Expert Tips On Planting A Lush Vivarium

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There are several benefits to a landscaped terrarium. The extra cover helps provide more security for your herp, which can result in more natural behavior. Some animals will even incorporate the landscaping into their breeding cycles. And, of course, there is the obvious aesthetic benefit, but there are a few things to take into consideration before you begin.

vivarium plants


The vivid greens of tropical ferns and bright colors of exotic flowers can add an entirely new dimension to your pet’s habitat.

The first thing to consider is if your herp is even a suitable candidate for a planted tank. Generally speaking, species that do not require extreme temperatures, hot or cold, or great seasonal fluctuations, are the best candidates for planted terrariums. Terrariums are, by nature, a very stable environment, and it would be impossible to provide a range of seasons like those found in nature. In fact, even temperate plant species do not make good choices for terrariums. Tropical counterparts are much better choices, and luckily, there are many substitutions available.

Choose the Right Herp Inhabitants

Consider the amount of traffic the animal(s) will create, and their habits. Large, clumsy species can easily trample delicate foliage, and those that burrow or dig extensively will create landscaping problems.  Avoid such animals.

Generally, smaller herps are best, and a few examples of low-impact animals that make good planted terrarium inhabitants include dart frogs and tropical gecko species, such as the crested gecko (Correlophus [Rhacodactylus] ciliatus), Uroplatus geckos, day geckos and others. Small agamid lizards and Anolis species are also suitable, and some chameleons, (though be aware that omnivorous species, such as the veiled chameleon, may feed on some plants).

vivarium plants


Once you determine that your animal is a good candidate for a planted tank, then select the appropriate substrate.

Set Up For Success

When choosing, select plants that have been grown without the use of harmful pesticides, herbicides or growth-regulating hormones. Unfortunately, these are common in mass-produced foliage and nearly impossible to avoid when purchasing from standard retail outlets that sell live plants. And because many of these chemicals are systemic, meaning they become part of the plant itself, it is impossible to wash them away.

Fortunately, more companies are offering terrarium-suitable plants, but it is still important to query them about their cultural practices. While some companies grow their own materials, others still sell young plants grown by the same suppliers that use chemicals that are unsafe for terrarium use.

Once you determine that your animal is a good candidate for a planted tank, then select the appropriate substrate. Naturally, substrate is crucial to success, and choosing the right type in which to grow the plants is just as important as choosing the plants themselves.
There are many myths surrounding substrate choices circulating on the Internet, and it can be difficult to make sense of it all. The primary purpose of a terrarium substrate is to provide a moisture-retentive, yet well-draining, matrix for the plants in which to grow. It must be long-lasting, as it can take many months for the plants to establish, and if the soil breaks down prematurely, then the whole system will crash.
Peat-based potting soils are not a good substrate choice, as they decompose quickly and will not support plant growth for very long in a closed environment. Coir products, such as CoCo Bedding, Eco Earth and Forest Bedding are better choices, as these do not break down nearly as quickly and will provide good drainage while still holding moisture. Avoid soil additives such as fir bark and chopped leaf litter, as they decompose quickly and cut off air circulation to plant roots.



Aroids are a diverse group of plants that include Philodendron species.

When are Live Plants NOT a Good Idea?

There are some instances when a planted terrarium is just not a good idea. Environmental conditions may not allow for the use of live plants with some species, while dietary requirements preclude their use with others.

  1. Some herps, such as bearded dragons and uromastyx, require temperatures that are far too high for plants to survive for any length of time. Basking lights or other heat sources can dry the air severely and the relatively small size of a typical tank does not allow for a great enough thermal or moisture gradient to always allow for the “safe” placement of living plants.
  2. Large herbivores, such as iguanas, water dragons and basilisks, all can wreak havoc in a planted tank. The mobile nature of these animals in the wild prevents them from feeding to heavily on any one plant, thus spreading out the damage to a wide area. There is no such luxury in the home terrarium, and live plants can quickly be reduced down to lunch.
  3. Even if the animal does not eat the plant, it may just be far too destructive due to its size and weight. No matter what the reason, it simply may be impractical to have a live planted tank.

Without a proper drainage layer beneath the substrate, live plants will not last long. Traditionally, gravel was used, but it is extremely heavy with little space between the pieces and does not allow much moisture to drain away from the substrate.  Feather-Lite is a far superior product that is extremely lightweight and porous. It can hold eight times its weight in water, and large air spaces are formed between the pieces, allowing for optimal drainage. It can even be disinfected and reused indefinitely.

A barrier of some sort must be placed between the substrate and drainage layers, to prevent the substrate from settling down into the drainage layer. If this happens, moisture will be wicked up into the soil and the benefits of the drainage layer will be eliminated. The next important consideration is a suitable light source. Terrarium plants will not survive for long under heat lamps or other similar, intense heat sources. Bright, fluorescent lighting is a must, and can be easily provided by using compact fluorescent bulbs, which emit a much higher quality of light than older, tube-style bulbs. Cool white or full-spectrum bulbs are best, as they provide a clean, crisp white color to the enclosure, illuminating the plants without skewing the colors.  Several light hoods are commercially available that utilize compact fluorescent bulbs.

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