How to Make a Self-Sustaining Ecosystem: 5 Steps and Ideas

A self-sustaining ecosystem is one where all the occupants (plants, animals, microorganisms etc.) can survive without the constant care of a person. Ideally, the only interventions from the outside would be light and the addition of extra water occasionally. Some of the simplest examples of self-sustaining ecosystems you can make are the self-sustaining plant terrarium or self-sustaining fish aquarium. However, making such an environment is both an art and a science. The creation requires your knowledge of biology and botany in a fair amount, patience, and a few tests and experiments. If you want to mimic the self-sustaining outdoor ecosystems that surround us, you need to work on different levels of ecology. Remember that a self-sustaining ecosystem works on a conservation basis: nothing goes in; nothing goes out. The second thing you need to remember is that the larger the ecosystem, the easier it becomes to maintain. If you would like to make your own self-sustainable ecosystem, consisting of either plants or fish, here are some of the main principles, steps to take, and ideas to try!

Step 1: Pick a Container

As we said, a small container does not allow the ecosystem to grow properly and the elements within interacting correctly with each other. You can start by using a medium/large container to create the ecosystem. Larger containers allow for the inclusion of multiple diverse species and give everything room to evolve naturally. Here are some things you need to know about containers:

  • No matter what type of self-sustainable ecosystem you want to build, you need to pick a clear container to let the light in. Usually, terrariums and aquariums use glass containers. If you want to step up your eco-game, you can look for a recycled glass container as well.
  • You can go for a small container if you want to experiment and see what works best for you. However, medium and large containers are the ones you should opt for. Keep in mind that the size can lead to significant expenses and some discomfort regarding the placement of the future ecosystem in your home.
  • No matter what type of self-sustainable ecosystem you want to build, make sure the container is free of any residue before using it as a terrarium or aquarium.

If you want to build a terrarium for plants, make sure you get a bowl or a container that is sealable. The container should also feature a wide mouth/opening so you can work inside better.

Step 2: Establish the Substrate of your Ecosystem

This means that you can build a plant terrarium or a fish aquarium. Each of these two self-sustaining ecosystems features different substrates: soil or water. Let us see how to begin:


Add the first layer of small pebbles on the bottom of the terrarium. They will allow the collection of water without flooding the plants. Next, add a thin layer of activated charcoal to filter the impurities in the water and keep fungi and bacteria at bay, preserving the ecosystem clean and healthy. Top the charcoal layer with peat moss to hold the water and nutrients necessary for the plants to grow. On top of the peat moss, you can add the potting soil.

  • Add enough potting soil that your plants grow roots;
  • You can also add some organic fertilizers and soil amendments if necessary;
  • Keep in mind that succulent plants and cacti need a special type of soil;
  • Natural soil contains the microscopic organisms necessary for decomposition such as fungi, bacteria, and even microscopic worms. However, you can add larger earthworms to enhance the quality of the soil and increase decomposer biomass.


The first thing to add to an aquarium is a layer of sand and pea gravel to allow the plants to anchor and grow. Next, fill the container with water. If you use distilled or bottled water, you can also add some nutrients to promote growth. You can also use the water from another fish tank, as it already contains the nutrients you need for growth. Add some plants and let them take roots and grow before you add the fish. You may want to mix bottom growing plants, surface growing plants, and branched plants for diversity.

  • Don’t forget to add micro-organisms such as small pond snails, daphnia, and micro-planarians. Wait at least two weeks for them to be fully established before adding fish, as they will serve as nutrients for your fish, being an important link in the food chain.

Step 3: Add the Residents of the Ecosystem

The time has come to bring in the residents of the ecosystems we want to create.


Start with small plants. If you bought your plants from the nursery, remove them from their pots, trim some of the super-long roots if necessary, water them well, and place them in the terrarium soil – in holes you made with a spoon for instance. Pack the soil around the plant well. Make sure the potted plants’ leaves do not touch the walls of the container, at least in the beginning.

  • Some of the best plants you can begin with are strawberry begonias, ferns, and mosses, moon valley friendship, the nerve plant, variegata, aquamarine, or minimus aureus. You can make incredibly looking and low-maintenance terrariums with succulents or cacti, but make sure you pick the correct soil for them.


After you had the patience to let the micro-critters and plants establish and grow, add the fish, shrimp, and snails. Just as it happens with the terrarium, you need to start with smaller fish and add diverse species one or two at a time.

  • Keep in mind that fish reproduce quickly and smaller fish may serve as food for larger fish; this is why aquarium creatures need time to adjust; balancing the species in an aquarium can be tricky, therefore you need to keep an eye on them to make sure they are all adjusted.
  • You can start with the guppy, Endler’s livebearer, or cherry shrimp at first, and then add other fish and water creatures slowly and progressively.

Step 4: Let there be Light

Both an aquarium and a terrarium need light. You can place a terrarium in direct sunlight or another suitable light source (which must include the entire visible light spectrum). The aquarium needs fluorescent light to allow the growth of the plants in your ecosystem. Specialists recommend you to provide 2 to 5 watts per gallon of water for a freshwater aquarium. Keep in mind that incandescent light does not help with the plant growth.

Step 5: Maintenance

In comparison to aquariums, sealed terrariums need less maintenance. You need to check the soil’s moisture once in a couple of days. If the plants seem to dry too quickly or the leaves are burning they may be getting too much light, so adjust the light source’s intensity or move the terrarium in another area. When you maintain a terrarium, remember to add a bit of water if the plants are too dry. If the plants are too moist, lift the lid and let the ecosystem dry out for a bit. If you see creepy crawlers, fungi, pests, or other unusual plant predators inside, remove them and then seal the terrarium. Alternatively, you can add some plant companions that can live inside closed systems to protect the plants, oxygenate the soil, and keep predators at bay.

When it comes to aquariums, they need a bit more maintenance. You need to pay attention to the formation of algae, dead fish, diseases, and bacteria. You need to change the water, clean all installations, and make sure you remove dead or diseased fish immediately.


If you ever wondered how to make a self-sustaining ecosystem, these are the main steps to take. Now tell us, did you ever make one? Did you buy an already-made one from a reputable seller in the green business field? What are your thoughts on self-sustainable ecosystems?

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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