Layering Sand, Gravel and Plants for a Desert Terrarium

Desert Terrarium (2)

A desert terrarium is a mini enclosed ecosystem that replicates a desert environment. Terrariums allow you to create a little piece of nature in your own home. They are relatively easy to assemble and make great decorative pieces.

Desert terrariums contain cacti, succulents and other drought-resistant plants. These plants thrive in hot, arid conditions. A layered bedding of sand and gravel provides drainage and mimics the desert floor. With the right plants, materials and care, you can create a thriving indoor desert.

What Supplies Do You Need for a Desert Terrarium?

To build your own desert terrarium, you will need:

  • A glass container: Look for one with a wide opening to make planting easier. Jars, fish tanks and repurposed glassware all work well.
  • Sand: Fine sand gives the appearance of a desert landscape. You want a few inches of sand at the bottom.
  • Gravel: Small aquarium gravel or pebbles create additional drainage between the sand and soil layers.
  • Activated charcoal: A thin layer of charcoal helps keep the soil fresh and prevents odors.
  • Cactus/succulent mix: A soil blend designed for these plants resists compaction and provides good drainage.
  • Desert plants: Consider aloe, echeveria, hen and chicks, snake plant, cacti and other drought-resistant choices.
  • Decorative materials (optional): You can add rocks, shells or miniature buildings for additional interest.

How to Layer Sand and Gravel for Proper Drainage

Proper layering of materials is crucial to creating an ideal growing environment inside your terrarium. Follow these steps:

Start with a Base Layer of Sand

Pour an inch or two of fine sand across the bottom of the container. Sand provides great drainage for desert plants. Use enough to fully cover the bottom surface.

Level and smooth the sand. It will compress over time so start with a thicker layer. White craft sand or play sand both work well. Make sure it is completely dry before adding other layers.

Add a Layer of Gravel

Next, pour gravel on top of the sand base. Use aquarium gravel, pebbles or small stones. This layer should be about 1/2 to 1 inch deep.

The gravel helps increase drainage and aeration between the sand and soil layers. The small rocks and sand particles create air pockets for healthy root growth.

You can use varying colors and sizes of gravel for visual interest. Mixing larger pebbles into the gravel layer adds texture.

Include a Layer of Activated Charcoal

Now sprinkle a thin layer of activated charcoal over the gravel. Use about 1/4 to 1/2 inch of charcoal.

The charcoal absorbs odors and toxins to help purify the enclosed ecosystem. This improves air quality for your plants and keeps the terrarium smelling fresh.

Choose activated charcoal made for terrariums rather than standard barbecue charcoal. It is safer for enclosed environments.

Top with Specialty Cactus/Succulent Soil

The final layer is a potting mix blended for cacti and succulents. Look for a soil labeled for these plants. It will drain quickly and resist compaction.

Fill the remaining space in the container with soil. Leave 1-2 inches below the rim for planting.

Pack the soil down lightly with your hands to remove large air pockets. The layers below provide adequate aeration, so the soil can be slightly compacted.

Your drainage layers are now complete! The terrarium is ready for including plants and decor.

How to Select the Best Plants for a Desert Terrarium

Choosing the right plants is key to creating a thriving desert environment. Look for species that enjoy hot, dry conditions.

Here are some top options to consider:


Succulents store water in their thick leaves and stems. This makes them perfect for arid terrarium conditions. Select succulents with a compact, low-growing habit. Consider:

  • Echeveria: Rosette-shaped plants with ruffled leaves in shades of blue, pink and green.
  • Hen and Chicks: Adorable clustering succulents that produce offsets. Great for sandscapes.
  • Aloe Vera: Adds height and vertical interest. Known for its healing gel.
  • Haworthia: Unique spiral leaves emerge from this petite succulent. Easy to grow.


While larger cacti won’t work, there are dwarf varieties suitable for terrariums:

  • Mammillaria: Round, button-like cacti that stay small. Choose hairless varieties.
  • Rebutia: Miniature cacti with colorful crowns of red, orange or yellow blooms.
  • Gymnocalycium: Low-growing species with flattened stems and vibrant flowers.
  • Thelocactus: Compact cacti with clustered stems and bright blooms. Slow growing.

Other Desert Plants

  • Snake Plant: Sculptural, spiky leaves thrive in arid terrarium environments.
  • Stonecrop: Low-growing succulent groundcover spreads easily between rocks.
  • Moss Rose: Adds bright flowers and thrives in sandy soil. Treat as an annual.

Choose a variety of shapes, sizes and colors for visual interest. Limit the number of plants to keep the terrarium from becoming overgrown.

How Many Plants Should You Include?

When selecting plants, less is more. Overcrowding can harm your desert terrarium environment.

Aim for 2-5 plants in a small container. Allow plenty of open space to mimic the look of a desert landscape.

Drought-resistant plants grow slowly and stay compact. They won’t outgrow a terrarium as quickly as tropical varieties.

If using succulents, begin with just 2-3 specimens. Pot up pups when they outgrow the container. This allows you to propagate and rotate plants.

Cacti are best limited to 1-2 per terrarium. Select dwarfs that only reach a few inches tall at maturity. Larger species become root bound.

Make sure plants have room to reach their full size. Give them space to spread out and grow.

Beyond plants, use decor sparingly. A few rocks, shells or miniatures can make nice accents. Avoid cluttering the terrarium.

While Planting a Desert Terrarium, How Deep Should You Bury the Roots?

When placing plants in the terrarium, pay attention to how deep you bury the roots. Follow these guidelines:

For succulents, bury just the base in soil. Don’t plant the stems or leaves too far down. Succulents are prone to rotting if buried too deeply.

Place succulents at the level they were growing before. Their stems should rise out of the soil. Pack soil around the roots to stabilize.

For cacti, bury up to half the stem underground. Proper depth prevents the top-heavy specimen from tipping over.

Bury vertically oriented cacti up to half their height. Position horizontally growing cacti so soil just covers the bottom part of the stem.

Cover moss rose and groundcover lightly. Desert perennials only need their roots partly submerged in the sandy soil.

In all cases, avoid getting soil on the leaves and stems. This can cause rot due to moisture retention. Always plant just deep enough to anchor the roots.

How Often Should You Water a Closed Terrarium?

Terrariums are designed to retain moisture. This means watering is needed less often than regular houseplants. Use these watering guidelines:

Water a desert terrarium every 2-3 weeks. Remove the lid and pour water evenly over the soil. Allow excess to drain out.

Check soil moisture weekly by touching the top level. Water when the first 1-2 inches become dry. Deeper layers will remain moist longer.

Mist cactus and succulent leaves occasionally. Use a spray bottle for a light misting. This provides extra humidity.

Watch for condensation on the glass. High humidity causes rot and decline. Increase ventilation if needed.

Water less often in winter. Reduce watering to once a month when plants are dormant.

A closed terrarium relies on the water cycle. As moisture evaporates and condenses, it waters plants automatically. But you still need to replenish water as it is used up.

What Type of Water Should You Use in a Terrarium?

Choosing the right water protects the health of your terrarium. Here’s an overview:

  • Use room temperature water: Cold water shocks plant roots. Warm water encourages faster growth.
  • Avoid highly chlorinated tap water: Chlorine builds up over time. Use filtered or bottled water.
  • Do not use distilled water: It lacks beneficial minerals plants need.
  • Rainwater works well: Natural rainwater contains nutrients. Collect some to use.
  • Humidifier water: Convenient source. Empty excess water into the terrarium.
  • Opt for softer water: Hard water leaves mineral deposits on glass and soil.

Check your water quality if plants decline. Chlorine, minerals and pollutants take a toll in an enclosed space. Provide the cleanest water possible.

How to Plant a Desert Terrarium in Layers

Once materials are layered, it’s time to add plants. Follow these steps:

1. Plan Placement

Study your terrarium space and decide where to place each plant. Create visual interest by varying heights and positions.

Position taller cacti and succulents near the back. Use smaller plants to fill in the foreground. Angle plants for depth.

2. Make Indentations

Use your fingers or a spoon to make holes in the soil where plants will go. This loosens the soil and makes inserting roots easier.

Match indentations to the root ball size. Make holes wide and slightly shallow to prevent deep planting.

3. Insert Roots

Gently lower each plant into its soil indentation. Guide roots into the hole and fill in around them with your fingers.

Pack loose soil lightly around the base to stabilize plants. Cover roots while keeping most of the stem above soil.

4. Water Well

Once planted, water thoroughly. This removes air pockets and moistens soil for initial growth. Let excess water drain out.

Watering after planting helps anchor roots. Then allow the soil to partially dry out before watering again.

5. Add Decor

Finish by tucking in decorative sandscape elements. Place rocks, shells and miniatures naturally between plants.

Remember that less is more. Add decorations sparingly so plants remain the focal point.

Troubleshooting Common Desert Terrarium Problems

Desert terrariums are relatively easy to maintain, but may experience a few issues:

Problem: Condensation Build-up

Solution: Increase ventilation to allow airflow. Open lid temporarily or drill holes in the glass. Check watering frequency.

Problem: Fungal Growth on Soil

Solution: Let soil dry out completely between waterings. Remove any decaying plant matter. Sprinkle fresh charcoal.

Problem: White Salt Deposits on Glass

Solution: Wipe salts off regularly with a damp cloth. Use distilled water for the next few waterings.

Problem: Declining Health

Solution: Assess watering and lighting needs. Prune damaged growth and remove dead plants. Start over with fresh soil and plants if all specimens are struggling.

With attentive care, your desert terrarium can thrive for years. Observe plants closely and address issues right away. The enclosed space makes problems more difficult to correct over time.

Caring for a Desert Terrarium Long-Term

To keep your desert terrarium healthy in the long run:

  • Water only when soil becomes dry. Avoid overwatering.
  • Give bright, indirect light. A south or west window is ideal.
  • Wipe excess condensation from glass regularly.
  • Remove dead leaves/flowers/stems to prevent mold.
  • Prune overgrown plants and propagate pups/offsets.
  • Supplement with a weak cactus fertilizer 2-4 times per year.
  • Add charcoal and change soil annually to prevent salt buildup.
  • Rotate plants out that outgrow the space. Swap in new specimens.

With close attention, a desert terrarium can stay attractive for many years. The sealed environment limits pest issues and diseases. Terrariums allow you to build a beautiful living desert oasis inside your home.

Turning the project into a fun family activity

Making a desert terrarium is a fun project that you can involve the whole family in. Here are some ways to engage kids and make it an entertaining activity:

  • Have kids collect and wash the stones and pebbles for the drainage layer. Let them sort by size, color and texture.
  • Take a trip to the garden store together and allow kids to pick out 1-2 small plants for the terrarium. Talk about plant needs.
  • Encourage creativity by allowing kids to add miniatures like small ceramic animals or decorative objects. Monitor clutter.
  • Make it an educational opportunity by talking about desert environments. Show photos online of real desert landscapes.
  • Explain the science behind why the layers are needed. Kids will learn about drainage, soil health and the water cycle.
  • Let kids get their hands dirty! Have them scoop soil, pat it down gently and water the finished terrarium.
  • Print out cactus and succulent photos and let kids identity the varieties in the terrarium. Quiz them occasionally.
  • Take progress photos each week. This helps kids observe plant growth and terrarium changes over time.
  • Have kids journal the terrarium building process and document plant growth in a diary.

Involving kids in the planning and building stages makes them invested in the final product. Nurturing the terrarium also teaches responsibility and caretaking skills.

Enjoying Your Desert Terrarium

Caring for a desert terrarium is simple, and the end result is beautiful. Follow proper planting techniques and your terrarium will thrive indoors.

Take time to observe tiny details as miniature cacti flower and succulents spread. Terrariums create a serene accent in any space.

Desert terrariums allow you to enjoy intriguing arid plants without harsh desert conditions. They provide a relaxing escape right within your home.

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