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How to create a terrarium (or vivarium or self-contained bottle garden). A science experiment that creates a self-sustainable ecosystem.

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Making a terrarium, a self-sustainable ecosystem with a living, growing plant inside a sealed bottle, is a pretty easy project and the plant growing inside can survive for decades without any watering or other care.  Here’s how you can build a terrarium on your own.

How to make a terrarium, vivarium, or garden in a bottle

  1. First, find a suitable sealed glass bottle or jar. A bottle with a wide mouth will be much easier to work with. Make sure the bottle has a lid or cork which can be sealed tightly.
  2. Fill the bottom of the bottle with pebbles. You need at least enough pebbles to cover the bottom of the bottle but can add more if the bottle is taller. Try to fill about 1/5 of the bottle with pebbles. The pebbles will provide a space for water to collect in. Colorful, polished, pretty pebbles can be purchased at a pet store (they use them in fish aquariums).
  3. Terrarium, vivarium, or garden in a bottleCover the pebbles with a thin layer of activated charcoal. You can usually find activated charcoal at a pet store. The charcoal will filter impurities out of the water and will serve to keep the terrarium clean.
  4. Add a ½ inch layer of peat moss (a type of very nutritious soil) on top of the activated charcoal. The peat moss will hold water and nutrients that the plant needs to grow.
  5. Add a ½ inch layer of potting soil on top of the peat moss. This is the dirt that our plant will stake its roots into.
  6. Take a piece of moss, with some soil still covering its roots, and carefully place it on top of the soil in your bottle. If the mouth of the bottle is too small to reach into, use tweezers, chop sticks, a Popsicle stick, or some other means (Geek Slop uses a well-behaved, specially trained ant who is very good at following directions) to lower the plant down into the bottle. Spray a bit of water on it – by now it’s probably pretty thirsty. You can collect moss from outside. Look for it in places that have just a little bit of sunlight shining on them. Dig up a small moss patch and place it inside a plastic bag or sealed plastic container so it does not dry out before you can plant it.
  7. Before placing the lid/cork on the bottle, clean the inner glass so it’s easy to see through. You can attach a cotton ball or small piece of cloth to a stick that you can reach down into the bottle to clean the bottle’s sides.
  8. Place the lid on the bottle and seal it up tight!

Finally, place the bottle in a fairly sunny spot. The moss will need sunlight to grow but not as much as some plants. If there is too much sunlight shining on your terrarium, it will tend to dry out. Not enough sunlight and the plant will not live. Somewhere around a window, but not directly in the sunlight, will work best.

If the inside of the bottle seems to be too wet, leave the lid off for a day or two to let it dry out. Similarly, if it seems to dry, remove the lid and add just a tiny amount of water to the terrarium.

Addition information about the How to create a terrarium experiment

The “gap of air” in the bottle should be about 2/3 of the available space. That means 1/3 of the height of the bottle should be filled with pebbles and soil and about 2/3 of the height of the bottle should be empty space for the plant to grow into.

Sometimes moss and soil can have bugs or bug eggs in it which you might notice after the bottle is sealed. Be nice and let the little critters out.

Check out this story about a guy that created a terrarium that has not been watered in over 40 years and how photosynthesis works in a terrarium.

Components of a Terrarium or Vivarium

A terrarium or vivarium consists of several key components. These components work together to create a self-sustaining ecosystem that mimics the natural environment of the plants and animals being housed.

  • Container: The container is the vessel that holds the ecosystem. It can be made of glass, plastic, or any other transparent material that allows light to pass through. Depending on the size of the container, it can be placed on a table, shelf, or windowsill.
  • Substrate: The substrate is the material that lines the bottom of the container. It is typically made of soil, sand, or gravel and serves as a foundation for plants to grow. The substrate also helps to absorb excess water and provides a nutrient source for the plants.
  • Plants: Plants are an essential component of a terrarium or vivarium. They provide oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, and help regulate humidity levels. The types of plants that can be housed in a terrarium or vivarium vary depending on the size of the container and the type of environment being created. Some popular plants for terrariums include ferns, mosses, and succulents.
  • Animals: Some terrariums or vivariums are designed to house small animals such as reptiles, amphibians, or insects. These animals help to create a natural ecosystem by contributing to the nutrient cycle and providing a food source for other organisms. The type of animals that can be housed in a terrarium or vivarium depends on the size of the container and the type of environment being created.
  • Lighting: Lighting is crucial for the growth of plants and the health of animals in a terrarium or vivarium. It is important to choose the right type and intensity of lighting for the specific plants and animals being housed. Some terrariums may require full-spectrum lighting, while others may do well with natural light.
  • Heating and Humidity: Depending on the type of plants and animals being housed, it may be necessary to regulate the temperature and humidity levels inside the container. This can be done using heaters, fans, and misters. The ideal temperature and humidity levels depend on the type of plants and animals being housed.

How a Terrarium or Vivarium Works

A terrarium or vivarium is a self-contained ecosystem that mimics the natural environment of the plants and animals being housed. The plants produce oxygen through photosynthesis, while the animals consume oxygen and produce carbon dioxide.

The substrate serves as a nutrient source for the plants and helps to absorb excess water. In turn, the plants help to regulate the humidity levels inside the container.

If animals are present, they contribute to the nutrient cycle by producing waste, which is broken down by bacteria and fungi in the substrate. This waste provides nutrients for the plants and other organisms living in the ecosystem. With the right components and care, a terrarium or vivarium can thrive for years, providing a beautiful and natural addition to any space.

Required supplies for the How to create a terrarium experiment

Supplies: Glass bottle, pebbles, activated charcoal, peat moss, potting soil, moss

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