Help with inexpensive DIY paludarium ideas???

zssdiliizaJanuary 11, 2005

Has anyone built a large (ish) paludarium from scratch?

I would like to build a rather large paludarium (epiphites, mosses & ferns, emergents and submerged plants, as well as a few fish--probably tetras and a betta, and a couple of dart frogs, eventually). I already have some of the equipment, including a pump for the waterfall, shoplight fixtures with daylight bulbs and a supply of free scrap glass (though no pieces as large as I would like). But I am looking for an expensive--and attractive--way to house everything.

Specs: Probably about 4'wide X 4'tall X 2'deep (though that's just a general idea). I plan on doing the expandable foam background covered in sillicone with coir OR the dutch mixture of concrete primer and peat/coir, with a branching waterfall. I really want the bottom to be visible with lots of low-light plants and some fish. I probably will construct my own branches with foam or pipes (if I can figure it out!) With the plants in the bottom and the large surface area covered by the waterfall, it should be self-filtrating and the waste from the fish (it will be only very lightly stocked) should only enhance the plants.

What I would like is to have at least the entire front visible all the way down into the water (though a lip in front would be ok, the height of my underwater substrate). Water depth should be deep enough to grow some plants and be comfortable for the fish (10-ish inches?) so the bottom and sides and front would have to be strong.

I was thinking of either constructing a shell with plywood or using a found container, like an old display case, a glass-front cupboard or even a shower stall (?)and silliconing a glass pane to the front just above the hight I want my water to be. But, not having any prior experience constructing something strong enough to hold that much water, I figured it would help if I asked others who may have done it themselves.


Does anyone know of a cheap way to construct (or otherwise obtain cheaply) a shell that could be converted to a rather large paludarium?

I've done my research on the plants and animals, and even lots of internal construction techniques (the dutch sites, Black Jungle, Poison-frog site) but I have yet to see a decent-sized paludarium that wasn't either one of those huge expensive acrylic jobs with the sliding doors or just a large aquarium (with not enough height IMO).

Anyone got any advice?

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garyfla_gw(10 Florida)

This sounds quite similar to the one I want to construct.Afraid I don't have much experience with paludariums. Though I've kept both aquaria a nd terraria for many years I had never tried combining the two. Last Feb. I set up a 48x18x22 deep aquarium with the entire bottom with 8 to 10 inches of water an emergent land area on the left with an expanding foam waterfall on the right.
Mostly this was an experiment ,obviously 22 inches in depth is not enough for the water or land areas. Several problems have come up that seem unique to this type of setup. Such as the the fish really freak out in less than 10 inches of I'd intended to keep 5 to 7 iches of water but the fish hid all the time. Every inch of water depth eases the problem and at 12 inches it disappears entirely. Going to keep this in mind when i build my much larger one.
I think the dims you mention are about right.Should allow for enough water depth while still enough room for the land areas. As to DIY ,I don't think there's much choice as it's almost impossible to find containers this the ways you mention should be possibilties if
you can find them. I suspect the water area,due to the weight would have to be separate with the land areas on top.
A plywood shell would allow adjusting dims and with the proper coatings could extend into the water areas with only glass on one or two sides??
As to "inexpensive" I guess that would be related to what you could find for the main shell?? I've found a lot of possibilties in used furniture and architectural remnant stores. Keep two things in mind(at least lol) You can't have too much access to the interior.So be sure to build in a lot of doors. And what type of lights to use for the greater depth.
I'd hoped to be working on my setup by now but the hurricanes put that on hold until I get the house back in shape.
Please share your ideas and your progress as I find almost no info, on doing this.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2005 at 5:41AM
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Jim_Michaels(6b, Chester Co.)

Check out my reply to building large terrariums in the carnivorous plant forum.


    Bookmark   January 12, 2005 at 11:59AM
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People actually build entire large aqariums out of plywood, glass, and two part epoxy paint. Most people make three sides out of plywood and "silicone in" a front glass panel. The plywood is painted with two part epoxy, which is long lasting and nontoxic (once dried).

For your setup, you cold definatly follow the same construction plan, only you wouldn't have to "glass in" the enitre front; you'd just make a "lip."

Try this first link for very specific details on building a plywood/glass aquarium (they can be easily modified for a paludarium setup). The website layout is weird, so I can't give the the exact link.

1) Go to

2) On the left scroll down panel, click on the "DIY Pages" folder.

3) Click on the "Tank building" page

4)Type in the dimensions of the tank you want to create. Then, fill in a material choice bubble.

5)Press submit. You will get free custom plans with exact dimentions and a supply list.

Other pages that are based on this site:

    Bookmark   January 12, 2005 at 7:07PM
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sahoyaref(Alberta z3a)

I would just like to say that you can't keep tetras and bettas together. Bettas are not for community tanks, and tetras are fin-nippers. They would basically try to kill each-other. Tetras are a great choice though, especially for such soft water.

I'm afraid that nothing that size will be truly cheap though. Check out two other threads on this forum that deal with something very similar. Do a search for 'Brainstorming on a Giant Orchidarium' and 'My Own Giant Orchidarium/Paludarium'. A lot of things regarding lighting, access, materials, etc. are discussed in those threads.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2005 at 7:52PM
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In my own experience, as long as the water is not turbulent and there are no fin nippers, a beta will do very well. Betas thrive in aquarium conditions. Those death pens that most people keep them in are definatly not their prefered habitats. They love heated, planted, well airated tanks. Contrary to popular belief, betas are generally not aggressive to other fish. Male betas will difinatly fish amongst themselves to the point of death, though.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2005 at 8:35PM
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The references and websites were very helpful, thanks!

What about compact flourescent lights? I've never used them before. Do the bulbs fit into standard flourescent fixtures, or do they have their own fixtures? Are they expensive (I know halides are!).

I would like to do this project as inexpensively as possible, so I can focus on filling it with plants. I did read the orchidarium posts, BTW, before I even posted here. They were very inspiring. Especially since it was very much like what I am interested in doing.

Also, what about procuring plants? I know there are a lot of people here growing similar terrarium plants (tillandsia, CPs and orchids among others). What are some cheap (er) ways to go about stocking your large terrarium? Are all of these slow-growing (i.e. not worth starting from seed or small bits?). Are there people/places to get cuttings/starts? I have a couple of plants already--a black jewel orchid, some lemon button fern, pothos (of course!) and a spider plant start--but certainly not enough to stock a paludarium that size (and I doubt I want pothos or spider plant in it anyway. I'm really more interested in ferns and mosses, and various epiphytes). I also checked out the aquatic plant exchange briefly (not much there right now), and will probably look more into the orchid forums as well...

OH! And here's something I've been struggling with--how to create a sufficient land-area for growing terrestrials in a paludarium? Obviously leaves the false-bottom out. Does anyone know of a tried-and-true way to create a land area with enough media/drainage to support terrestrials? I'm open to ideas here. I haven't really found any information on that aspect.

Thanks a lot for your imput thus far!

    Bookmark   January 13, 2005 at 12:23PM
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garyfla_gw(10 Florida)

Would assume the entire bottom will have standing water??
I used a quater circle plastic table with the legs cut to water line.This was working for the terrestrials until I had to raise the water level to keep the fish from freaking out. I now have only 3 true terrestrials the rest are semi-aquatic or aquatic plants.I also tried emergent driftwood as well as "floating" cork islands. I've removed all the media due to the constant saturation so the terrestrials are actually growing hydroponicly. as well as epiphyticly.
I just don't have enough space above water line to get very creative. As you probably know most aquarium plants
will grow above waterline. Many seem to prefer it.
Kind of interesting how the terrestrials have grown aquatic as well as brace roots. I think when I build my large paludarium I'll use emergent lava rock and grow everything with this method. The epi's will be attached to
limbs suspended above the water. Every type of media I've tried has caused some sort of problem.

    Bookmark   January 14, 2005 at 4:02AM
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sahoyaref(Alberta z3a)

I saw on another forum that someone made floating land parts along the back of their paludarium. It even had step-by-step photos. But I don't think you'd want to do that with a tank your size. It would get too heavy, and the islands would sink. I think you'd want to either do as gary suggested and build up some pumice/lava rock, or, since that would be fairly heavy, make a fake 'riverbank' or other structure out of foam (see the thread on expanding foam. I'd use the stuff for pond waterfalls) or large PVC pipes or something, and cover that with a peat/concrete bonder mix or treefern fibre or something. Don't forget to make use of the entire height of the tank. I love the look of cork bark, but you could do something else, too. I wouldn't use a substrate though, like gary says. Things just seem to stay too wet, especially if you had a rain wall going to water the plants constantly. Even terrestrials prefer growing epiphytically in that case, unless you had an EXTREMELY well-aerated, inorganic mix, like LECA or something. But that doesn't look so natural. =)

As for compact fluo's, they can be expensive, and they can be cheap. The cheap ones screw into standard incandescent fixtures and can be easily found at places like Home Depot. If you get the pin types, they are much more expensive, need a special fixture, but also tend to have a better light output. You'll need to shop around and compare prices. But no matter what you do, virtually no fluorescent bulbs can get any significant amount of light farther than two feet, so if you want a four-foot tall tank, you will need to choose your plants accordingly. Only put low-light plants in the bottom half of the tank. That jewel orchid should go higher up.

As for getting plants cheaply, Lowes and HD often have a lot of plants in those little 2-3" pots for about a buck. That's cheap, and they will grow so quickly in a terrarium that there is no need to buy larger plants. Also, try getting cuttings off of friends. Some smaller, privately owned nurseries will even give you cuttings sometimes if you ask (and if you are friends with the owner and/or a regular customer). I think that many CPs are easily grown from seed. Other than that though, orchids are expensive, as are some of the rarer epi's. You could try to arrange a trade with some of the people on this forum. I know gary has a lot of stuff in his greenhouse. I'd send you some stuff, but I live in Canada, so it would never make it across the border. You'll just have to be patient in stocking that tank! =) Besides, even if you crammed the tank full of plants right from the start, you'll find that it really doesn't get that settled, established look until it is at least a few years old. That's when moss has had a chance to grow almost everywhere, and the plants are larger and firmly attached. I think that that's part of the fun though, the waiting and seeing things grow.

BTW, when did I ever say that a betta wouldn't do well in an aquarium? They would be great! They love the soft water, and the cleaner water, the swimming room, etc. It's sharing a space with other fish that they don't like. Yes, yes, I now that lots of people keep bettas with their guppies and other fish, but I have never seen a betta that actually looked happy in this situation. They don't display their fins as well (except perhaps in aggression), and they aren't very active. In nature, these are highly territorial, solitary fish. Only when breeding will they tolerate the presence of another fish, and even then, they can be highly aggressive, biting at the female. They really are not for community tanks. A large school of neon or cardinal tetras is a beautiful sight to behold, especially in a tank this size, and because they are small fish, there is little risk of overstocking. Whatever you do, make SURE you choose a fish that really likes soft water. Their bodies are designed to be in water with few or no minerals. Hard-water fish would be miserable, because there are no minerals at all in RO water, and that is what you will need to use.

    Bookmark   January 14, 2005 at 2:16PM
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I would be interested in a link to that thread about floating land parts, if you can remember where it is. From the looks of things, I may have to start with a smaller setup first anyway (seems to be an expensive project no matter how you do it!).

I called HD and asked about compact fluos today, looks like about $10 a pop. Not bad, considering, but not the ones that will connect to my current shoplight fixtures. Do the compacts that screw into incandescent fixtures provide the same quality of light? Does it make a difference? I have some incandescent fixs and would rather use them if I can.

As far as a land area is concerned; what about making a sloping land area out of carved styrofoam insulation board (painted with the epoxy, of course)? Say the base of the land area is level with the water. There is a slope from front to back up into the back wall of say, 5 inches (5" being the very back of the land). Toward the back I carve out a hole and give it a false bottom of plastic mesh (I don't know what it is called--it's crafter's stuff, finer mesh than eggcrate, made of some kind of plastic, heard it recomended as a component in false bottoms to prevent larger particles from falling through) or fiberglass screen, and fill it with LECA. The water would then only come up to the level of the screened bottom. The plant is placed inside the pocket, in what would be about 3-4" of LECA, and put some sphagnum moss over the top to disguise it. That would allow the water to pass through the media without soaking it (I could let the water trickle into it, or bypass it completely) and would be plenty of air space. Does this sound like something that might work? Did my description make any sense? :)

As far as ferns are concerned, could they grow in something like this? Can they be trained to grow epiphytically? I would really like to have some low-light ferns and mosses on the "land" area. I was thinking bacopa as an emergent as well as anubias, java fern, and java moss. Any other ideas for the low light bottom (aquatics, emergents and/or terrestrials)?

    Bookmark   January 14, 2005 at 2:50PM
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Hey! What if, instead of painting the whole interior of the plywood shell with epoxy (which, I believe is expensive, is it not?) covering it with spare linoleum instead--glue it to the walls and sillicone all the edges?

    Bookmark   January 15, 2005 at 5:07PM
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sahoyaref(Alberta z3a)

Any compact that is 'cool white' or 'daylight' will be good. Doesn't matter if they are screw-in or pin-in. It's just that the pin ones TEND to be available in higher wattages (and therefore, higher light outputs). But enough compacts would compensate for that, and probably still be cheaper, even when you figure in that you need to replace the bulbs every 6-12 months (I'd do every 6 months in a tank as deep as yours, or the bottom plants would really suffer for those last 6 months).

Using lino could work if you use a good quality lino. I'd be worried it would peel eventually.

I know what you mean about the styrofoam and the planting pockets, and I think it would for sure work. And most ferns are epiphytic, so that shouldn't be a problem. I notice that my lemon button fern, despite being grown in dirt in most nurseries (as are many epiphytic ferns, for some reason), puts out green, fuzzy aerial roots, and would undoubtedly climb if it could, and attach itself very well to a branch or textured slope.

As for your aquatics, java ferns and java moss aren't really true aquatics. They always seem to get a lot of algae on them when completely submerged. In nature, they grow aerially, in extremely humid environments. So I think that your java ferns would do better with only their roots in the water. Also, the java moss is a perfect choice of moss for any tropical terrarium, and will eventually cover everything you let it cover (a good thing, in my opinion), so by all means, get a few handfuls and place them in a thin layer anywhere they will stay quite moist all the time. You don't want it drying out, so I'd play it safe and start it near the water. It will eventually spread to other areas. Anubias is a good choice for an emergent though. What about Amazon Swords? in a tank as big as yours you could have just one and let it get enormous. That would be quite a show-piece!

    Bookmark   January 16, 2005 at 6:43PM
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Are the swords tolerant of lower light levels? I know anubias is, as well as java moss and fern. I was thinking some bacopa as an emergent as well...

The compact fluorescents need to be replaced *every 6 months*??? I thought they were supposed to last for, like, a couple of years!

BTW- ebay seems to be a good source for quantities of compact fluos, how many do you think I would need--if they were the screw-in kind (75 watts? not sure)?

    Bookmark   January 18, 2005 at 5:02PM
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sahoyaref(Alberta z3a)

Yes, swords are tolerant of lower light levels. My husband used to grow them in his planted discus tank, and they did very well. I have no experience with bacopa, so i can't comment on that, other than that I thought i read once they needed med-high light levels. I can't say for sure though.

You need to replace the bulbs every 6 months because you will have them on for about 12-14 hours every day. That is way beyond what most people use them for (just as bulbs in lamps), and after about 6 months, they will loose most of their effective light output. Of course it still looks just fine to the human eye, but your plants will really suffer. Plants need a LOT of light, much more than we need just to see normally, so you really can't go by how bright a light 'looks' to you. Another factor is that the bulbs tend to burn out the blue end of the spectrum first, and blue light is very important to plants. The human eye, however, can't see blue light very well (we're best suited to seeing yellow light, which is not that helpful to plants), so again, you can't tell how good a bulb is for your plants just by looking at it.

As for buying on eBay, I have no idea. I've never really looked at bulbs there. I have bought some things on eBay, and I've learned to be very, very careful. Ask the seller lots of specific questions. You can get great deals, but you can also get ripped off big time. Compact fluo's are a little confusing, because a seller could say that they are selling 75 watt bulbs. Now does this mean they use 75 watts, or that they output light equivalent to a 75 watt incandescent bulb? If the former, then they would be putting out way more light, and would be great for your terrarium. If the latter, then they are probably more like a 20 W bulb (energy usage), and you would need more of them to light your terr. sufficiently. To give you a general idea of how much light you'll need, I have an 85 gallon tank. It is 48"w x 18"d x 22"h. I have three bulbs (with an excellent reflector, I might add. Makes a big difference) that total about 80 W in their energy usage. They output the equivalent (as compared to incandescent bulbs) of 240 W (I think). The important thing is the lumens though. That is the actual light output. And I can't remember how many lumens they put out right now. I know I saved a box, but I can't find it right now, so I'll try to find it later and tell you. You really need to get a good reflector though, because otherwise you are going to loose half of your light (the topside of the bulbs, that faces away from your terrarium). Since your tank is about twice the size of mine, I would double the amount of light I have, and then add some extra, because of your increased depth. You will be able to tell if you have enough light by the way your plants grow. If they grow nice and compact, retain good leaf colour in variegated and coloured plants, and if some green-leaved plants get a nice reddish tinge to them, then you have plenty of light, and that's great! If colours fade and plants appear to be stretching towards the light, you need to add more. Also, if you grow nepenthes, the pitchers will get better colour in higher light. Don't really worry about having too much light, because it is very hard to burn plants with fluo's. They would have to actually touch the bulb, or be suddenly put directly under one after having been growing in very shady conditions for a long time. Oh yeah, I will be adding another bulb to my light hood this weekend. So based on the number of bulbs alone, you will need about 10 (of the average HD kind). If you can find higher watt bulbs on eBay, then you'll need fewer of them. And make sure you don't replace all the bulbs at once, because that can also shock and burn some of your plants. Stagger them. Since you'd have about 10 bulbs, you'll be replacing about 1 bulb a month. I always write at the base of a bulb when it needs replacing. Otherwise you just can't keep track of them all, and some could be a year old before you get around to replacing them.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2005 at 4:56PM
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homer_zn5(z5 IN)

I don't replace my compact fluorescents until they burn out. So far, that hasn't been a problem for me, and my first bulbs lasted about 2+ years. Even up until the bulbs burned out, my Dendrobium kept blooming, my mini Cattleyas kept growing, and my Nepenthes kept growing (how do you get them to stop???- ;) ). I have three 40 watt CF fixtures (pin-type, not screw-in) over a 24" x 24" x 24" terrarium I built from glass, plywood, and epoxy paint. When you purchase the screw in bulbs, make sure you are looking at the actual wattage that they use and not their incandescent equivalent (which is how most of them are sold). The other trick is to make sure you are getting "daylight" bulbs: 5000k to 6500K in color.

The GARF page is great . . . I used it when designing my terrarium. Mine is not a paludarium, but here are some pics of how mine went together (see link below). Right now, I have a second one that is 3/4 of the way done (different design, using predominantly 1/4" plywood--light, cheap, and strong if put together properly).

Here is a link that might be useful: Building a Terrarium from Scratch

    Bookmark   January 20, 2005 at 5:11PM
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sahoyaref(Alberta z3a)

Homer can get away with not replacing his bulbs as often because they are the pin type. Many of these are better quality bulbs (and more expensive), and are actually designed to burn at full strength until they burn out. The screw-in compacts won't, so it's much better to replace them regularly. I definitely notice a difference with mine. My plant growth will slow down a lot, and I'll be wondering why they aren't growing, and then I'll replace the bulbs, and in a few days they're growing again.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2005 at 6:39PM
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homer_zn5(z5 IN)

I didn't know there was a difference between the pin and screw types with regard to longevity, but SA is right--I use the pin-type fixtures.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2005 at 9:12PM
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beaners(6 PA)

I recall having read in a couple places that the lights appear dimmer to us PEOPLE but still put out just about the same amount of energy that the plants need. Now I'm going to have to find out where exactly I saw that...


(I've noticed that bulbs seem to go on sale once a year at the local hardware store, never the same time of year, but if you find a really good deal you won't have to even think about whether or not your bulbs "need" replacing)

    Bookmark   January 30, 2005 at 12:34PM
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sahoyaref(Alberta z3a)

Even if you did read that somewhere, it's wrong. A good place to go for specific lighting questions is the artificial lighting forum here on GardenWeb. Those people know a TON of stuff about lighting, and a lot more of the specifics and science than me.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2005 at 12:03AM
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macropora(z5 ME)

What part of Maine are you in? I breed Dart frogs and also work with a few types of Agalychnis species (Leaf frogs) I also work with some Phyllomedusa frogs. Vance's Tropical fish in Bucksport, Vance not only has a few tanks there, but will be happy to gab away with you & hook you up with items that you will need. He has built a few in his day.The computer is fun but there is nothing like hands on and face to face. If you need any other info e-mail me!

    Bookmark   February 3, 2005 at 11:01PM
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I think this guy has the right idea. hope this helps.

Here is a link that might be useful: Black jungle

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 8:36PM
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