help! my terrarium is dying


Those of you with chronically black thumbs will sympathize with my plight. The rest of you are going to wonder what in the world is wrong with me. A few months ago – right before Christmas, in fact – I heard about a terrarium workshop happening at a beautiful local nursery. While I’ve never once managed to make it past the two month mark with a plant, I decided if ever there was a chance, it was with a plant that only had to be watered once every few months (hurray for succulents!). Plus, I am an utter sucker for those adorably tiny little terrariums – they’re so cheek-squeezably cute, and they look so calming. So, I went to the workshop, I built my lovely little terrarium, and I was so proud.

Fast forward to a few days ago, when I was checking in on my little project, and – predictably – it’s now showing signs of serious discontent. Several of its tiny green leaves have shriveled and turned black, and the rest of them just look sad. Normally, this is where I’d start frantically watering, and the plant would then die of root rot. But instead, readers, I ask you: any tips on saving this little plant from what is an almost certain death if I’m left to my own devices? –Becki S.

From our partners

Looks like a succulent plant, which would not like the higher humidity of a terrarium. Best would be to take it out and replace with one that likes the humidity — mini-begonia/african violet/fern…


I have been scared of terrariums because they look like more care than typical plants.

That said, I am actually pretty lucky plant owner and despite no knowledge , what I would do (my own somewhat more successful version of your own typical root rot go to) is to ignore it.

Pinch of the dead looking leaves, if it seems dry give it a good soak (once!), check the lighting conditions to make sure nothing has changed since you put it there (suddenly lots more light during longer days?) Then ignore it for say 10-15 days.

If I were not lazy I would actually check up on the particular plant species and see what it likes. Lucky for you, presumably the host of the workshop probably has some insight.

I am not an expert by far, but if you’re growing succulents in a terrarium, you need to treat them like a cactus garden.

Did you use cactus soil? (has a LOT more sand in it) Is there a layer of charcoal under the soil and above the drainage rocks/gravel to filter out impurities and prevent damping off? Most succulents need bright light or they will be spindly. The top should not be covered like you would with a woodland terrarium.

And since you don’t see too many succulents growing in the forest, I would get rid of the mosses and cover the soil with some attractive ornamental sands or stones.

I can’t tell what kind of plants you have in there, but my bet is that you have your succulents mixed with woodland plants. They really need two different environments.

And while succulents don’t need constant water, they definitely need it more often than every other month! Just don’t let them sit in wetness. :-)

you know, my succulents behave similarly in the winter. i wonder if perhaps it’s a hibernation thing … they shed the bottom leaves and keep the top ones? i do have some new growth sprouting from a few of the scars where the old leaves were attached, so dont give up hope. i would NOT however, soak the plant heavily.


I’d go back to the nursery where you took the class, bring the terrarium with you, and ask for some advice.

In my experience, the solution has always been LIGHT LIGHT LIGHT. I thought my terrarium babies were getting enough light, but they weren’t doing so hot, so i turned to water/less water depending on the plans. No luck.

Then, I read an article about what can happen to them when its too dim (this time of year or generally always for my north facing seattle house), and so I moved them all to a window sill and now, every body is happy! These plants are very drought tolerant, so just be careful you aren’t watering them too much and give them a little of that UV we all crave so much. :)

Sorry about your terrarium. Sprout is right on the money with this.

The succulent is very unhappy with the moss and is dying because it is too moist. It also looks like it is not getting enough light.

The moss likes low light and moisture and the succulent likes bright light and dryness.

I would start over with this one and throw out the old soil. Use a cactus soil or mix 1 part sand with 2 parts regular soil.

Good luck, and don’t give up.

thanks SO much, all! i do see the teensiest little new leaf sprouting at the top now, so i’m going to go with rebecca’s hibernation theory for the moment. i won’t give up if you won’t!

Megan B

A gifted mature succulent of mine was having similar troubles after arriving in our house. I trimmed back all of the dead stuff, loosened the soil in the pot, and gave it a good watering, along with moving it to a window sill. It was looking shabby as hell, even on Friday when I last looked at it — but with the advent of Spring — NEW GROWTH, like, a ton. Amazing.