How to Create a Vivarium: A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners

Vivariums are enclosed, miniature ecosystems that allow you to recreate a small slice of the natural world right in your own home With the right elements in place, a vivarium becomes a self-sustaining habitat filled with live plants, microfauna, and your chosen animal species Building a successful vivarium does take some specialized knowledge, but it’s very achievable if you follow proven techniques. In this complete guide, I’ll walk you through the entire process of creating your own thriving vivarium, step-by-step.

Choose an Animal Species to Feature

The very first thing you need to decide is which animal you want to feature in the vivarium This choice will dictate many factors in how you set up the environment. Some popular vivarium species are

  • Dart frogs
  • Chameleons
  • Geckos
  • Snakes
  • Lizards
  • Newts
  • Salamanders
  • Small fish
  • Invertebrates

I’d recommend newcomers start with a hardy species that has simple care requirements, like a crested gecko, gargoyle gecko, or pacman frog Get advice from experienced vivarium builders when selecting your species.

Only use one featured creature in the vivarium, unless it’s an enormous professional-grade enclosure. Mixing multiple species in one small habitat is a recipe for trouble.

Select an Appropriate Enclosure

Glass aquariums are the gold standard, allowing excellent visibility and providing a controlled environment. Look for ones in the 10-40 gallon range for most vivarium species. Make sure the dimensions work for your chosen inhabitant.

Alternatives like front-opening terrariums and durable plastic enclosures also work well. Stay away from wire cages, as they are poor for maintaining temperature and humidity. Get an enclosure suitable for the adult size of your species.

Add Layers to the Floor

Vivariums need special floor layers to create a healthy habitat. Build up the following from bottom to top:

  • Drainage Layer: Clay pellets, Hydroton, or LECA balls. Retains moisture while allowing excess water to drain away. Depth of 2.5-3 inches.

  • Screen Separator: Fine mesh screen that keeps substrate from reaching the wet drainage layer. Must allow springtails to pass through.

  • Substrate: ABG mix or coconut fiber-based mixes made specifically for vivariums. Never use plain potting soil. Depth of 2.5-3 inches.

  • Leaf Litter: Dried oak, magnolia, or other leaves. Provides natural look and microfauna food. Depth of 1-2 inches.

Adding these vital layers prevents soggy soil and provides nutrients for healthy plant growth.

Design the Environment

Once the base layers are in place, you can add features to complete the habitat:

  • Background: Painted backgrounds or foam rock wall backgrounds provide an aesthetically pleasing vista and areas for climbing and planting.

  • Plants: Use 8-12 small tropical species suited to the enclosure conditions. Plant densely to start for a jungle look as they fill in.

  • Wood & Rocks: Add dinosaur wood, Mopani wood, river rocks, and slate pieces for visual interest and enrichment.

  • Misting System: automated misters increase humidity and simulate rainfall. Hand misting daily also works.

  • Lighting: Bright 6500K daylight bulbs on a 12 hour on/off cycle. Heat lamps if supplemental basking warmth is needed.

Add Clean Up Crew Microfauna

To create a self-cleaning vivarium, add microfauna feeders like:

  • Springtails: Eat mold, fungi, dead plant matter. Vital cleanup crew. Add 100-200 per 10 gallons of space.

  • Isopods: Larger species eats poop, food scraps. 50-100 per 10 gallons helps reduce waste.

Without these microfauna, you’ll have to spot clean the vivarium often. With them, the enclosure practically cares for itself!

Quarantine Animals Before Introducing Them

It’s vital to quarantine all new animals in a separate enclosure for 2-4 weeks before adding them to the vivarium. Watch for signs of illness and only introduce healthy individuals. This prevents contamination of the vivarium.

Set up a quarantine area that matches the temperature, humidity, and other conditions of the vivarium as closely as possible. Observe the animal daily for normal feeding and activity. Never skip quarantine!

Maintaining Your Thriving Vivarium

Once up and running, vivariums are quite low maintenance with the right components in place. Follow these care tips:

  • Feed inhabitants appropriate foods daily, supplementing as needed.

  • Mist 1-2 times a day manually or use an automated mister system.

  • Ensure lighting, heating, and humidity levels stay in the optimal ranges.

  • Refill water features when low and prune plants when overgrown.

  • Spot clean any uneaten food daily.

  • Add leaf litter and fresh microfauna as they deplete.

  • Completely replace substrate every 2-3 years as it breaks down.

Step-by-Step Instructions for Building a Vivarium

Now that you understand the key elements that go into a vivarium, let’s walk through the setup process from start to finish:

1. Choose Glass Tank or Plastic Enclosure

Select the appropriate sized tank or enclosure for your chosen animal species. Get one suitable for an adult if obtaining a juvenile.

2. Add Drainage Layer

Pour LECA balls, Hydroton, or clay pellets 2.5-3 inches deep to create the drainage layer. Rinse well first to remove dust.

3. Install Screen Separator

Place fiberglass screen mesh cut to fit the enclosure over the drainage layer. This must allow springtails to pass through.

4. Add Substrate

Pour specialty vivarium substrate blend 2.5-3 inches deep over the screen separator. NEVER use potting soil.

5. Spread Leaf Litter

Add a natural leaf litter top layer 1-2 inches deep. Oak or magnolia leaves work great.

6. Design Vivarium Layout

Figure out the layout – where features like plants, wood, rocks, and other decor will go.

7. Install Background (Optional)

Foam backgrounds can be added now with silicone adhesive before further decorating.

8. Plant Flora

Add your plants and hardscape materials like wood and rocks according to your layout plan.

9. Install Environmental Systems

Add lighting, heating, misting, and any other systems needed to create the proper habitat conditions.

10. Introduce Microfauna

Add cleanup crew springtails and isopods to establish populations before adding your animals.

11. Quarantine Animals

House new animals separately for 2-4 weeks before introducing them to ensure they are healthy.

12. Add Animals to the Vivarium!

After quarantine, acclimate animals slowly by initially placing them in the enclosure for short periods.

Vivarium Tips for Success

Follow these best practices for a thriving vivarium:

  • Process all new plants before adding them to disinfect.

  • Accurately recreate your chosen animal’s natural habitat.

  • Resist overcrowding the enclosure with too many species.

  • Use appropriate vivarium-specific substrates and materials.

  • Quarantine all new animals before introducing them.

  • Let the vivarium cycle for 4-6 weeks before adding animals.

  • Maintain optimal temperature, humidity, and lighting ranges.

  • Add microfauna springtails and isopods to minimize cleaning.

With the right setup and some specialized equipment, you can have a gorgeous slice of nature right in your living space. Vivariums allow close observation of fascinating species and are rewarding display pieces. Just be sure to properly research and plan out your enclosure before getting started. Follow this guide and you’ll be on your way to vivarium success!

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Thanks for reading! If you want to know more about taking care of reptiles, read our full interview with Anthony Menendez.

Reader Success Stories

  • Tarryn Rae “Great tips for posting background pictures onto vivariums. Thanks!” .

How to build a Natural Vivarium (From Scratch)!

How do you build a vivarium?

Lay down healthy, well-draining layers of ground cover, and buy and install moisture, heating, and lighting systems. After that, add appropriate plants and microfauna, then add your featured creature to complete your vivarium. Put down a drainage layer of store-bought material (option 1).

How do you make a vivarium drainage layer?

Put down a drainage layer of store-bought material (option 1). Shop at pet retailers or online and choose a vivarium drainage layer material—it’s often made up of small, lightweight plastic pellets or balls. Pour a 2.5–3 in (6.4–7.6 cm) layer in the bottom of the enclosure.

How do I choose a vivarium enclosure?

Choose a large glass tank as the best enclosure option. In most cases, glass is the best option for a vivarium enclosure. It aids in moisture and temperature control, and is great for viewing inside the vivarium. If you need a more lightweight option, however, choose a vivarium enclosure made of sturdy plastic materials.

How long should a vivarium be set up before introducing animals?

Have your vivarium set up for at least 3 weeks before introducing animals. (Ideally you want to let it cycle for over a month!) This time will allow plants to acclimate, and microfauna to build a healthy population within the enclosure. Be sure your lighting is sufficient & suitable for your enclosure.

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