the boxes for closed terrarium conditions.
Here’s what Parker from city people’s garden store (another Seattle gardening store) had to say about that:
In my opinion, the best terrarium plants for beginners are going to be those small, 2 inch or less plants that often go overlooked at many plant shops and nurseries. Examples include things like polka dot plants, nerve plants, pileas, creeping figs, bridal veil tradescantias, and more. These plants are commonly found at most nurseries and are easily adaptable and suitable for terrarium living– especially for beginners!Parker, city people’s garden store
Let me give you a brief description of each plant and why they work so well in a terrarium:
polka dot plants
Polka dot plants have really cool foliage colors that come in several different varieties. It’s a great way to add some diverse colors and textures to your terrarium.
They can grow in pretty much any temperate, indirect light conditions. Those are essentially the conditions that you’ll find inside of a terrarium. They can also be grown outdoors and indoors, which makes them a very versatile plant species.
The thing that stands out about nerve plants is their distinguishable “veins” on their leaves. The picture above shows their veins in a silvery white color, but you can also find in their plants and other colors like red, pink, white, and green.
The reason they work so well in a terrarium is because they require high, constant humidity and indirect sunlight, both conditions that you’ll typically see in a terrarium.
They also don’t grow too big, capping out at 6 inches max in height. This means they’ll have a good chance of fitting into your terrarium without feeling cramped.
Playa is a genus of plants containing over 600 species. Probably the most popular one is the Chinese money plant with their distinguishable coin-shaped leaves.
Most pileas love to grow in the shade and are really easy to care for.
The creeping fig (also known as ficus pumila) is a type of low-growing vine that enjoys bright, indirect light.
The great thing about these guys is that they are very easy to propagate. Pretty much all you have to do is cut a piece off and stick in the soil and it’ll start growing.
bridal veil tradescantias
The bridal veil tradescantia is a genus of perennial plants comprising about 30 species.
They grow to at most 20 inches high and prefer bright, indirect light and humid conditions common to the tropical zones of Mexico, Brazil, and parts of Argentina. That’s what makes them great choices for adding to a terrarium.
Ferns are actually vascular plants that reproduce via spores rather than seeds. Moss is another type of vascular plant you’re probably familiar with.
Just like moss, ferns enjoy high humidity, low light conditions and are perfectly suited for growing in a terrarium.
Foliage plants cover a wide variety of plant species that are low-growing and have interesting plant leaves.
These tend to do well in a terrarium because they enjoy high levels of humidity and tend not to grow too large.
Peperomia includes over a thousand different species of plants. Comparing species to species, you’ll see a lot of variety between plants.
But the one thing that they all have in common though is that they are generally low maintenance plants that enjoy the shade and moderate humidity.That’s pretty much all I have for this article. Big thanks to City People’s Garden and glasswing for sharing their advice, feel free to check them out if you ever visit Seattle.