Growing House Plants in a Bottle Garden

Growing House Plants in a Bottle Garden

As with bottles containing model ships (which are inserted flat, then pulled upright with a string), there are ‘tricks’ to making bottle gardens. Unlike model ships, which stay the same size forever, plants in a bottle can double or triple in size, adding to the fascination. Planting a bottle garden is a delightful way to introduce children to the pleasures of house plants, and an enjoyable challenge for adults.

planting a bottle garden

Bottle gardens vs terrariums

Both bottle gardens and terrariums work on the idea of an enclosed space, from which water cannot escape. The water gets taken up by plants’ roots, is released into the air during transpiration, condenses down into the potting mixture, and the cycle begins again. One ‘perk’ is a continually damp atmosphere, ideal for thin-leaved and tropical plants.

Choosing bottles

  • Traditional carboys, with clear or pale green glass, come in many sizes. Avoid strongly tinted glass, which reduces the light reaching plants, and prevents you seeing inside.
  • Plastic containers, such as empty sweet jars, can be used, but they scratch easily and may discolour or crack. Water sticks to plastic more than to glass, so the inside is liable to be obscured by condensation.
  • The width of the opening is a matter of common sense. You could drop a seed through the narrow neck of a vinegar cruet partly filled with potting mixture, but an opening less than 5cm (2 inches) wide is a definite challenge! Young children who get easily frustrated may find planting up wide-necked bottles, such as mayonnaise jars, easier.
  • Lastly, if you want to plant up a bottle garden on its side, choose a square-sided bottle.

Planting a bottle garden

  1. Work out a planting scheme first, using a piece of paper with the base of the bottle traced on it. Keep short, creeping plants to the front, and tall plants to the back.
  2. Leave space for growth between the plants, but try to group plants, rather than spacing them evenly apart. A small bottle holds one plant; a large carboy, six to eight plants.
  3. Start with a bottle that is clean and dry inside, otherwise the potting mixture may stick to the sides.
  4. Roll up stiff paper to make a cone funnel, or insert a cardboard tube into the opening.
  5. Trickle in a 2.5-5cm (l-2 inches) layer of drainage material then add moist peat-based potting mixture, to make a layer 5-10cm (2-4 inches) thick.
  6. Scoop out planting holes using the spoon. Remove each plant from its pot, then wrap tightly in newspaper, easing the leaves and stems upwards.
  7. Lower into the bottle, and, still holding the newspaper, gently release the plant. (With a wide-necked bottle garden, simply lower the plants using a pair of bamboo tongs, or your hands!)
  8. Position the plant, using tongs, in its hole. Check that it’s upright, then draw the potting mixture over its roots and firm with cotton spool.
  9. Spray lightly, using a fine mist.
  10. Insert the stopper or lid.


If water condenses heavily on the sides of the bottle, remove the lid, wipe the sides dry with the sponge, then replace the lid. If the plants start to wilt, spray lightly with water. An open bottle garden may need regular, light spraying.

Prune plants that get too big, using the razor. Remove the prunings and any fallen leaves by spiking them on a stiff wire. Remove any plants that die immediately, using tongs. If grey mould appears, cut away and remove infected plant material, and spray the rest with fungicide. Remove any plants that show signs of disease—this will quickly spread to other plants.

Making equipment

You can buy special miniature tools for bottle gardens, but it’s easy and more economical to make them.

  • A kitchen fork can be tied to the end of a small cane or stiff wire.
  • A kitchen spoon makes a miniature spade.
  • A tiny sponge can clean the sides of a bottle.
  • A razor blade carefully wedged on a cane makes a pruning tool.
  • An empty cotton reel wedged on a cane can firm the potting mixture.

Choosing plants for bottle gardens

Slow-growing foliage plants and ferns that like high humidity and moderate light levels are best. Small-leaved plants help to create the feeling of a miniature landscape and, as in an ordinary garden, contrasting growth habits and leaf shapes and colours are attractive.

For best results, buy ‘tots’, tiny rooted plants in 4-5cm (1 ½ -2 inches) diameter pots – they’re cheap, most likely to fit through the bottle’s neck and they settle down quickly. If there is a lid on the bottle garden the plants must be able to thrive in high humidity; if they don’t, leave the lid off.

Plants to avoid

In narrow-necked bottle gardens, avoid flowering plants, such as African Violets. Once flowers fade, they quickly rot in the humid atmosphere, and it’s tedious trying to remove them. There are plenty of colourful foliage plants from which to choose.

Avoid plants like Mind-Your-Own-Business and fast-growing species of Selaginella, as they can quickly swamp their neighbours. Plants such as cacti and succulents that need a dry, well ventilated atmosphere, are also unsuitable for bottle gardens.

Plants for bottle gardens

  • Aluminium Plant (Pilect cadierei)
  • Arrowhead Vine (Syngonium podophyllum varieties)
  • Artillery Plant (Pilch microphylla)
  • Begonia (rex varieties)
  • Brake Fern (Pteris cretica varieties)
  • Button Fern (Pcilae)
  • Calathea (C. ornata)
  • Creeping Fig (Ficus manila minima)
  • Croton (Coclittenni variegation pienon varieties)
  • Earth Stars
  • Emerald Ripple (Peperomict cciperata)
  • Frosted Somerila (S. margaritacea)
  • Good Luck Plant (Cordvline termincilis)
  • Ivy (Hedera helix varieties)
  • Lady Fern (A thyriurn Felix-femina `Minutissima’)
  • Maidenhair Fern (Adianturn cciptlinsveneris)
  • Maidenhair Spleenwort (Aspienium trichornanes)
  • Mosaic Plant (Fittonia ctrgyroneura)
  • Moss Ferns (Selaginella species)
  • Mother of Thousands (Saxifraga)
  • Parlour Palm (Neanthe bella)
  • Peperomia (P. caperata)
  • Marantas, with their unusual foliage, are suitable plants for bottle gardens as they thrive in humid climates and draught-free conditions.
  • Polka Dot Plant
  • Prayer Plant (Marcintu leuconeura)
  • Ribbon Plant (Dracaena sanderana)
  • Stromanthe (S. canabilis)
  • Sweet Flag (Acorus grananeus variegatus)
  • Watermelon Peperomia (Peperomia argyreia)

Bottle gardens are an extension of the Wardian case.  The idea is the use of large acid or water bottles, known as carboys, for growing

bottle garden

plants arranged as small gardens. The bottle must be washed with strong detergent, rinsed well with clean water and allowed to dry thoroughly before planting. A soil mixture should be made, consisting of two parts loam, one part peat, and one part coarse sand, with a little charcoal added. It must be mixed well and placed in the bottom of the carboy by means of a funnel of thick paper. As the plants will not need to make much growth, no fertilizer is necessary. After the arrangement of the plants has been decided, they should be gently pressed through the neck of the bottle and allowed to fall on the soil beneath. The actual planting is best done with the aid of two smooth pieces of wood, 2 feet 6 inches long by 3/4 inch wide and 1/4 inch thick. A light watering through a long-spouted watering can will settle them in after planting. If the top is sealed no further watering will be required, if left open, watering will be required occasionally, but it must be done with

the greatest possible care. The bottle is an original feature of a room, and can be easily converted into a lamp.

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