Building a naturalistic vivarium.

Tony C

Wayward Frogger
Columbia, SC
This guide will explain the construction of a naturalistic vivarium using the clay background method. While the vivarium shown was constructed for poison dart frogs, many of the techniques can be adapted to suit the needs of geckos and other reptiles.

Materials required:

100% pure unfired clay kitty litter
peat moss
substrate and plants of your choice

Step 1. Soak the kitty litter overnight to rehydrate the clay. It should absorb several times its volume in water, don't be afraid to add more. Stir several times to ensure even distribution of water. The final product should be a soupy clay, similar in consistency to oatmeal.

Step 2. Mix the clay with damp peat moss in roughly equal proportions. Be sure to mix thoroughly, you don't want pockets of unmixed peat or clay. The final product should feel thick and sticky, but also easy to mold and shape.

Step 3. Apply the clay mix to the back wall of the tank. Start at the bottom and build up layers. Sculpt as desired.

Step 4. Add substrate. I use LECA (aka Hydroton or Hydro balls), an inorganic clay medium used for hydroponics.

Step 5 (optional). I add a small amount of uncooked rice to help feed microfauna like springtails, as well as beneficial bacteria and fungi. A healthy population of microfauna will help to break down wastes in the vivarium, and can also serve as a secondary food source for smaller animals.

Step 6 (optional). Add springtails from a starter culture. Springtails are likely to hitchike in on live plants, but adding them helps to establish a healthy population more quickly.

Step 7. If you made any pools in the clay, add a small amount of aquarium gravel to help protect the clay bottom.

Step 8. Add plants. Epiphytes like bromeliads may be attached to the clay. They often have a stem that can be inserted into the background, then build up a small amount of clay around the base to help stabilize them until they root in place. Terrestrials may be planted in the substrate, and vining plants pushed against the clay to encourage climbing.

Step 8. Top dressing. A thin layer of bark or sphagnum is added to cover the LECA.

Step 9 (optional) Leaf litter is added if appropriate for the species being housed.

Your vivarium is now ready to add the inhabitants, enjoy!

Last edited:


New Member
NICE!!! Now if the clay were covering the bottom of the tank, except for the area with the heat pad, could the leaves be pressed into the clay to provide an impaction resistant bedding?


New Member
Amazing guide, thank you!
Just a quick thought though, this only recently happened to me or I wouldn't have even thought to mention it. Always wash the leaves of any live plants added. Most greenhouses spray their plants with very strong pesticides (even some designed specifically to kill amphibian hitchhikers like the Cuban Tree frog), and these can leach from newly added plants into the terrarium and cause horrible toxicity-related diseases in your pets.