People really love the look of small plants in terrariums. It's a great way to brighten up a room or your cube at work. Here are instructions and suggestions for creating your own fascinating landscape.
- Miniature orchid - pictured above, a Dracula lotax orchid
- Glass Terrarium
- A short stand for the orchid pot to sit on, and a zip tie
- A bag of moss and lichen from local nursery
Notes about the Materials
Obviously, the first thing you’re going to want is a suitable miniature orchid. For the size terrariums I make, a miniature orchid is best. If you live in a city, check your local nursery or find a local orchid seller. Another great place to find miniature orchids is on eBay. I literally do an eBay search on “miniature orchid” and look for something interesting. You’ll want to do a quick Google search to make sure that what you’re looking at enjoys humidity. I look for something with a 1.5 to 2 inch pot, and also make sure that it doesn't have a creeping habit.
Here are some examples: Dracula lotax, Restrepia trichoglossa, Psygmorchis pusilla, Angraecum didieri, Aerangis luteo-alba, Dendrobium (Dockrillia) wassellii, Neofinetia falcata, Bulbophyllum sikkimense, and the rather unusual Masdevallia erinacea. I also really love a nice Ludisia discolor “jewel orchid”.
Glass terrariums can often be found for a dollar at thrift stores and garage sales. Our local nursery carries a small number of them, so that’s probably another good source.
I use a short stand so that the bottom of the orchid pot is kept out of any water that will pool at the bottom of the vivarium. In this case, I’m using a disposable plastic drink cup lid with the rim cut off.
Rocks and moss: If you have a back yard, you probably have rocks. Give them scrubbing before you use them. For moss, you may be tempted to go out in your back yard and grab some moss, a pinecone, or some handsome chestnut husks for your vivarium. Don’t. There may be some unwanted critters crawling around in that stuff. I did that once, and a few days later found a beetle crawling around on my thirty dollar orchid.
How to Assemble
Clean the glass. This is the last time you’ll have easy access to cleaning all surfaces, so give it a good go. If your terrarium was obviously used for a plant in the past, wash it out with a little bleach to kill any nasties that may be hanging out in spore, egg, or seed form. When rinsing, keep in mind the native habitat of orchids - hanging off the side of trees and watered only with rainwater - and make sure to rinse all the chemicals and soap out of the glass.
The orchid pot is best left as is. It will most likely be mesh, or have large holes in the sides. Orchids are usually potted in bark pieces with some charcoal bits. Your orchid (especially if it is an expensive and rare one) was probably potted by somebody who grows them for a living and thus knows how to pot an orchid. So I almost always leave it in the pot, because I don’t end up seeing it once the vivarium is done.
Fasten the orchid pot to the stand. This isn’t 100% necessary, but I’ve found that during the process of building and adjusting a terrarium like this, it really saves trouble. Make sure to attach it off-center. A zip tie does the job and won’t corrode or rot away.
Carefully place the orchid, pot, and stand in the glass. For a more natural look, do that off-center. Then put some rocks in there to line the bottom. I put rocks in for a couple of reasons. First, they’re decorative. They’re also going to keep the orchid pot in place while we arrange other things.
You might be tempted to stop here. The orchid looks good with the rocks. But we should press on. My (admittedly informal) experience here is that we need to add the moss to get the kind of humidity we want in our vivarium. I’m going to put my junior physicist hat on and declare that it has to do with the moss being damp and having a greater surface area for moisture exchange with the air. But I don’t know, really. I do know that the orchids I arrange this way end up being happier months down the line. So moss and lichen, here we come.
You can pull the moss into clumps to make for easy arranging. Imagine yourself to be a landscape architect. If you’re inclined to do so, think about Feng Shui and picture the energy flow in your terrarium. You can get moss and lichen with different colors and shapes to create variety in your arrangement. Use rocks with different sizes, colors and shapes to create interest. Think about whether you want your landscape to be flat, or if you want it to slope. I try to slope mine a bit. Things look more natural when arranged off-center, without symmetry, and in odd numbers.
Long term care
Time - Dave’s first general rule of terrariums and aquariums states that an artificial landscape will look much better in several months. The reward for attention is delight.
Light - You’ll want to find out how much light your orchid wants. In any case, you don’t want to put a vivarium in direct sunlight. Since it’s in an enclosed glass environment, it will heat up and cook your plant.
Moisture - Orchids tend to like it humid. You’ll want to find out how wet they like things. Some orchids do not like to dry out. Others just want good humidity. As mentioned above, the natural environment of orchids means that they get their moisture in the form of rainwater and natural humidity in the air. Orchid growers recommend using distilled water for many varieties. At the very least, you’ll want to use filtered water.
I keep a spray bottle that is only for watering plants and spray the orchids according to how much it seems like they need. Here’s how I figure that out: The rule of thumb is that if there is a little condensation forming on the inside of the glass, then you’re on the edge of getting a little too wet. When I’m “getting to know” how much water a particular orchid needs, I’ll give it a couple of sprays every three days until I hit that condensation point. Then I just sort of watch it. With some attention and practice, you’ll get the hang of where too dry and too wet are.
General Advice - As your propensity fiddle with an item in pursuit of perfection nears infinity, so do your chances of killing the orchid. I do my very best not to fiddle with a plant unless it’s obviously in distress. When I make changes to the environment of a plant in a vivarium, I try to make the changes gradual. By gradual, I mean stretched over the course of months with observations about how the plant seems to be doing. Signs of success: a nice green healthy glow, new growth, and the desire of orchid-growers everywhere: blooms.
Blooming - Look online for advice on how to get your variety of orchid to bloom. Many have temperature and/or light requirements. Others (like Restrepia trichoglossa) will get a bloom on with more ease.
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