Need help with naturalistic vivarium for reptiles using plants

thegreatdictatorJanuary 21, 2007


I've never grown any plants before. But I'm getting a crested gecko soon, and want to do a live vivarium. Using live plants I mean. I have some specific plants I want to use. Ficus Benjamina mostly. I've been doing a lot of research on this for sometime and have been wanting to try it. But I however have never really grown plants. I need some tips on growing plants in a vivarium for reptiles. I'll quote a little from the book I'm reading by Phillipe De Vosjoli.

On substrate (for those not familiar with reptile husbandry, substrate is the term for the ground you use.):

"We recommend both for display and non-commercial purposes (where 100% of eggs is not critical), a potting soil mix where the main component is either peat moss or ground fir bark with no perlite. Perlite is unsightly, floats to the surface during waterings, and several species of lizard will ingest it. The mix should not contain contain fertilizers or pesticides. We add about a 5 percent sand and 15% fine orchid bark to the potting soil, then moisten it before adding a two to three inch layer to a vivarium. Once added, the mix is patted down lightly to make the surface firm. Plants are then added followed by landscape structures."

On biologically active substrate:

"With a little bit of extra work it is possible to make the substrate biologically active so that it readily breaks down fecal matter. THe key to having a functional bioactive substrate is to regularly stir the drier surface layer which will include fecal matter, toward the lower moist layer. This allows for the development of bacterial and fungal bioactivity that will degrade the waste matter and keep the substrate healthy and functional...... To keep the substrate active it should be kept moistened (never soggy) except for the very surface layer, which, which being exposed to air, will tend to dry out quickly . Daily light spraying and light watering once a week will help maintain the proper substrate. We have kept crested geckos and giant geckos on bioactive substrates with no substrate replacement for more than two years."

Live Plants:

"The primary landscape of any crested gecko vivarium should consist of foliage plants. We have found that weeping figs (Ficus Benjamina) with a spread that extends over half the tank are ideal for keeping crested geckos. Both the branching pattern and their lead distribution make them ideal for these geckos to climb and conceal themselves. Other species that can be included in there setups are dracaenas, dwarf umbrella plants, spineless bromeliads such as some of the neoregelias, birdsnest ferns (Asplenium), and hoyas. The will be used for climbing to access foliage of tree specie such as ficus. Baby crested geckos will also rest between the leaves of these tough vines. Plants with small leaves and thin stems or fibrous mosses should be avoided as they may be accidentally swallowed when a lizard is feeding. In the design of the vivarium use plants sparingly with lots of open space at ground level."

Ok so now you know the experiment. Not really an experiment for herpeticulture or horticulture, but an experiment for me. Now these plants will be living in a 28Lx24Wx24xH vivarium. Here is a picture of exact tank.

I will be putting a UVB source in the tank as well. An 18 inch fixture. WHich is important obviously because the plants will be concealed in this tiny tank.

Ok so now the questions. These plants can not be in a typical plant set up. For instance no fertilizers and no perlite. And no pesticides. I don't even know where to get most of this stuff. I checked Wall Mart today but with little success. I did however find a ficus benjamina. My first goal is to get the tank set up. Learning to keep these plants alive before I even buy the gecko. The cage comes fist, then the animal. I'm figuring I'm going to keep the plants in there own pots in the tank. The solid tank won't allow for the water to drain. I heard that could be a problem. Not to mention that when stiring the substrate, I could potentially cut the roots. Anyways, plant keeping is very new for me. Any advice that could be given on this subject would be greatly appreaciated.

I know what your thinking. Why ask here? Why not go to a reptile forum? Because reptile keepers don't know jack about keeping plants. Not to mention that most gecko owners tend to kids whose gecko is there first plant. Also, most reptile owners find it risky to even use a particle based substrate. There afraid of impaction. My personal opinion is that impaction doesn't come for particle substrate, but from bad husbandry techniques.

So thus I come here. Dirt and plants is something I believe would be better answered here. SO here I am. And I thank anyone who took the time to read this. I understand it's long and lengthy, but at least it's interesting? ;) Well I think so anyway. So I need help in understanding how to keep these plants alive. PLEASE ANSWER!

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garyfla_gw(10 Florida)

Not sure I can be of much help as the terrariums i keep are actually paludariums .Half water half land . keep fish plants and a tropical mantis.
Have setup many terrariums over the years and there are hundreds of ways to go about it.
Since you want this as a habitat for an animal you'll have to pick plants for that atmosphere obviously.
Some sites I'd suggest for help are "Black jungle"."Dutch Vivaria" these are centered mostly on the habitat rather than the animals
Would assume you're going for warm ,moist rather than dry desert type setup??
As to the substrate there are a hundred ways to do that also.Depending on what you want to grow. You can always buy the individual ingredients and mix it yourself. If you are going for F. benjamina ,I would suggest a pot as they get very large. gary

    Bookmark   January 24, 2007 at 6:38AM
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I have had many experiences with plants in my crested gecko vivarium, some have been a success, some have not.
I find that if you are thinking of putting live plants in there, definitely keep them in their pots (or transplant to a larger pot so they can grow a little). If you plant them right into the soil, the plants will go into shock and it will take them too long to get established, in this time your gecko will trample the plant and you will have to replace it (I have replaced several plants before finding this out).
As for the types of plants to use, definitely use a plant that is tough (if you can put some pressure on it and it doesn't bend too easily, thats great)
I have used cheflera, with no luck. The leaves are too easily trampled.
Pothos is great, it is a tough, resilient plant.
Any type of ivy (except poison!) is great, but mostly for aesthetics. The geckos don't really tend to walk on this plant too much because it isn't supportive enough.
Snake Plant. This has been the best plant that I have found for crested geckos. The leaves are poisonous to animals that will eat the leaves, however crested geckos have no teeth and aren't interested in eating the plant. Also, the leaves are too rubbery for your crested gecko to eat. They love these plants because of the wide, strong, rubbery leaves. I often find my geckos curled up in between the leaves to sleep. Make sure your snake plant is NOT in a 4 inch pot, this is too small.
I have also tried draceana, however the leaves are not supportive enough, and get trampled easily.
I have not tried a ficus benjamina, though I am very familiar with the plant. Of the 3 plants I have in my home, none of them have branches strong enough to support a gecko in the air.

Pothos, Snake Plant, Ivy

If the leaves or branches bend when the gecko is sitting on them, your gecko will not enjoy the plant as much. I have found even with certain vines (made for reptiles) that if they aren't sturdy enough, the gecko's won't use them.

Good luck with your geckos. I have 2 happy cresties and I hope you do too.

    Bookmark   February 2, 2008 at 1:49PM
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(1) Create a Drainage Layer:
You need to create a drainage Layer for your plants. If the plant's roots are left in standing water, then the roots may rot causing you problems. You can avoid this by using a layer of pea gravel or lava rock to create a drainage area for your plants. My drainage layer is between 1" to 1.5" deep.

(2) Non-Toxic Substrate:
The quality of the substrate you grow your plants in is very important! You do NOT want to get ordinary potting soil. Potting soil is filled with fertilizers and other additives that is great for plants, but can be harmful and sometimes fatal to your herp.
I know a zoo keeper who uses "Edna's Best Potting Soil" to create vivariums for the zoo's herps. It can be difficult finding a retailer that sells it so please visit their website and type in your zip code to find a store near you that will carry their soil. Their website is

(3) Planting your Plants
Do not simply stick your potted plant in the soil of your terrarium. Please remove the plant from your pot, and gently pull away as much soil as you can from the roots. Then rinse away the dirt from the roots in room temperature water. I prefer to treat my water by putting a few drops of de-chlorinator. If you don't have this, you can leave your water out in a sterile, non-metallic open container for about 24 hours. This will allow the chlorine and the fluoride to evaporate.

(4) Fertilizer
Do NOT use synthetic fertilizers! It can be fatal to your herp. If you're plant is in serious need of a pick me up, I would suggest using an organic fertilizer.

(5) Don't ever use pesticides on your plants.

(6) Maintenance
I think this is the best part. You can shape your landscape by religiously trimming and training your plants. These geckos are nocturnal so I never see them during the day. I was sick of looking at what appeared to be an empty sad little terrarium so I created a vivarium that was aesthetically pleasing to the eye during the day, but still a great home for the geckos.

I hope this helps!

Here is a link that might be useful: The Apartment Garden

    Bookmark   August 8, 2008 at 1:15AM
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