Vivarium & Terrarium Backgrounds That Wow (Full DIY Guide)

Let’s face it: in the world of building mini-ecosystems, the plants are the stars of the show.

But terrarium backgrounds are so much more than just a valued supporting role.

After all, setting the scene can be just as important as what grows inside. They bring the natural look together and provide a sense of depth (along with many structural advantages).

In this post, I’ll show you how to make a background and make the most of it.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for your terrarium background to step into the spotlight!

terrarium with cork background

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Terrarium Background Ideas & Benefits

From desert biomes to jungles and woodland, terrarium backgrounds bring a wide variety of benefits – both aesthetic and practical.

Here, we’ll explore how you can take full advantage of a background in your setup.

  • Creating depth in the container – Backgrounds are exceptional at creating the perception of depth in a scene. However, practically speaking, this typically makes them only suitable for rectangular and tank-style glass containers.
  • Giving epiphytes space to grow – Epiphytes and climbing vines will help bring your background to life. Of course, you can grow these species on hardscape, but nothing beats seeing them grow vertically up a terrarium backdrop, mimicking the natural environment.
terrarium background with vines growing
I love this Ficus pumila growing on my friend’s background.
  • Providing diverse space for animal inhabitants – Depending on how you make/use your background, it can form a natural playground for many vivarium pets. Just note, if you have a partial or flimsy lid, it’s also worth considering if your background could provide an accidental escape route for any particularly good climbers you might have in there.
powder orange isopods in terrarium
You don’t want any escapees. Powder Orange Isopods can’t climb glass but can easily climb a background.
  • Additional structural advantages – Especially in bigger vivarium setups, you can use the background to block unsightly cables that could ruin the natural illusion.

With all that said and thought about, let’s get stuck into the practical stuff.

How to Make a Cork Terrarium Background 

Ultimately, there are many different materials and methods for making a terrarium. From slate to expanding foam, there’s no single way to do it.

But I’ve found that the most beginner-friendly material to use is cork.

It’s lightweight, inexpensive, easy to work with, and organic, all of which make it ideal for a terrarium background.

Along with your cork sheet/s*, you’ll also need:

  • Tank-style terrarium or vivarium.
  • Tape measure & pencil.
  • Glue gun or other non-toxic glue.
  • A saw of some description.

Where to Find & Buy Your Cork Sheets

*Sourcing these can be a little tricky. There’s a lot of noticeboard-style corkboard material, but you’ll want the rougher, more organic-looking type.

The best place to look is reptile stores.

You might even luck out and find the exact right size for your container (making this how-to guide very much redundant). That said, I couldn’t find one the right size for mine, and believe me, I looked!

Depending on what you can find available, you can get smaller sheets and glue them together or get one big enough to fit the whole tank and cut it to size.

holding cork bark sheet
This is the beauty I’m working with today.

Also, be careful not to buy cork “flats” as they aren’t strictly flat. They’re far better for setting the scene and providing isopods, etc., with a place to hide, but they aren’t best for a background.

Step 1 | Measuring

Start by measuring out the dimensions of your container.

Then apply those measurements to the board and mark with a pen where you’ll need to cut onto the cork board (I did this on the “back” side, so you won’t be able to see any marks once it’s completed).

measuring and marking on cork sheet
I used a right-angled ruler to make sure I got this super accurate.

If you’re making a background for a complex vivarium setup, consider any tubing, misters, or other systems that you’ll need to find space for.

Top tip: Vivarium backgrounds are great at redirecting artificial light back into the enclosure, so your lighting doesn’t pollute half the room!

Step 2 | Sawing 

Now, it’s time to cut your corkboard or boards down to size. So grab your saw and cut along the line you’ve marked out.

It’s important to go SLOWLY and keep your fingers tucked away. I used a standard hand saw here at a 45° angle.

person sawing terrarium background
I love an excuse to raid my Dad’s toolbox for a terrarium project.

Luckily, I also had my Dad (who’s a bit of a DIY expert) on hand to make sure I didn’t hurt myself.

If you’re in any doubt about your measurements, saw it a little larger than you think you’ll need. You can always cut more off, but it can be difficult to glue it back on if it breaks in the process.

Step 3 | Gluing

While I was able to cut my background from one piece, you might have not. So you’ll need to take a glue gun or other inert glue and stick it all together.

My friend created his background using this method.

several cork sheets stuck together
Once there are some vines growing up, you won’t be able to see that it’s actually multiple pieces.

I also chose to glue my background to the tank, though if it’s a close enough fit, you might feel confident it’ll stay wedged in place.

While this step is arguably optional, I didn’t want to chance it falling and squishing my plants.

I took my glue gun and gave my background a decent lathering.

squeezing glue onto terrarium background
Try to move fairly quickly so the first-squeezed glue doesn’t begin to set. That said, be careful – it’s hot!

Then, I laid my tank on its side and pressed the background into the glass as per the glue instructions. 

terrarium background glued to tank
My background has attached to my tank pretty nicely.

Step 4 | Terrarium Building

The fun doesn’t stop here – it’s only just beginning! It’s time to create your terrarium.

(For a full how-to, check out our handy how to make a terrarium guide).

I went ahead and built my piece as I usually would: layering, planting, and adding moss.

Once the bulk of my terrarium was finished, I finished the piece by adding epiphytes to the background. Which, if I’m honest, was the whole reason I wanted to create a background in the first place.

I chose a fluffy Ficus villosa and a colorful Marcgravia umbellata.

putting glue on sphagnum moss
To begin, I stuck a little pocket of dried sphagnum moss onto the background, close to where the plant will go. 

This will establish a moisture supply for the plant’s roots. Just don’t wet it until everything is properly attached, or nothing will stick properly.

Then, use super glue to stick the plant directly to the background.

gluing vine to terrarium background
I used Gorilla Glue, which is surprisingly completely safe for your plants. 

From then on, when the plant grows, it will attach directly to the cork. Magic!

Now your build is complete – finish by spraying the whole thing down with water and add some springtails.

Cork has a lot of natural sugars, so it’s normal to see some mold arise. Don’t worry – it should go away on its own after a little while, and the springtails will help stay on top of it.

tank terrarium with background
I’m thrilled with the finished result.

How’d You Like Your Terrarium Background?

Hurrah – you made it! I hope you’re really happy with your creation.

Did you use one big cork sheet or multiple? Or maybe you chose to work with another material. Either way, let us know how it went in the comments.👇

Need any more terrarium supplies? Check out our online store!

Till next time!

5 thoughts on “Vivarium & Terrarium Backgrounds That Wow (Full DIY Guide)”

  1. I’m so glad I found your site! It has been invaluable to someone that had a tank with plants that were struggling. I really like that you give great directions and show where to go to go to get the supplies I need. I took my tank completely apart, saved the plants I could, cleaned the tank and started with the leca (which I’d never heard of). I started building and so far my plants and tank are happy! Merry Christmas and keep up the great work!

  2. Another source for decent sized sheets of cork bark that’s flat would be a store that sells supplies for growing orchids. Many orchids are epiphytic and can be grown mounted and so there are quite nice fair sized cork mounts you can buy for that purpose.

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