How to Build a Vivarium

Vivariums are (usually tropical) enclosures that contain live plants and terrestrial animals. Paludariums also have a water feature with live aquatic animals. Since oftentimes plants and animals have different requirements, there is an art in setting up a sustainable environment.


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    Decide what animals and plants you want to keep.
    • Determine if their basic requirements make them incompatible (Such as high humidity frogs and low humidity cacti).
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    Purchase a suitable sized aquarium or terrarium, remember animals like to move around and plants need room to grow.
    • An aquarium is basically a glass box that is only open at the top. Terrariums usually have hinged or sliding glass doors on one of the vertical sides to make access easier.
    • You may also build your own enclosure. This can be done with glass and silicone, wood and epoxy, cement and epoxy, or a number of other ways.
    • If humidity and temperature in your living environment are suitable, then you can water substrate for a plant at any level with a siphon (inverted-U) hose connecting to an aquarium. This arrangement can be raised, lowered or replaced according to root growth, substrate depth(s), and hydrophilic properties of substrate(s). If using plants that were previously potted plants, be sure to thoroughly flush out the roots with water to remove any toxic fertilizers before planting them in the vivarium.
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    If this is a temperate or tropical vivarium build a false bottom. Desert vivariums do not need a false bottom since there will be little watering.
    • A false bottom is an area for excess water to pool without drowning the plants roots. The two main types of false bottoms are filled vs. open false bottoms.
    • A filled false bottom is a 1–2 inch (2.5–5.1 cm) layer of gravel or LECA with a screen on top to prevent dirt from entering.
    • An open false bottom consists of a piece of egg crate supported by PVC, with a screen on top.
    • Both styles are adequate methods with their own pros and cons.
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    Install the background and hardscape.
    • These can be attached with silicone or hot glue; however, it is important that the dried adhesive is inert and cannot contaminate the vivarium with harmful chemicals.
    • Possible background and hard-scape include: wood, cork-bark, rocks, disguised foam, disguised plastic, ornaments, or any number of other items. It is important that anything placed in the vivarium is clean and non-toxic. Items found outdoors must be cleaned before placing them in the vivarium.
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    Install a top.
    • A screen top usually prevents high moisture since the vivarium will take on the humidity of the room it is in; while a mostly glass top (90-95% glass, 10-5% screen) will keep the humidity level much higher. However, normal glass and screens blocks most UV light, thus UV lights must be placed inside the vivarium
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    Install a light.
    • Plants require full spectrum lighting with a color temperature between 5000-7000K for best growth. Most 'normal' home lights are drastically less than 5000K while 'bluer' bulbs can be much higher Kelvin.
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    Install equipment.
    • Equipment includes a thermometer, hydrometer, under-tank heater, in tank heater, pumps, filters, etc.
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    Add substrate.
    • There are a large number of substrates available at pet-stores. Usually it is best to use these rather than collect anything from outdoors. Both plants and animals have substrate they prefer (do research!).
    • A temperate or rain forest vivarium might have a layer of peat, fir bark, and black earth, followed by a layer of sphagnum moss, with a layer of leaves on top.
    • A desert vivarium will probably have just a layer of sand with maybe some gravel in certain areas.
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    Add dechlorinated water.
    • For temperate and tropical vivariums it is best to wet down the entire vivarium to make sure there are no overly wet areas.
    • A desert terrarium will usually just have a water dish.
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    Plant the plants, leaving room for the plants to grow and 'fill in'.
    • Remember, every plant has its own requirements; such as soil moisture, watering schedules, and light levels.
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    Turn on the vivarium and let it 'stabilize' for 24 hours to several weeks.
    • This will allow you to monitor the health of the plants and the functionality of your design without unduly disturbing the future animals.
    • This is particularly important with water features.
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    Quarantine your newly purchased, and researched, animals to assess their health.
    • This is important to prevent contaminating a vivarium that took a long time to build. A one to four week quarantine is suggested.
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    Add your quarantined animals to the vivarium and monitor their acclimation closely for the first week or two.
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    Sit back and enjoy your slice of the environment.


  • It is best to work out the kinks in vivarium design with out animals present. It is less stressful for them, and less stressful for you. Plants are usually much hardier than animals and can survive disasters with little loss.
  • For best growth have at least two full length fluorescent bulbs above the vivarium. This lighting route is often the cheapest and easiest to maintain.
  • A waterfall or stream can be added to a vivarium with a false bottom by placing a pump in the false bottom. The pump will pump this excess water out of the false bottom to cascade along a log or some stones- back into the false bottom. However, the pump, and all other equipment, should be easily accessible in case it breaks or clogs.
  • Always research your intended animals and plants carefully to be able to fully realize what kind of work the vivarium will require.
  • Terrariums with sliding or hinged glass doors are easier to use; however, they cost more than a standard aquarium.
  • A still water feature can be added by having the substrate dip below the false bottom, thus creating the pool.
  • Never use tap water that has not been dechlorinated unless your animal specifically needs it. Plants rarely like it and many animals will be harmed.
  • Dilute bleach is a good cleaning agent for 'found' objects. In addition, simple sunlight combined with a drying out period will quickly kill many protozoans. Baking objects in the oven also works well.
  • All plants have their own requirements. Many do not like water logged soils and most temperate plants need a cool period to rest. Other plants start to rot if they get too much moisture or water on their leaves, and others dry out if the humidity is below 50%. Research, research, research!
  • The substrate you use can also control moisture. Some substrates, such as peat moss, will absorb a good bit of water and release little: dropping humidity and drowning plant roots. This is why mixtures and layers are so useful.
  • Quarantining is an important practice and will save you a good bit of heartache. If your prized animal dies after you place it directly in the vivarium, you have to wonder if the animal was ill or if there is something wrong with the vivarium. A known healthy animal will acclimate much better and will let you cross out at least one variable if something goes wrong.
  • A gravel false bottom is much heavier than An open false bottom build with egg crate. LECA, or Styrofoam peanuts, also allow for a lighter false bottom.


  • Always wash your hands before and after working with a vivarium. This is both for your and your animal's protection.

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Categories: Indoor and Patio Plants