We gardeners always have the itch to work with plants, which is why making a Christmas terrarium is so much fun. You can create lovely miniature landscapes from garden-gathered mosses or lichen-crusted sticks, or use your Christmas terrarium as a place to propagate little succulents or other small houseplants. Add some seasonal accents, and you have an intriguing natural art piece that the cat can’t knock over.
Christmas terrariums are temporary decorations made to last only a couple of months, so there is no need to seek out special containers. You need to be able to reach inside to place and rearrange plants, figures, stones or other components, but any wide-mouth clear glass container will do.
For a large terrarium that depicts a scene, the perfect container is a glass cake plate with dome. This is also a great use for (empty!) goldfish bowls or small aquariums. I have a tall candy jar that I keep just for making Christmas terrariums, and I am always on the lookout for wide-mouth jars on their way to the recycling bin. You can make small terrariums in jars to give as gifts, and the kids can help.
Planting a Terrarium
Terrariums represent life in miniature, so begin by selecting your smallest treasured holiday figurines or ornaments. This should give you a general notion of theme, which will guide your selection of other elements. The best terrariums tell a story, or at least suggest the beginning of one.
To make a garden-foraged terrarium like the one shown at the top of the page, go poking around your yard and collect a selection of stones, bark, lichen, mosses, sticks, nut shells, grass seedheads, pine needles, or anything showing green. Also look for a large stick or stone to add height to the composition. An attractive chunk of wood wedged diagonally in a jar lends a tree-like look and provides a place to hang decorations. Bring everything inside to a place where you can make a mess. If necessary, raid your spice cabinet for whole cloves, star anise or cinnamon sticks.
Begin by placing an inch or so of dry potting soil or sand in the bottom of the container, using a funnel to help keep the glass clean. Add a little water, but not too much. You can always add more later.
When making a terrarium where you want plants to grow, choose a soil mix that meets the rooting needs of the plants, such as a half and half blend of potting soil and sharp sand. Small succulents and many other houseplants will root and grow in a holiday terrarium that is kept adequately watered. When the holidays are over, they can be potted up into roomier quarters.
Assemble your terrarium by arranging the landscape of mosses, bark and stone, along with any live plants. Use tongs, tweezers or chopsticks to access places where your fingers won’t fit. Work slowly, and don’t be surprised if you revise your plan as the composition comes together. Add ornamental pieces, settle them in place, and see how you like it. Tweak by adding or subtracting elements until you are happy with your creation. Blow through a straw or use a dry artists’ paintbrush to clean up debris.
The biggest challenge is keeping everything in scale. If the deer figure you wanted to use is too big, display it outside the terrarium. Need snow? A bit of pulverized perlite is perfect for sprinkling. Puffed up cotton balls make decent snowdrifts.
More Christmas Terrarium Tips
Once created, terrariums take on a life of their own. They are easy to move from place to place, and usually do best near a window that provides bright indirect light. Keeping a cover on at night helps retain humidity, while leaving the cover off or partially open during the day increases air circulation and reduces the risk of sogginess. To keep mold or fungus gnats from becoming a problem, provide water by misting the surface or dribbling small amounts of water to rooted plants.
A Christmas terrarium can even be brought to life after dark. Glass enclosures reflect light, so mini-lights or small votive candles can turn any holiday terrarium into a dramatic tabletop centerpiece. The more bling, the better!
Make Your Own Christmas Terrarium: What You Need
Ready to make your own unique Christmas terrarium? Here’s your handy at-a-glance list of what you’ll need:
- Succulents or small houseplants
- Garden-gathered natural objects such as moss, lichen, sticks, bark, stones, nut shells, grass seedheads, and pine needles
- Your favorite seasonal figurines or ornaments
- Any wide-mouthed jar or glass container
- Potting mix or sand, and a little water
- A funnel
- Tongs, tweezers or chopsticks
- A drinking straw or an artist’s paintbrush
- Optional: spices such as whole cloves, star anise, or cinnamon sticks; some cotton balls or pulverized perlite; mini-lights or small votive candles
Don't forget your Christmas cheer!