Using Sand in Terrariums: A Complete Guide

Sand In Terrariums

Terrariums can be filled with all sorts of small plants, from succulents and cacti to ferns and moss. One question that often comes up when creating a terrarium is whether you can use sand as part of the landscape.

What are the Benefits of Using Sand in a Terrarium?

Sand allows you to create miniature beaches, coastlines, and desert landscapes within the terrarium. Adding sand enables you to craft scenic environments like shorelines, dunes, and dry deserts in scaled-down form inside the enclosed glass container. The sand provides aesthetic interest and visual realism to model these natural habitats in a small indoor space.

It provides excellent drainage for the plants. Sand particles are coarse and loose, leaving large air spaces that do not retain moisture well. The highly porous nature of sand prevents the terrarium substrate from staying wet for prolonged periods. This helps minimize the risk of soaked soil and root rot in the humid, enclosed terrarium environment.

Sand is an inexpensive, readily available substrate. Sand can be purchased affordably at most hardware and landscape stores, making it an accessible and budget-friendly terrarium material. It is easy to source and supply in the quantities needed for miniature indoor garden projects.

It comes in a variety of natural colors. Sand is available in a spectrum of earthy neutral hues like tan, brown, gray, and white. Colored variants like pale pink, red, black, or charcoal gray sands are also sold. This diversity allows the sand to be matched aesthetically with the selected plants, decor items, and overall design scheme.

Sand is heavier than substrates like moss or bark. The increased weight and density of sand helps stabilize and anchor down plants, decorations, and other terrarium landscape elements. This can be especially useful in open-style terrariums without lids.

What Type of Sand Should You Use in a Terrarium?

Opt for a coarse sand rather than a fine or powdery sand. Coarse sand grains provide better drainage and air circulation between particles. Fine, powdery sands become tightly compacted when wet, retaining moisture in a dense, soggy mass with no room for air circulation. This can lead to poor drainage and overly damp conditions. Look for sand labeled “coarse builder’s sand” for terrarium use.

Avoid play sands, which are often too dusty. Play sands are very fine-grained and powdery. They contain a lot of dust and fine particles that cling together when moist, preventing proper drainage. The dust in play sand also settles across terrarium plants and decor.

Get natural-colored sand. While dyed or artificially colored sands are pretty, they can leach excess pigment or dye into the terrarium environment. This can stain plants and decorations. Opt for earthy, neutral-toned sands in their natural state.

Pick a sterile sand without any added nutrients. Some sands have fertilizers or nutrient additives mixed in. These can potentially burn tender plant roots and seedlings when used as a growing medium. Look for plain, sterile sands void of any supplements.

Stay away from sands labeled “calcium carbonate.” The calcium in these sands increases the pH, making the substrate more alkaline. Most terrarium plants prefer neutral or mildly acidic conditions.

Look for inert sands like granite, quartz, or silica sands. Inert sands don’t affect pH or water chemistry within the terrarium. This prevents potential issues like altered acidity from impacting plant health.

Ensure any sand collected from the environment is washed thoroughly to remove salts, minerals, and other potential contaminants before adding it to the terrarium. Even beautiful natural sands can contain unseen elements that must be rinsed out first.

How Much Sand Should You Put in a Terrarium?

When adding sand to a terrarium, you generally don’t want to use a deep layer. Here are some guidelines on depth:

  • For a desert or beach-themed terrarium, 1-2 inches of sand is sufficient. This prevents excessive weight gain.
  • In more mixed landscapes, use sand only in areas where you want sandy highlights.
  • Limit sand to a 1/2-inch depth when combined with other substrates like soil.
  • If planting directly in sand, don’t exceed 1 inch of of depth for most plants.
  • Avoid filling the entire terrarium base with more than 1 inch of sand.
  • Add multiple shallow layers of sand instead of one deep layer for drainage.
  • Slope sand depths to create dunes and dimension.
  • For very small terrariums under 1 gallon, use less than 1/2 inch of of sand.

The key is using sand as an accent rather than the sole substrate. Mix it with soils, mosses, gravels, etc. to create a natural look without overdoing the sand.

How to Layer Sand with Other Terrarium Substrates

While sand makes an attractive top dressing, it lacks the nutrients most plants need. Pairing it with other substrates can provide for healthy plant growth.

Here are some effective layered substrate combinations:

  • Drainage layer: Add a thin layer of gravel, pebbles, or leca clay pebbles. Top with 1-2 inches of sand.
  • Soil base: Fill the bottom 1/3 of the terrarium with potting mix. Cover with 1/2 inch of sand.
  • Mossy dunes: Cover the base with sheet moss or moss mix. Mound sand over moss to mimic desert dunes.
  • Planted desert: Fill the base halfway with cactus or succulent soil. Cover the the back half with 1 inch of sand. Plant succulents in the soil, leaving the sand bare.
  • Beach scene: Use coconut coir or soil as the base layer. Cover 50–75% with coarse sand for “beach”.
  • Coastal terrarium: Create a “coastline” with sand transitioning from soil to moss.

Get creative with substrates. Mix sand, gravel, rock, soil, and moss to design custom landscapes. Just ensure at least some nutrient-rich soil for plants.

How to Plant in Sand

While sand provides great drainage, it lacks the organic matter that helps “anchor” plant roots. Use these tips for planting in sand substrates:

  • Stabilize small plants by pressing around the roots. Firm pressure secures plants until they are established.
  • Partially bury rocks around plants to provide stability and mimic natural landscapes.
  • Water plants immediately after planting to settle roots into the sand.
  • For height, plant taller backdrop plants in the soil first. Add lower foreground plants in sand later.
  • Select drought- and heat-tolerant plants that appreciate sharp drainage, like cacti, aloe, sedum, hens-and-chicks, etc. Avoid moss.
  • When mixing sand and soil substrates, plant moisture-loving varieties like ferns and pilea in the soil areas.
  • If planting directly in sand, add a thin layer (1/4 inch) of coconut coir on top to retain a little moisture.

Take care when planting delicate plants or seedlings directly into the sand. Anchor them well and provide supplemental water until they are established.

How to Make Sandy Soil for Terrariums

To get the Look of sand with the plant friendliness of soil, you can create custom sandy soil mixes. Here are two methods:

Amend potting mix: Combine 2 parts potting soil with 1 part sand. For more drainage, use equal parts soil and sand. Mix thoroughly to integrate.

Make your own mix. Combine 2 parts sand with 1 part coco coir or peat moss for moisture retention. Add 1 part perlite or pumice for drainage. Mix in organic compost for nutrients.

This sandy soil will hold some water while still providing the great drainage that sand offers. It supports plant growth better than pure sand.

What Plants Grow Well in Sandy Terrarium Soil?

Many plants thrive in sandy soils. Try some of these varieties:

Succulents: Aloe, echeveria, sedum, sempervivum, cacti

Xeric plants: Lithops, ti plants, snake plants, zz plants

Ornamental grasses: Isolepis, hairgrass, mini mondo grass

Bulbs: Oxalis, crocus, grape hyacinth, lachenalia

Annuals: Petunia, verbena, portulaca, gaillardia

Herbs: Thyme, oregano, lavender, rosemary

Shrubs: Cotoneaster, heath, heather

Groundcovers: Lotus, dwarf sagina, Irish moss, pennywort

Mix heights, colors, and textures when selecting plants for sandy soil. Contrast fine succulent rosettes with wispy grasses for interest.

Should you put plants or decorations in the sand?

Sand can serve as more than just a backdrop. Consider integrating plants, rocks, wood, and other decorative elements directly into the sandy areas.

Here are some ways to incorporate decor:

  • Succulents, like lithops, naturally bury themselves flush with sandy surfaces.
  • Let trailing succulent cuttings root directly in the sand. Their tendrils drape attractively.
  • Tuck individual mosses and lichen-covered stones into the sand.
  • Partially bury pieces of weathered, porous wood or sea glass.
  • Push the ends of twigs or branches into the sand to resemble driftwood.
  • Scatter small pea gravel, crushed shells,,, or terracotta shards across the sand.
  • Allow groundcover leaf tips or cactus pads to peek out from the sand.

Blending decor into a sand substrate adds realism and visual interest. But leave some areas open, like small beaches,” to showcase the sand on its own.

How to Clean and Change Sand in an Established Terrarium

Over time, terrarium sand can become dirty. Drainage may worsen as sand compacts. Eventually, you may need to refresh the sand. Here’s how:

  • Remove all plants and decorations. Retain any moss or soil layers.
  • Scoop out the old sand into a bucket. Dump outdoors.
  • Rinse out the terrarium to remove dust and residue.
  • Cover the bottom layers with new, clean sand. Slope and shape as desired.
  • Before returning plants, trim roots and wash off old sand.
  • Replant specimens in their their their original positions to maintain growth.
  • Topdressth a thin layer of fresh sand or gravel.
  • Water well and allow it it it it to settle for a few days before fully redecorating.

With fresh sand, the terrarium will look like new. Follow the same steps to fully change sand colors or substrates.

While sand offers many benefits in terrariums, it can also lead to a few problems if improperly used. Here are some troubleshooting tips:

  • Poor drainage or or or or compaction: loosen the the the the sand gently with a chopstick. Add a shallow layer of pebbles.
  • White mineral deposits: remove the the the the affected sand. Avoid calcium-based sandistilled water may help.
  • Clumping or muddiness: Replace overly fine sand with coarser grade. Allow it to fully dry between waterings.
  • Staining from colored sand: Remove colored sand immediately. Wipe the glass with vinegar or lemon juice to remove stains.
  • Sandy residue on glass: scrub glass with an algae sponge and water weekly. Avoid over-watering.
  • Erosion around plants: Add pebbles or rocks to hold sand in place. Cover exposed areas with moss or organic mulch.
  • Lack of plant growth: Supplement with liquid fertilizer. Add a thin layer of compost or worm castings under the sand.

With close observation, you can resolve most common sand issues easily. Adjust watering, stabilize plants, and amend sand as needed.

Creative Sand Terrarium Designs to Inspire You

Sand provides so many possibilities for crafting unique terrarium landscapes! Here are some creative ideas to try:

  • Desert scene with cacti, agave, yucca, and aloe surrounded by sweeping dunes
  • Miniature Zen garden with raked waves and patterns in fine white sand.
  • mixed-height cactus garden against a red Monument Valley-esque sand backdrop.
  • Contrasting layers of black, white, and red sands in undulating natural patterns
  • Tiny beach with real shells, coconut fiber “seaweed”, and miniature toy beach chairs and umbrellas.
  • Coastline terrarium with sand transitioning from soil to moss to mimic the seashore
  • and riverbed,” winding through pebbles and stones to a lush forested area.
  • Sand and moss “bonsai” dioramas with miniature raked textures
  • Tiny shipping container “deserted island” terrarium surrounded by blue sand and palm trees

There are so many ways to incorporate sand creatively. Let your imagination wander and have fun crafting scenic, sandy landscapes.

Sand can bring striking textures, colors, and themes to terrarium buildings. With its excellent drainage and moldability, sand opens up diverse possibilities. Just follow the basic guidelines to choose the proper sand substrate and layer it thoughtfully. Mix sand with other elements like soil, moss,, and rock to create miniature worlds. Whether crafting deserts, beaches, or something entirely unique, sand is a wonderful terrarium addition. Turn your glass container into a sandbox of imaginative possibilities.


What is the best sand for succulent terrariums?

For succulents, use a coarse-grained sand like horticultural sand or builders sand. Avoid fine sands that retain too much moisture. Colored and calcium sands also aren’t ideal.

Can I use play sand in a terrarium?

Avoid play sand, as it is often too dusty. The fine grains compact down over time. Opt for a sand labeled specifically for horticultural use instead.

Should I put gravel under sand in a terrarium?

Adding a thin gravel layer beneath sand can improve drainage. But sand alone usually provides enough drainage for most terrarium plants.

How often do I need to change out the sand in a terrarium?

Plan to fully replace the sand every 2-3 years. Spot clean debris and algae as needed between changes. Adding a fresh 1/2 inch layer yearly can also refresh things.

Is beach sand good for terrariums?

Beach sand works well aesthetically but does require thorough rinsing to remove salt and other contaminants before use in an enclosed terrarium.

Can sand go bad or expire?

Sand itself doesn’t really expire, but over time it can accumulate mineral deposits, salt buildup, and rancid organic matter if used in a terrarium. Replace if drainage seems poor.

What color sand looks most natural in a terrarium?

For a natural look, tan, brown, and grey sand colors blend in well. White sands also resemble beaches nicely. Use brightly colored sands sparingly as accents.

Why is there fuzz growing on my terrarium sand?

This is likely harmless aerobic mold that can grow on damp surfaces. Remove the affected sand and improve air circulation. Allow the sand to dry out more between waterings.

Should I fertilize my plants if I’m using sand as the substrate?

Yes, supplement with a diluted liquid fertilizer. Sand provides excellent drainage but no nutrients. Adding thin layers of compost or worm castings can also help nourish plants.

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