Lesson 5

Create a Terrarium


Lesson Overview:

In this activity, students will create a small ecosystem in a terrarium. Students will be able to observe very specific conditions required to support various forms of plant and animal life. They will also learn how processes come into balance to sustain the ecosystem.



Content Standards Addressed:
Common Core State Standards



Materials Needed:

  • Clean jar or other container.​ Terrariums may be closed (with a lid) or open (without a lid). Use an open, shallower container for a desert terrarium.
  • Small stones or gravel.
  • Sphagnum moss.
  • Potting soil.
  • Clean sand (optional).
  • Colored stones and other decorations (optional).
  • Plants (see below for specific suggestions).


1. Spread stones to a depth of one inch.

2. Spread an inch of sphagnum moss over the stones to keep the soil from drifting down into the stones. (It also keeps plant roots drier and healthier.)

3. Fill the terrarium halfway with potting soil, at least 1-1/2 inches deep.

4. Now add the plants. Place the shorter plants toward the front; save the taller ones for the background of the container. Cut off any yellow or damaged parts of the plants first. Don't crowd plants.

5. For a desert terrarium, add a layer of clean sand, if desired, for an authentic look. You can also add small colored stones or other decorations.

6. Gently mist the plants and soil.

7. Place the terrarium in bright, indirect lighting. Desert terrariums should be placed in direct sun.

8. Check the soil moisture level daily in open terrariums and add water when the soil is dry. Avoid overwatering!

9. Water closed terrariums only when condensation no longer collects on the inside of terrarium. (Depending on the type of plants, this may not happen for 4-6 months.)


Need plant ideas?

This chart lists easy-to-grow plants according to the type of terrarium.

*When building a desert terrarium, omit stones and moss. Be sure you choose a container with a hole; cover it with a small piece of screening to keep soil from falling out. ​

Woodland Rain Forest Desert*
Foam flower​ Pothos Echeveria (Hens and chicks)
          ​ Hepatica​ ​Philodendron ​Jade plant
​Rattlesnake plantain ​Parlor palm (Neanthe bella) ​Sedum
​Wintergreen ​Fern (Club moss) ​Lithops (Stone plant)
Liverworts​ ​Polka dot plant ​Haworthia
​Dwarf mondo grass ​Aluminum plant ​Panda plant
​Baby's tears (angel's tears) ​Peperomia ​Cactus (Rebutia is a good one.)