Vivariums – Everything You Need to Know (From the Ground Up)

A vivarium is a true naturalistic slice of life.

Yours to cultivate for purely for your own enjoyment and/or that of your tropical animals.

But, just as Uncle Ben once told us: “With great plants and animals comes great responsibility.”

(I’m paraphrasing of course).

A vivarium setup can be a lot more complex than your average tabletop terrarium, and there’s more at stake than a handful of moss and the odd fern. 

So in this guide, I’m going to provide a complete overview of the vivarium hobby. Walking you through every element of vivarium construction, design and care – to make sure you end up with a thriving environment at the end of it.

Ready to build a habitat you’d be proud to call home?

Let’s go.

Vivariums explained

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What is a Vivarium? (The Long and Short of it)

Over time, the word vivarium has come to mean a great variety of things.

Each sharing one singular theme.

Looking at the root of its language, we can see a hint as to what that theme is. In Latin vivere means “to live” and arium means “place” or “container”.

So, in a sense, a vivarium is simply a “place of life”.

Which – despite being very romantic – is fantastically vague, because it needs context to make sense. 

In reality, a vivarium is a container that’s designed and optimized to cultivate a particular type of life/environment.

This is true of all the “ariums” and their various inhabitants, but these days there’s one such type that most people come to know as a vivarium.

A rainforest terrarium + animals.

(That being said, “vivarium” is still often used to describe terrarium projects that are larger in scale and complexity – animals or not).

So, this article is for all you budding horticulturists and herpetoculturists!

Vivarium Systems & Factors (What to Consider)

When it comes to cultivating plants, animals and complex ecosystems, the tools and systems needed become much more sophisticated.

In practice, it’s the next level of terrarium building.

Rather than observing and gently tweaking to bring about change, in vivariums we’re actively driving the various environmental factors.

Sometimes with artificial systems, sometimes with good design and care practices (and always with a bit of luck).

Airflow / Ventilation

Unlike your typical sealed terrarium, vivariums need some level of consistent airflow and gas exchange.

In a vivarium where we’re watering at regular intervals and boosting humidity, we need a way to help plants dry off or we’re quickly going to run into problems with mold and mildew (or worse, rot).

Not to mention, I’m sure your animals will be needing oxygen at some point…

So, you’re going to need either a suitable ventilation solution.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be super technical, a simple hole/gap in the lid or some drilled holes in the container can be enough to do the trick – you can always cover it with a mesh to prevent escapees!

This stunning terrarium/vivarium tank from my friend Calum has a custom cut partial lid – allowing airflow through a gap at the front.

Some people like to use small fans to take more control of the system, but that’s up to you.

Water & Humidity

Tropical vivariums are going to need consistent high humidity.

How much will depend on the plant and animal species, but it’s likely to be upwards of 70%.

In a simple plant terrarium, a high relative humidity is usually achieved with a complete seal on the container, but if you’re keeping animals then an airtight seal is not such a good idea…

That being said, without a full seal you’ll get some moisture loss, so you’ll need a system to replace it.

These come in the form of misting systems.

Essentially a system of pumps and nozzles which can be programmed to periodically spray your vivarium down with a light mist/fog – giving a nice even watering and boost in humidity.

Lighting

Getting enough bright indirect light for a tabletop terrarium is already challenging to do with naturally in the home, so as you can imagine it’s a whole lot harder in a large container… that’s sometimes opaque on several sides.

So, grow lights are pretty much essential here.

If you’re keeping animals, you’re going to need to research their specific needs and build your lighting kit accordingly. Truth be told, it can get fairly complex if you’re using the light to mimic day/night cycles, but if it’s mostly for plants then it’s a lot more straightforward.

They tend to come in the form of LED strip lights that you can fit to the top of the container to apply the most balanced spread of light.

This was actually an aquarium tank light that fit the setup perfectly.

A strip light like this one is probably best for beginners, but this rabbit hole runs deep for those really looking to optimize growth and/or conditions.

Temperature

When you’re growing tropical plants, you’re going to need tropical temperatures.

There’s always a little wiggle room, but it’s probably going to be in the range of 21-30 °C ( 70-85 °F).

However, this gets a lot trickier when you’re raising animals, particularly of the cold-blooded variety. If you’re keeping some reptilian or amphibian friends, you’ll need to more carefully control the ambient temperature.

Heating mats and heating lights can both be effective, depending on the species.

A thermometer is pretty important too if you’re trying to operate within a range.

Regulation (Putting it all Together)

For those who need to manage all these factors within a narrow range, it’s worth considering a system that can work together.

Many pieces of modern vivarium hardware can be fitted to a smart thermostat / universal controller.

For both peace of mind and ease of use, a fully controllable system really is the way to go.

Plus, the more advanced systems can more effectively recreate day/night cycles, weather patterns and more – so your animals can feel right at home.

Microfauna / Bioactivity

One of the more complex (and rewarding) elements of vivarium building is mastering the art of bioactivity.

Harnessing the awesome power of microbes and beneficial little bugs/critters to regulate and clean your vivarium.

Just like Mother Nature herself!

There’s a wide range of container custodians available, but isopods and springtails tend to be the most popular and effective.

Springtails Culture
A springtail culture like this one is easily added to a vivarium substrate.

They’ll eat any mold or decaying organic matter, keeping your vivarium healthy and fresh. Just be sure to give them some leaf litter to get started on.

Getting real scientific now, you can also seed your substrate with all kind of beneficial bacteria and fungi. These can help with nutrient recycling and distribution, and generally just help form the base of the bioactive processes.

> Read more: Call in the Clean-up Crew: Terrarium Insects & Bugs

> Read more: What is a Bioactive Terrarium? (+ How to Make One)

How to Make a Vivarium 

Container

Unlike your smaller terrariums that can be fashioned from all manner of vases, bottles and boxes, vivariums tend to follow a much more structured pattern.

They’ll need plenty of volume to house any animals and any of the extra structured elements that might be needed to keep them, e.g. fans, heaters, etc.

Sure, the more DIY-centered people might like to up-cycle an old fish tank or glass cabinet (I love seeing transformed Ikea cabinets on Instagram!) but realistically most are going to buy a manufactured vivarium.

And there’s plenty to choose from. 

Whether you prefer a tall cabinet style of show off some larger epiphytes and climbing species, or your classic landscape tank to get a wide variety of terrestrial plants and hiding spots – there’s something for you.

More vertical vivariums can add some stunning visual dynamics.

Drainage

With smaller terrariums, using perfect watering you can get away without a drainage layer. But, in larger vivariums they’re absolutely essential.

After all, in a closed system where you’re regularly adding fresh water, you’re never going to be able to balance that perfectly.

You’re going to need somewhere for that excess water to drain to.

A drainage layer can come in a variety of forms, but they essentially act as a foundation and reservoir for your vivarium.

So, in some ways they’re a fail-safe, but they also carry additional benefits in boosting ambient humidity and supporting the reproduction of some of our micro custodians.

Leca is a common material choice for its ability to effectively hold both water and the weight of the plants and substrate, whilst being pretty lightweight itself.

You can use gravel/stones but it’s going to get heavy real fast.

Barrier

Now, before we move onto the next layer of our vivarium cake, we need to make sure it can’t fall into our freshly made foundation.

That’s why we put up some sort of mesh/fiber/screen barrier that still allows water through, but won’t allow substrate particles to block up the drainage layer.

A fiberglass screen is a common and inexpensive barrier that won’t rust or breakdown.

Substrate

The substrate layer is the growing medium that you’re going to be planting into.

It’s hard to understate just how important it is to get the right mix here.

It must be able to:

  • Retain moisture
  • Drain well
  • Resist compaction
  • Remain stable and resist breakdown

The most common choice is the classic ABG mix (or variation of it). It has all the necessary components in an optimised ratio to provide the best possible blend.

In terms of adding and sculpting the substrate, you might want to slope it towards the back or in particular areas. That way you can create a more dynamic landscape than just a flat surface.

> Read more: ABG Mix – The Classic Terrarium Substrate Recipe

Hardscape

Honestly, hardscape is the unsung hero of a vivarium.

The gnarling branches and textured rocks are what creates structure and dynamic shapes, not to mention lots of great 3D planting spots.

There’s a huge variety of hardwoods and aquascaping rocks to choose from.

Seiryu stone
Seiryu stone for example has incredible texture.

Even the back and sides of your container are opportunities for interesting design and builds!

It’s common to add a premade or custom background (or make your own using foam and silicone if you’re DIY-inclined) in order to create some natural shapes. 

For aesthetics, hardscape is an incredible tool, but it’s also important for your inhabitants. Whether it’s something to climb, hide under or just generally make them feel more at home – try to choose accordingly with your species of choice.

> Read more: 10 Dynamic Types of Wood for Terrariums (+ Photos)

> Read more: 3 Visually Stunning Terrarium Rocks for Creative Planting

Ground Cover

Ground cover is important for a true naturalistic look, but it’s also an essential part of a bioactive vivarium.

When I say ground cover, I’m mostly talking about leaf litter and similar organic materials.

It’s going to cover any areas of exposed substrate, but perhaps most importantly it’s going to slowly break down over time.

In a bioactive setup, as leaf litter breaks down it’s provides nutrients for the plants but also food for the various microfauna in the vivarium.

Plants for a Vivarium

Now, the exciting part!

Vivarium plants are as varied as they are beautiful. With all the extra controls a vivarium provides, it opens up a lot of new doors in terms of plant choice.

Not just in size (though in some cases, bigger is better) but also in diversity and type.

The real challenge – and fun – lies in using such vivarium space to it’s fullest extent. Really bringing that naturalistic environment to life with a variety of shapes, sizes, colours and textures.

Your vivarium is yours to explore with colour and shape.

To achieve this, you’ll want a nice balance of:

  • Ferns – These are full of texture, and they love the warmth and humidity of a tropical terrarium. A nice mix of broad-leafed and feathery ferns can really bring some dynamic foliage to a vivarium.
  • Vines – Both big and small, vines are the wild element of growth that looks natural and can link areas of a vivarium together. Plus, as natural climbers they’re a good way of adding some verticality to your foliage mix. For larger vivariums you can even experiment with some of the larger and more exotic aroids.
  • Foliage – The stars of the show. Foliage plants are simply those with eye-catching leaves, and they’re typically placed in the foreground of a vivarium as a focal point. You don’t need many of these, just a few to make the view pop!
  • Moss – In my opinion, moss should be used liberally in a vivarium. It’s what ties everything together visually and really brings a space to life. A reliable tropical sheet moss (e.g. Thuidium delicatulum) can be trained to grow on top of both the substrate and the hardscape to achieve a natural lush effect.
  • Epiphytes – These are plants that grow on other plants and objects. Which makes them perfect for 3-dimensional planting around the container. Without these, you’ll have all the fun stuff at the bottom and an empty tank everywhere else – so be sure to make use of them.

> Read more: Terrarium Plants Index

To create a true sense of scale you’ll want to plant the largest species at the back and the smallest species near the front. Beyond that, the (miniature) world in front of you is your oyster!

Vivarium Animals

With the loose definition of a vivarium being a container that’s designed and optimized to cultivate a particular type of life/environment – it follows that you should really stick to one.

In fact, the general rule of thumb in the industry is that you should build your vivarium around a single animal species.

Honestly, there’s just so much to consider in terms of optimizing an environment. Even just balancing a plant only ecosystem has its challenges, and a habitat for a single animal can bring a whole new level of complexity… let alone multiple species.

Whichever species you choose, you must research their specific wants and needs.

But, I’m sure you know that! After all, designing an environment that’s a good fit for both you and your animals is half the fun.

Choosing a Vivarium Animal

When it comes to choosing a species for your rainforest terrarium, it’s best to consider what I call “The Three S’

  • Small – So they won’t trample your plants, and they’ll typically feel much more at home in average sized containers.
  • Stable – Species that don’t need crazy seasonal fluctuations or any extremes of temperature/humidity are going to be the easiest to keep.
  • Sedentary – The more naturally sedentary a species is, the happier it’s going to be chilling in an enclosed environment (and probably more visibly too).
frog vivarium
Like a rainforest frog vivarium for example.

With that out the way, lets consider the (many) great options for a tropical vivarium.

  • Frogs – With all manner of tree frogs and poison dart frogs, there’s a huge variety of vibrant colourful species to choose from. 
  • Lizards – Arboreal lizards like geckos are excellent candidates for taller vivariums with plenty of branches to climb. Crested geckos are regarded as being great for beginners, but there are plenty of others to choose from.
  • Snakes – In a similar vein, climbing snakes like tree boas and tree pythons are natural choices for vivariums. Their laidback temperament means they’re happy to hang out on your hardscape.
  • Insects – For smaller vivariums, something like a mantis can be a really exciting addition.

Over to You

If you’ve made it this far, well done!

Hopefully you have a good idea of what it takes to make and maintain a true vivarium.

That being said, I get it – there’s a lot to take in initially (and I could have easily made this article twice as long).

With all this in mind, it can be a daunting project to take on.

It definitely requires a lot more patience, understanding and technical know-how than your average bottle terrarium – but the results really are worth it.

Like any other project, take it one step at a time and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

There are no mistakes in horticulture, only experiments!

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