Home » Craft » Living Diorama

Living Diorama

Make a shadow box come to life with living plants.

I have always loved dioramas. The joy of placing tiny logs and moss in a shoebox to create a simulated temperate rain forest in grade school has stuck with me. This project is a grown-up version of that miniature garden I created so many years ago. Taking cues from natural history dioramas, this living shadow box utilizes a mix of two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects. It is an opportunity to preserve the beauty and grandeur of a place you’ve visited or somewhere you might like to go. You can use any photograph you have as the backdrop for your scene. I used a lush tropical waterfall from a recent trip to Hawaii.

Have the photograph you want to use printed directly on metal by your local photo lab—it will remain unharmed if a stray drop of water or mist accidentally lands on it. I used basalt rocks and moss pressed into a bed of spray foam to continue the landscape from the two-dimensional to the three. The selaginella, placed in containers—which can be removed for watering—bring the piece to life. You could also use ferns, senecio, or rhipsalis—just keep in mind the feeling of the place in the photograph and try to continue in the same vein when selecting your plants. You want the plants to look like they belong with the photograph—as if they came out of the photograph.


The word diorama was coined by Louis Daguerre, a French photographer, in 1822. Daguerre created the original diorama in Paris, with help from a camera obscura, out of huge paintings depicting historical or picturesque scenes. Lighting would change the scene, simulating the passage of time, a change in weather, or a sense of motion. Today our understanding of dioramas is thanks to full-size replicas or miniatures of a partially three-dimensional landscape. The diorama often displays a scene depicting a historical event, nature scene, or cityscape.



  • 11- × 14-inch metal photographic print (A)
  • 11- × 14-inch shadow box, at least 2 inches deep (B)
  • Black basalt rock in small and medium pieces (C)
  • Four 2-inch selaginella plants (D)
  • 11- × 14-inch black foam core (E)
  • Landscape black foam (F)
  • Four 2-inch coconut fiber pots (G)
  • Black silicone (H)
  • Dried green moss (I)


  • Utility knife (J)
  • Gloves (K)

Place the photograph in the shadow box and arrange the rocks and plants how you want them to appear in the diorama.


Using a utility knife, cut the foam core into a shape that mirrors the layout of your plants and rocks.


Wearing gloves and following the directions on the can, use spray foam to adhere the coconut fiber pots and rocks in place on the foam core. Hold the coconut fiber pots and larger rocks in place as you spray the foam around them.


Let the foam dry. Once it’s dry cut off any excess foam. Place the foam core with the empty coconut fiber pots and rocks in the shadow box to make sure it fits. Cut off more foam if it does not fit.


To apply the silicone, work with the foam core in the shadow box or on a covered surface. Working in the shadow box will give you a better sense of the overall picture, but you will need to be careful when applying the silicone. (Working on a separate surface is safer, but you will have to imagine the photograph behind the foam.) Squeeze the silicone onto the coconut fiber pots and foam.


Immediately attach moss and small rocks to the silicone and let the silicone dry.


Keeping the selaginella in their original pots, place the plants in the coconut fiber pots. This makes it easy for you to water the plants—you can just remove them from the coconut fiber pots.



Remove the selaginella from the coconut fiber pots and water them in a sink or bowl. Selaginella is one of the few houseplants that love to stay damp—not dripping wet, but never dry. Try to keep the soil always moist. Mist the plants frequently; daily in a dry environment. If you get a little moisture on the metal print you don’t have to worry about it getting ruined—it can handle the moisture. Misting helps provide the humidity that selaginella love.


Do not put the shadow box in direct sun—the foliage will burn. Bright indirect sun is ideal.



Feed a maximum of once a month spring through fall with a balanced liquid fertilizer diluted by half.


Selaginella is easy to start from cuttings. Take stem-tip cuttings in spring or summer. Place the cutting in soil and keep moist until they’ve rooted.