This North Carolina Plant Lover Turned A Hobby Into A Full-Blown Business

From air plants to extravagant terrariums, Megan Cain has found her seeds of success with her business, The Zen Succulent.

Megan Cain's green thumb can be credited to a combination of nature and nurture. When she was growing up, her parents (both scientists who hailed from rural parts of the Carolinas) believed that a happy house had plenty of greenery. They filled their suburban Raleigh home with plants—lots of them. "We had over 100," recalls Megan. "There were fiddleleaf figs, a variety of palms, succulents, and pothos vines cascading through the kitchen."

Megan Cain, Owner of The Zen Succulent

Allie Mullin Photography

There was also a terrarium that her parents built in her father's childhood home in the late 1980s, shortly after they got married. "I'd press my nose up against it as a kid and just be in awe of this world of greenery inside," Megan says. So, when her mother, Margaret George, suggested that they take up terrarium building together later on, her answer was simple: "Let's do it." What started as just a bonding activity in their garage soon turned into a marketable product. After selling them successfully at crafts fairs, Megan (a budding entrepreneur who was fresh out of college at the time) turned to Etsy, and The Zen Succulent was born.

Succulent garden by Megan Cain of The Zen Succulent
A design titled “Succulents Runneth Over”. Courtesy Fons & Porter

Today, Cain is a bona fide pro in the terrarium world and, with her mom as co-founder, has opened two brick-and-mortar stores in the Raleigh-Durham area. They offer a variety of plants, gifts, and all the accoutrements needed to build your own little living treasures. Megan has also written a book on the topic, Modern Terrarium Studio, featuring 25 of her original designs.

The creations often have bases of sand and colorful pebbles adorned with everything from air plants (tillandsias) and echeverias to artistic bits of moss and rock. Many of her ideas, including the plant placement and rock usage, come from the scenes that she's witnessed in nature. "We like to think of it as a living landscape for indoors," Megan explains. "It kind of mimics what we see in the environment."

Air Plants on Stands at The Zen Succulent in Raleigh-Durham, NC
Megan’s air plant stands (from $20), available at Allie Mullin Photography

Creative license lives within her approach, as well. Her plants are placed in a variety of vessels, from wooden bowls to antique vases. Megan also designs custom terrariums for clients on the condition that they provide the containers—resulting in some pretty unique projects. "One person brought us a 25-pound, 3-foot-wide ceramic clamshell his wife had found on vacation, and we decked it out with gorgeous jewel-tone succulents. I didn't want to part with it," she says.

Another cherished creation is the terrarium that greets customers at her Durham store. It's in the same vessel that sat for so many years in her father's childhood home and inspired Megan as a kid. "It's a little reminder of how all of this got started," she says.

Grow Your Own

With the right foundation, anyone can create a magical living landscape. Follow Megan's method in three easy steps.

01 of 03

Build Your Base

Megan Cain's Guide to Building Succulent Container step 1
Courtesy Fons & Porter

After picking out your own unique container (with no drainage holes), add a layer of sand to the bottom until it's one-fifth full. Then follow that with a layer of pebbles or rocks of equal depth. This base is crucial in keeping the terrarium well-drained, with the air flow it needs to thrive.

02 of 03

Fill With Soil

Megan Cain's Guide to Building Succulent Container step 2
Courtesy Fons & Porter

Add a thin layer of activated charcoal (available at hardware stores) atop the pebbles to promote freshness. Then fill it to the top with appropriate soil; a cactus mix will work best for succulents. Cacti and succulents are in the same family.

03 of 03

Give It Life

Megan Cain's Guide to Building Succulent Container step 3
Courtesy Fons & Porter

Arrange and plant your succulents, placing the tallest ones in the center and working your way out until you like the design. Add finishing touches (such as rocks or shells) to fill any blank spaces. While succulents are desert plants, that doesn't mean they thrive in the sun. Most varieties enjoy partial shade.

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