Five easy terrarium plants for beginners

So many of us want our little patch of nature, but if you don’t have a garden a terrarium can offer a miniature ecosystem indoors.

Viral TikTok star and Chelsea Gold medal winner Ben Newell (aka @worcesterterrariums), who has had worldwide success sharing terrarium hints and tips to his 3.4 million followers since giving up his day job as a postman, says it’s difficult to know where to start because there are so many good plants out there.

Newell, whose TikTok terrarium videos frequently go viral, has now written Hello Tiny World, a beautifully crafted guide to how to grow plants in terrariums, offering different ideas on everything from containers, soil conditions and watering hints, to plants which may be suitable.

“I think there’s something really magical about tiny-leaved plants and mosses growing in beautiful glass jars. It really captures people’s attention,” he enthuses.

“Traditionally, terrariums would have been in large tanks but I really like the small ones that you can hold in your hands.”

Here, he suggests five easy terrarium plants for beginners.

Fittonia albivenis (nerve plant)

Known as the nerve plant, it’s native to South America but is widely available in garden centres.

“It’s got this striking veining on the leaf and comes in many different colours. My preference is the green ones because they tend to fit with a more naturalistic terrarium.”

Top tip: plant them via root cuttings because it allows the plant to stay smaller while developing a root system. Snip above a leaf node and push the cutting into the soil. You can use tiny parts of the plant, which often fit with the scale of a small terrarium.

Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Marisa’ (Boston fern)

This small bushy fern is easy to care for, preferring warmth and humidity.

“You can divide it, which is really helpful because you can get numerous plants from one. Prune it once it gets established by simply snipping off the larger leaves out at the base.”

Top tip: to divide it, find the middle point of the plant and split the root ball into two.

Biophytum sensitivum (sensitive tree)

Commonly found in South-East Asia and also known as the little tree plant, this houseplant looks like a miniature palm tree. The leaves are responsive to light and atmosphere changes, falling in on themselves at night and opening up again during the day.

It propagates easily and has beautiful flowers in shades of purple, pink and white, producing lots of seeds that can be separated and just be planted on.

Top tip: plant this one in bright light but not too much direct sun. Once established, it doesn’t like to be moved. And don’t let it dry out, he advises.

Ficus thunbergii

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“The oak leaf fig’s leaves look like miniature oak leaves. It’s a spreading, creeping plant which will also climb a background and it grows quite slowly, which is desirable in a terrarium. The leaves are only a centimetre or two,” he explains. Plant it whole or as a cutting.

Top tip: under lower light it develops bigger leaves, while in brighter light the leaves will be smaller.

Peperomia prostrata (string of turtles)

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Also known as string of turtles, this plant has a string of circular leaves on each side of the stem that either trail or climb. These plants don’t like to sit in damp soil and the substrate they are sold in is often very heavy and wet, so don’t leave them in their original container.

They grow slowly initially but once established will flourish.

Top tip: the best way to use this plant is via cuttings. With rootless cuttings, you pop them into a terrarium with a very shallow root system and then the leaves plump up in the humidity.

Planting tips

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Be mindful that the larger plants don’t completely overshadow the smaller ones, Newell advises.

“For example, if you plant the ficus next to the fern, the likelihood is that the fern would block out all of the light, but you can position them strategically in a terrarium,” he says.

Plant your terrarium specimens in either a bonsai-based medium such as akadama, moler clay or lava rock, mixed with coir and vermicast (worm castings). Alternatively you can buy pre-made terrarium soil. 

“I would advise anyone to steer clear of using regular compost on its own or soil from their garden,” he advises. “It holds onto too much moisture.”

When placing your plants, he suggests that as a general guide think of your terrarium in terms of background, mid-ground and foreground.

“The larger plants that are going to grow biggest should be towards the back, while the smaller plants and maybe creeping plants might be towards the front.

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“Arranging your soil on a gradient will allow more surface area and make the plants look better. They need to be in a bright position where they are getting enough light and a terrarium houseplant will have a front, and will look better at a certain angle, so ideally you would display that.”

A little morning sun can be good, but don’t give them direct sunlight or it will just cook them.

There should not be a watering schedule, he adds.

“I work two ways to tell. If the substrate appears lighter, that can be an indication that you need to water, or if you are able to get your hands inside and touch the soil with your finger and it feels damp, don’t water. If it feels dry you can add a little bit of water. Less is more in a terrarium.”

Should you go for a particular shape of terrarium?

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“I have two preferences. One is a cube or cuboid because you don’t get the reflection from the glass, especially if you are trying to take a photo.

“I also really like cloches where the lid is completely removable and it makes planting them very easy, but it is down to personal preference.”

Take the lid off fairly frequently to check the plants. Air flow is beneficial but you have to find a balance between air flow and humidity, he says.

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For less accessible terrariums with tiny openings, you may need long-handled tweezers, long-handled scissors or chopsticks to position the plants, he advises.

Hello Tiny World by Ben Newell is published by DK. Available now

Do you have a terrarium? We’d love to hear your terrarium tips and tricks in the comments section below.

Also read: Six quick-growing crops for impatient gardeners

– With Hannah Stephenson

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