Step-by-step Guide: Setting up a Bioactive Vivarium

Semantics: A vivarium is a terrarium with an animal in it. I use both terms here to mean the same thing.

An introduction to bioactive vivaria. This is wordy, but it gives a good introduction. The section on substrate (soil) is useful.

I just started rough drafting a web page that lists some of the things I’ve bought that worked.

Terrarium Setup

Initial terrarium setup — everything before you put plants in — is the hardest, most tedious part. This is a long list, but it will be wonderful once it’s done.

Here is an overview of the basic steps:
  1. Clean and place the terrarium where you want it.
  2. Install the drainage layer (the lava rock gravel or hydroballs).
  3. Install the screen mesh and put your soil mixture on top of that.
Below are details for each step.

1. Clean and place the terrarium where you want it

  1. Acquire a front-opening terrarium. For a tree frog, it should be at least 18″ high and 24″ wide.
    • A top-opening tank may confuse your frog when you open the top. They want to climb up and be high up in their environment.
  2. Test the terrarium for water leaks first, before you add anything else.
  3. Sterilize and thoroughly clean the terrarium, especially if it’s used. Make sure there is no soap or bleach remaining anywhere on or in it – rinse it well.
  4. Decide where to locate the terrarium.
    • You will not be able to pick up and move the terrarium later, without completely undoing all the work you are about to do.
    • Tree frogs appreciate a calm quiet environment that also has some beauty and movement. It’s nice for them to see a window, or to be near where you will spend a lot of time, like a desk or a living room.
    • It should be on a stable surface that can handle a lot of weight.
    • It should be at a good height for you to enjoy looking in the front of the terrarium, so that you will spend time observing your frogs. The more you enjoy them, the more likely you are to notice if there is a problem in the future .
  5. Support the bottom of the glass: If there is a space between the bottom glass and the table underneath, it’s a good idea to put something that fits exactly that gap so that the glass is supported in the middle. I used a 1/4″-thick piece of plywood plus a few sheets of paper until it fit exactly.

2. Install the drainage layer.

Rinse your drainage layer substrate — I use landscaping lava rock gravel — thoroughly with regular tap water, then gently put it into the bottom of the terrarium. Be careful not to break the glass.

  • If you want to add a water feature, this is the time to plan and install it.
  • The drainage layer should be 2-3″ deep.
  • Make the top as level as you can. With the lava rock gravel, that won’t be very level; that’s OK. I sometimes put the biggest rocks in first, then the smaller pieces can help the top be more level.
  • These rocks are sharp and abrasive. They should not be used or exposed in the terrarium, above the soil, since a frog could easily get a scrape or injury from a lava rock. They are not decor – they are for underneath everything only and must be completely covered.

3. Install the screen mesh and put your soil mixture on top of that.

  1. Rinse your screen mesh in hot water, then place it on top of the drainage layer (lava rock).
  2. Soil mix: Make sure your soil mixture is moist but not soggy (you might need to add a little moisture). Spread it on top of the screen mesh.
    • Don’t use regular potting soil. It’s not made for the humid environment of a terrarium. It might also have chemicals in it that aren’t good
    • Pre-mixed terrarium soil: If you don’t want to mix your own, you can buy tropical terrarium soil from several different companies, like BioDude, Josh’s Frogs, Glass Box Tropicals, or Frog Daddy.
    • Soil mix recipe: this does not have to be exact or precise. Here’s what I use, approximately (I think) for a large terrarium: mix in a large clean bucket: 1 quart peat moss + 1 quart coconut coir (I have a lot of this) + 2 quarts orchid bark + 1 quart horticultural charcoal + 2 quarts sphagnum moss. You can add a little commercial potting soil, too, if you want. Next time I make this, I’ll probably add some shredded dead/dry leaves (after sterilizing them).

That’s it! Initial setup is done, and you are ready to add background cover, decor items, rocks, hiding places, and plants.

lamp notes

Any lamp that will let you position the light bulb directly above the terrarium will work. Some desk lamps will do nicely, but many people use the inexpensive dome light fixtures sold at pet stores.

used equipment

There is a lot of used reptile/amphibian equipment on Craigslist.

Sterilize everything you buy used. I recommend a bleach solution for the terrarium (sorry). Not fancy bleach, not splashless, just regular old unscented Clorox or generic bleach: that’s because if you let it dry completely, you can be sure that it will turn into something completely non-toxic.

How I sterilize a terrarium: I am not a vet, so please consider this information and make your own best decision, or research elsewhere to supplement what I’m writing. I might do this outside to avoid bleach fumes, but it’s important that it not be in full sun or too hot. The bleach solution shouldn’t evaporate too quickly.

I first make sure the item has no visible dirt or residue; sometimes this requires washing with detergent. Then, I spray it with bleach solution until every surface is completely drenched. Let sit for 30 minutes (or longer). Somehow get it completely dry: wiping, or evaporation. Then rinse thoroughly and make sure there is no hint of bleach or any other smell.

It is vitally important to a) let the terrarium dry completely to get rid of all the bleach, then rinse it very thoroughly.


You can hang perches with twine and a small branch/stick/barch plank, but do not make loops/knots around the perch. No matter how tightly you tie the loop around the branch, there will eventually be a tiny gap between the perch and the top of the loop, as gravity, time, and moisture stretch out the string.

Instead, I drill a tiny hole through the branch or bark, thread the string through, and then make a knot to keep the string from sliding back. Then you can thread the string through the top mesh of the vivarium and knot it around something to make it stay.

Do not make the perches too heavy, since this will stress the top of the terrarium mesh.

water features

I love making water features in terraria. They take some planning; you have to fit a bunch of rocks together like a puzzle, and install everything as you are initially building the terrarium.

To set up a water feature, I use:

  • A very gentle fountain pump. The ones I’ve found that I like the best pump less than 50 gallons per hour and are powered through a USB cable/connector (Lowe’s carries one).
  • About 24″ of tubing, preferably silicone, that fits the pump
  • A plastic pint milk container. #2 plastic is fairly safe, and that’s what these milk containers are often made from. A different plastic container will work — you’ll see how it’s used below.
  • An assortment of rocks that are mostly flat on top and bottom. The lighter-colored tan/brown flagstones work for this. You’ll need a bunch of well-shaped rocks of the same thickness to make a kind of wall — that will be the edges of your water feature “pond”.
  • Some kind of rocks that will stack _very securely_ to mount and hide the output end of your tubing. Alternatively, you can forgo the height and just feed the tubing in through the side of your “pond” — however, if you can introduce a tiny trickling waterfall, it’s really lovely.