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Dish Gardens and Terrariums

Homeowners can use terrariums and dishes to hold and display miniature gardens for indoors. The type of container, combined with your control of the watering schedule, lets you grow a variety of plants that may not be suited to your outdoor environment.

You will want to use small plants—those that can be found in two to three inch pots at nurseries or garden centers. In some cases, you can also use cuttings. When you choose plants, make sure they share the same watering and light requirements.

Dish Gardens

Dish gardens are plantings held in a shallow, open container. If creating drainage holes in the bottom of the container is not possible, add a layer of gravel to the bottom. Make sure to lay a screen over the gravel (weed cloth, synthetic fabric, window screen) to keep soil from settling into the gravel and destroying the drainage ability.

Fill the dish with potting soil, then add the plants. Place them at the same level in the soil they were in their original containers.

Find a location that provides suitable light for the plants and water according to the plants’ needs. Prune plants if they grow too tall.

Water Garden

You can make a “water garden” with aquatic plants or foliage plants—many can be grown without soil. Rinse any soil off the roots of the plants you want to use and trim off any dead or damaged roots and leaves. Fill the containers with gravel or decorative stones and place the plants, or cuttings, in the container so that the roots are just below the top of the container.

Mix water and a soluble fertilizer at ¼ of the recommended rate. Use this solution to fill the dish and water as needed. Change the solution in the dish every six weeks.


A terrarium is a collection of plants grown in a closed, clear container. You can buy a terrarium or use a fish bowl, aquarium, or large bottle.

Like the dish garden, line the bottom of the container with gravel, covered with a screen material to keep the soil from settling into the gravel layer. Fill 1/5 of the container with potting soil, then add your plants. Choose the smallest plants available.

A common mistake is to crowd plants. Use only a few—they will grow to fill the container.

If the opening to the container is narrow, you can use tweezers to place plants in the container. You can also add accents such as driftwood, stones, or figurines in the container.

Avoid placing the terrarium in direct sun, since it will heat up the terrarium and burn the plants. Place it in bright, indirect light.

Only water enough to moisten the soil, and only water when the soil is almost dry, since too much water will rot and kill the plant roots. Terrariums are a closed system and will only need to be watered about once or twice a year.

If too much condensation builds up in the container, remove the lid until it evaporates, then replace the lid.

Pruning can help keep plants from outgrowing the containers.

Choosing Plants

Try playing with plant selection and arrangements for a variety of gardens. You can use rooted plants and unrooted cuttings. Foliage, tropical, succulent, and other container suitable plants can all be used. Best choices will include those with dwarf growing habits or those that can easily be controlled with pruning.

For plant compatibility in light and water needs, select plants that would be found together in the natural environment. Select along habitat themes, such as desert, herb, woodland, tropical, or any others you can think of. (Keep in mind that succulents require more water than cactuses, so mixing them in a “desert garden” is not recommended.)

For planting ideas and care tips, contact your local Extension agent.

Adapted and excerpted from:

K. Ruppert, et al, Plants and Youth: Designing and Building a Terrarium (ENH121), Environmental Horticulture Department (rev. 11/2010).

K. Ruppert, et al, Plants and Youth: Creating Dish Gardens and Windowsill Desert and Water Gardens (ENH122), Environmental Horticulture Department (rev. 11/2010).

B. Tjia, R. Black, Terrariums (ENH39), Environmental Horticulture Department (rev. 10/2003).

cacti dish garden

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