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How to Start a Terrarium Garden for Survival

photo: modified under CC 2.0 license, made by Michael McCauslin via Flickr.com

When you begin prepping, you soon find out the importance of growing your own food. This alone takes a lifetime to master, and you will never ‘perfect’ this craft. It’s a growing experience just as much as the plants growing in your garden. One technique for growing that a lot of people don’t know about are terrarium gardens. These are basically an enclosed self-sustaining ecosystem that is portable and capable of growing most plants.

These gardens have been in practice for quite a long time, but their popularity has only been recent due to the internet being able to spread the word. The first terrarium was “discovered” by botanist Nathaniel Ward from England in 1842. He was experimenting with saving and observing bugs in glass jars when he noticed that a fern had grown in one that had been neglected. This neglect was the birth of the terrarium, and gave Nathaniel the opportunity to send and receive plants from all over the world.

How does this relate to prepping, though? Well, with a terrarium you will find that you create your own ecosystem, and this brings many advantages to growing your own produce and herbs. With advantages, you have disadvantages as well, and we will be addressing these later in the article. The most relevant quality to prepping, though, is the ability to grow just about anything anywhere, and to take it with you in your vehicle while you’re bugging out.

How to Make a Terrarium Garden

There are many ways you can create a one, and your imagination can lead to some fascinating designs. With that being said, there are some rules that you will need to follow for your terrarium to be successful.

First, you need a clear container. Depending on what you are growing, you will need a lid to seal the container with as well.(We will get into the differences of closed and opened terrariums in a moment.) Many people use vases, carboys(5-gallon jug made of glass), or even aquariums. You may have noticed a common theme already; these need to be clear glass or plastic. It has to be clear to let in sunlight and create the ideal conditions inside your terrarium.

The difference between an open and closed terrarium isn’t much. The main reason you would want to close it as opposed to keeping it open rest entirely on what you are growing. An open terrarium will let out humidity and make it capable of growing things that don’t require so much heat and humidity. While the closed one it’s best to think of like a mini rain forest, and should only be used to grow plants that require these climate conditions.

If you have built an aquarium before, you can quickly create your own terrarium. You have already done it before, just make a top to seal it – if you need one – and you are ready. Most of them are bought, though, but you don’t have to fork out big bucks on specialized terrariums. All you need is a clear container. Spare 5-gallon water jugs, garage sales, and old glassware can get you started for free or relatively cheap. Some people have even used simple glasses for drinking to make a terrarium. Keep it simple and ensure it’s clear and you will have more money to spend on what matters.

Setting up One

So you have picked out your container, now what? Well, you can’t just throw some tomato seeds in an empty container and hope it grows. We need to build our substrate first so our seeds can germinate and thrive in our tiny ecosystem. Just like in the wild, this needs to be done in layers; although we will make the layers in such a way to ensure successful germination, growth, and continuation of the life cycle that keeps a thriving ecosystem turning.

The first layer needs to be something that will allow the excess water to drain through. This can be pebbles or sand. Do not use beach sand, as this can introduce harmful bacteria, parasites, and the salt content can kill your plants.

Your second layer needs to be a thin layer of charcoal. This will ensure that any harmful gasses from the decomposition process are filtered, and the air inside is kept as clean as possible. This is one of the most important steps in building a successful terrarium.

Your third layer needs to be something that will keep your soil from draining through to the bottom. Most mosses work well. You can also use cardboard if you are in a dire situation. This layer needs to be monitored as you don’t want your top soil to drain to the bottom.

Lastly, your top soil. The best soil is loose, dark, and holds moisture. If you can’t get your hands on soil like this, then any soil that you know will grow should work, because your terrarium is a tiny ecosystem, and most ecosystems naturally mend the soil in time. To speed this up you may want to add plant clippings sparingly to the top soil, and if possible, work it into the soil a little bit.

Growing in One

Now you are ready to plant your seeds. One thing to keep in mind before planting is how much sunlight your terrarium is getting. You will want to make sure that it’s getting indirect and not direct sunlight. Even for tropical plants, direct sunlight is usually too much for a terrarium. It’s a good idea to monitor your terrarium daily and make small adjustments as you see fit. If you see wilting of any kind, move the terrarium away from the light source.

Some people grow their terrariums under grow lights. So if you are one of those preppers(I know you are out there), then you can have terrariums in your basement or apartment garden as well. Just like before, monitor them daily as too much light in these things can cause too much heat and humidity and therefore kill your plants.

You will find some plants grow easier than others in this type of environment; mainly due to confined space. With selective pruning and the right amount of space, you can grow most things, though. Herbs like thyme, oregano, and mint tend to do very well in terrariums. But most of your favorite herbs can be grown in one. The key factor is creating the right conditions for the plant to thrive. So if you are having trouble with a particular herb, find out its ideal conditions, and you may discover that you are watering too much or too little, or what is usually the case, it is getting too hot and needs to be moved.

Tomatoes are always a favorite resident in the garden, and the same holds true for terrariums. These hearty plants tend to do very well in these small ecosystems so don’t hesitate to create one for your favorite varieties of tomatoes.

A great way to maximize your potential is companion planting as well. This is generally done to keep away pest – which shouldn’t be a problem because you have near complete control of the environment – but there is more that goes on in these relationships. For instance, a lot of gardeners grow leafy lettuce varieties near their tomatoes, so when the old leaves die and fall off, they create a mulch around the tomato plant.

It is also possible to grow some of the smaller varieties of fruits. It’s important to note that most of these will need their own terrarium, and they will most likely need an open lid to be successful. The smaller figs, grapes, and berries have been successful in terrariums.

We can’t forget about our leafy greens, though. These are essential for any garden because nearly all of these are packed full of vital nutrients. Things like spinach, for example, are packed with vitamin A, B, and C; as well as magnesium. These plants are also a great source of dietary fiber; essential for a healthy digestive system.

As stated before, it is best to experiment with location and lighting to get the most out of your terrarium. Because these are mini ecosystems the changes happen fast and you will notice when things are going south. As long as you are monitoring your terrariums, and you have built your substrate properly, you will be successful. You won’t be as successful neglecting your terrariums like Nathaniel was.

It’s important to remember that with terrariums water goes a long way. These don’t require much water to be successful, and it is very easy to over water them. Remember that some plants don’t need much water, and you could potentially drown them out and kill them if you’re not careful.

What These Mean for Preppers

Disadvantages that come with a terrarium are few, but they are worth noting before you dive head first into terrarium gardening. The most obvious one is the limited space. With these, you are limited to how much you can grow in one terrarium, and if you want many plants, you will have to have many terrariums.

The following disadvantage is care and maintenance. This is an advantage as well, but a lot of beginners will devote too much time and resources on these. As stated, they are self-contained ecosystems, so they don’t require much care at all, and too much attention can be detrimental to its success. Moderation is the key with terrariums; a little bit of water here and there, small adjustments in placement, introducing new plants slowly, and some indirect sunlight and you shouldn’t have many problems.

Advantages for preppers far out way the disadvantages, though. For one, you can grow just about anything in the safety of your home, and away from prying eyes. This is invaluable in a SHTF scenario. You will always have plants in a safe location capable of providing you nutrients and seeds for continuing your garden.

The last advantage we will touch up on is its portability. This is the only way you can safely transport plants over long distances besides seeds. As long as you keep the ecosystem thriving, you can transport your plants anywhere in the world without worry. This alone makes it a worthy investment – of time or money – for any prepper looking for ways to be able to transport their garden in a SHTF situation.

These clear containers have been used for centuries to transport plants across continents and vast oceans. They have been a staple in Victorian societies as talking points and to show off exotic species that would otherwise die in their climate. What a lot of people didn’t realize till now is their potential for preppers and how perfect they are for preserving essential plants if the SHTF.

So whether you are a beginner gardener, seasoned horticulturist, or die-hard prepper; there are advantages for everyone with these beautiful mini ecosystems. The only thing limiting their potential is your imagination.

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About Dan F. Sullivan

My dad was military. My grandfather was a cop. They served their country well. But I don't like taking orders. I'm taking matters into my own hands so I'm not just preparing, I'm going to a friggin' war to provide you the best of the best survival and preparedness content out there.

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