Vivarium Construction

Selecting a Tank

When choosing an aquarium to be converted to a vivarium, a lot depends on the type of vivarium you wish to construct. A few simple guidelines will help you select a tank that is right for your needs.


If you use a tank that is very low and wide, such as "long" tanks or breeder tanks, you may not have much room for plant growth once your bottom layers and substrate are added. Shallow tanks may limit the types of plants you can use. On the other hand, if you choose a tank that is tall or deep, you may have difficulty accessing the bottom of the enclosure for planting or maintenance. If you have the space, it is best to use a tank with a moderate footprint and enough height to allow plant growth.


It may be easier to begin with a standard cube or rectangular tank, but you can create a vivarium in a tank of any shape, and some odd shapes can actually be more conducive to the habits of the animals you want to contain within. With the variety of shapes in the market today, there are lots of possibilities. An aquarium’s shape can often lead to inspiration for landscaping, and a variety of configurations may be possible using driftwood, rock, and vines.

Covering Your Tank

The preferred method for covering the opening of a vivarium is by using a glass canopy. Canopies are tight-fitting, will not warp, allow light to pass through, and hold humidity. Additionally, plastic back-strips (flexible plastic strips that slide onto the glass of the canopy) can be cut to allow space for cords powering pumps and other equipment . Small holes can also be punched through the plastic, or a small section can be cut out and covered with mesh screening to allow some air exchange while keeping animals contained.

BE SURE TO SECURE YOUR BACKSTRIP! Run a length of tape across the entire back of your canopy, securing it to the trim of your tank. This will prevent frogs and other creatures from pushing their way out of the tank.

Basic Vivarium Techniques

Before getting into the specifics of landscaping your tank, it is important to familiarize yourself with a few techniques and some terminology. This will help as you construct your vivarium and simplify proceeding descriptions.


First you will need to choose a method of drainage. Sufficient drainage is imperative for the health of plants and animals. The two most common methods of accomplishing this are by constructing a “false bottom” or by installing a non-biodegradable layer.

False Bottom:

This method is done using several pieces of PVC tube, plastic light grating (often called egg crate), fiberglass screening, and gravel or a similar material. The PVC pieces are placed down first to create an open space and support the egg crate. The egg crate should be trimmed to the dimensions of the bottom of the tank, or to the area of the tank that you intend to be terrestrial. Next, place a piece of fiberglass screening over the egg crate, cut about 1-2 inches longer on all sides to create an edge that will lay against the glass. The screen allows excess water to pass through while holding gravel, soil and other inert material above. Place a 1-2in layer of gravel, pea pebbles, fired clay pellets or another coarse material on top of the screen. This will provide extra drainage while further preventing finer soil from reaching the reservoir. Place another layer of screen above the layer of coarse material, and finally place your planting substrate (coconut fiber, moss, etc.) on top. This method is especially helpful when a large reservoir is needed for a moving water feature or deep pond.

Non-biodegradable layer:

This method simply requires some sort of non-biodegradable media and a piece of fiberglass screen cut to size. The media can be just about anything as long as it won't decay or rot, such as gravel, bio-balls, or fired clay pellets. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Gravel is cheap and readily available, but can make even the set-up very heavy. Bio-balls and clay pellets have a distinct advantage over gravel, as they weigh very little and aren’t very dense, but bio-balls can become quite expensive if building a large tank, and clay pellets can be hard to find in some areas.

NOTE: If there is no water feature in your tank, it is important to allow yourself some way to siphon out excess water. Once the water level nears the bottom of the substrate, it can become saturated. Saturation can kill plants and cause the substrate to turn sour.


The quality and type of substrate you choose will impact the growth of your plants. Some substrates may also suit the animals you want to keep better than others. There are many substrates available for use in high humidity environments, and all have advantages and disadvantages.

Shredded coconut fiber:

This substrate can work well in a vivarium, and when mixed with a bulkier substrate, such as fir bark, it makes an excellent substrate for plant life. If a water feature is to be constructed, this substrate will undoubtedly tint the water brown, which can be unsightly to some. It may also cause health complications for some frogs as it may stick to their skin.

Sphagnum moss:

This substrate works well in just about any vivarium for both frogs and plants. Sphagnum is long-lasting, mold-resistant, and holds water very well. Plants usually root quickly in it and it will not stick to frogs. It also has an added benefit over coconut fiber in that it does not discolor the water in your reservoir.

Combining substrates:

It may be best to mix several substrates together until you find a combination that works for your needs. For example, mixing coconut fiber with fir bark and a bag of sand can add to the drainage capacity and aeration of the substrate while creating a more natural-looking forest floor.

Leaf litter:

This often unknown or overlooked addition can be a helpful boost when keeping smaller amphibians such as dart frogs. Dried magnolia leaves, sea grape leaves, or oak leaves (among others) can be used to create a final natural touch. A carpet of confetti-sized leaf bits, with a few larger leaves tossed in for good measure, will add a convincing note of realism to any vivarium. Large leaves provide hiding places for frogs, giving them more cover while hunting. The smaller leaf bits protect the frogs from soil or other debris that would stick to their skin. This leaf material is also a valuable food source for tiny organisms like springtails, which aid in the breakdown of waste and serve as supplemental prey for small amphibians. It is possible to "seed" your tank with these creatures before adding your frogs. Be sure to give them enough time to establish a population in the tank, prior to introducing frogs, or they will likely be eaten before they can gain a foothold.

Background Construction

This is probably the single most time consuming aspect of vivarium construction, but it allows a great amount of room for imagination and realism. If done properly, a background will look natural and can contain elements such as wood, rocks, and water features. Plants can be mounted to it, or allowed to grow over it. Making a background can, in some cases, greatly expand the usable area of your vivarium.

Packing method:

For short tanks with decent width, you can pack substrate up against the back pane of glass by starting with a broad sloping base and then inclining your wall until it is vertical. This is a very simple method used to keep natural soft angles in the tank and allow more vertical landscaping. Be sure to keep the substrate damp or it may dry and crumble, caving in your background.

Cork bark method:

One of the most popular and attractive ways to construct a background, cork bark may be mounted as large, flat slabs or in smaller pieces fit together like a puzzle. I would recommend using aquarium sealant or Silicone in whatever color you wish (clear, brown, and black are preferable). Place the tank on its back, cover the back pane of the tank with a layer of silicone (use a glove to spread it around), and press your cork pieces into place. You should have them precut to fit your tank so that you can easily put them into place. Fill in any gaps with dried moss or dry substrate by applying it directly to the exposed sealant. Let the tank cure for at least 24 hours. Silicone may retain an odor for some time after curing, but it is tacky very soon after application and should be entirely dry in one day. If your layer of silicone is on the thicker side, it is advisable to wait longer. Be sure to use flat pieces of cork, or seal gaps to prevent your animals from becoming trapped behind the background.

Expanding foam method:

Another popular, but time consuming method, involves using cans of expanding foam. This allows for extremely precise landscaping and shaping of terrain. Elements can also be mounted within the background, like wood or other accents. Fantastic results can be achieved with this method, but it requires a bit of patience and care.

With large tanks, a piece of egg crate or another frame/bracket should be attached to the back wall of the tank with sealant so that the foam doesn’t eventually slide down. The grid-like quality of the egg crate will give the foam something to grab on to. Think of how you want your background to look. With your tank on its back shake the can well (USE GLOVES! Expanding foam is nearly impossible to remove from skin!) and start filling in the back of tank in thin lines until you reach the bottom of your background area. Be sure to leave space at the sides of the tank (DON’T fill the back of the tank completely with foam) as it is possible to overfill. When this occurs, expansion of the curing foam can actually crack the tank. You will notice it starts expanding shortly after application. Let your tank sit for 24 hours. The foam will have hardened and increased in volume dramatically. You can add more layers over this first coating, as well as cut sections out or sand them down once it is dry. This process can be repeated to build ledges, pools for water features, or to support wood, rocks or other accents. When you are finished and pleased with the shape of the background, you can then cover it with a layer of brown or black silicone. Make sure you get every crack and crevice, as bare spots will be noticeable, at least until plants grow in. Pat dry peat or coconut fiber over top of the silicone, taking care not to miss any spots. Let this cure for 24 hours. When finished, stand the tank upright and vacuum off the excess bedding. Carefully touch up any bare spots by repeating these steps in very small areas.

When you are finished and pleased with the shape of the background, you can then cover it with a layer of brown or black silicone. Make sure you get every crack and crevice, as bare spots will be noticeable, at least until plants grow in. Pat dry peat or coconut fiber over top of the silicone, taking care not to miss any spots. Let this cure for 24 hours. When finished, stand the tank upright and vacuum up the excess bedding. Carefully touch up any bare spots by repeating these steps in very small areas.


A major consideration while constructing your vivarium should concern its landscape. It is a good idea to decide what kind of animals you want to keep prior to building it. This will play a large part in determining what plants you should choose , and if you will need to incorporate arboreal furniture, such as driftwood or ghost wood, into your design. If constructing a vivarium for arboreal geckos, tree frogs, or some arboreal species of poison dart frogs, plants with large, sturdy leaves as well as branching driftwood or ghost wood should be used. If making a vivarium for more terrestrial lizards or frogs, just about any design will work as long as sufficient floor space is provided. Once you decide which of these general designs you will use, the rest is up to your preferences and creativity. Once the basic design essentials are met, all other specifics are secondary.

There are many options, including running waterfalls and streams that are too detailed in construction to go into in this article. If you need help with something of this detail, please talk to our reptile room staff and they can either help you or direct you to someone with vivarium experience.

Vivarium Plants

Just about any tropical houseplant is a contender for vivarium use. Keep in mind, however, that plants are just as different from each other as animals. They thrive at certain temperatures and humidity levels. Light, water, and soil drainage also play a role in what plants are suitable and will do well in your set-up. Be sure to rinse all plants with water before use. Your plants will need a light source and water to grow, but the amounts of each will vary. Ask a reptile room employee what type of lighting your vivarium design requires and plant accordingly.

There are various species of plant commonly used in vivaria. Following is a brief list and short description of some that we use in displays that may also work for you.


Most philos are vining plants with long green leaves. They can be trained to grow in certain directions in the vivarium and are excellent cover for tree frogs, dart frogs, and small lizards. They are generally hardy and many can tolerate low light levels. Humidity should be high and the soil moist, but not soggy.

Creeping fig:

There are several varieties of this plant available. Nearly all are relatively fast growing and spread to form a dense mat of cover. One of our tanks contains at least three varieties of this plant: standard, snowflake, and oak leaf. The Oak-leaf variety spreads much more slowly and has tiny ornamental greenery shaped like miniature oak leaves. Humidity should be high and soil consistently damp. This plant will dry out quickly, especially cuttings. Light can be low to nearly direct. Certain varieties are more sensitive to certain factors than others.


"Spikemoss” is an excellent ground cover and can become quite thick and luxurious in the right conditions. There are many varieties, including “green moss”, “golden tips”, “blue”, and “rainbow”. Each is different in color and often different in appearance. These fern relatives require damp soil, high humidity, and protection from direct light. Some will grow up and out while others stay very low and will spread endlessly. Most are excellent choices for the vivarium.


There are some vining varieties that are nearly unstoppable in a vivarium and must be trimmed back with more frequency than even the most rapidly growing creeping fig. They do well in a variety of light levels and love high humidity and moist soil.


There are a variety of these plants available, and they work quite well for dart frogs and tree frogs. They come from different climates, and should be kept in certain ways with that in mind. Some (most that we sell) are from the tropics where they grow epiphytically (on bark and branches) on trees. They generally like humidity, but many will rot if kept too damp. Fresh air is important, as is the correct amount of light. The stiffer-leaved plants usually like high light and may color nicely when given this type of exposure. Those with longer, more slender leaves are generally found in at least partial shade. Earth Stars are a genus of bromeliad that stay fairly small and grow terrestrially. They make excellent highlights for tanks, and some are especially colorful.

If you have any questions at all while planning, building or shopping for vivarium supplies, please contact our reptile room at 717-299-5691. Good luck and have fun!