How to make an Arboreal Vivarium


Sandblasted manzanita in place in the vivarium. Sandblasted manzanita is a great vivarium wood – it is hard, durable, and will not rot for several years.

 This vivarium already had a background in place – to replicate it, check out the blogs Dont Back Down From the Background and How To Create a Fake Rock Background. I used some nice pieces of sandblasted manzanita, one of several varieties of vivarium friendly wood we carry I arranged the wood in a way that would create perching and climbing areas for the Abronia, as well as plenty of nooks and crannies to shove epiphytic plants into. I was able to wedge all the wood into place without permanently attaching it, due to the fact I could push the wood into the background a bit. Then, I was ready to plant my future Abronia vivarium.


 I planted the vivarium in several steps before I thought it was truly finished. Whenever I plant a vivarium, regardless of what animal will inhabit it, I typically have a set arrangement in which I place the plants.

  1. Place focal plants first. This allows me to begin to interpret how the finished vivarium will work, and where the eye will wander when observing the vivarium. Generally, focal plants will be large, colorful, and/or have interesting patterns or leaf structure. Because these bromeliads were simply wedged into crevices between the manzanita wood, no soil was used – the base of the plant was gently wrapped in moist sphagnum moss.

  2. Place utilized plants. Depending what species will be inhabiting the vivarium, I then place specific plants that the animal will utilize. In this case, it is a larger bromeliad that the Abronia will use as a source of standing water and shelter. Other examples might be large, water holding bromeliads that Dendrobates ventrimaculatus will use to rear young, or a plant with large, smooth leaves that a Dendrobates tinctorius would lay eggs on. By placing these plants after the focal plants are in place, I can see how the utilized plants will be incorporated into the future plant layout, and make it pleasing to the eye.

  3. Place background plants. The deeper your vivarium, the more important this step is. As the vivarium becomes more densely planted, it will be more difficult to plant background plants as time goes on. Background plants will serve to add to the illusion of depth, making it appear that the tank extends much further back than it actually does. Background plants may also serve a more practical purpose, such as providing a surface for the vivarium inhabitants to scale or climb on. In this case, the primary background plant is a species of Huperzia/Lycopodium, planted in a ball of damp sphagnum. Later, the misting system output will be located directly above the plant, providing it with much needed moisture.

  4. Place side/accessory plants. At this time, begin to fill in the sides of the vivarium. These plants will eventually help to break up the lines formed by the background and geometric nature of the tank, making the interior of the vivarium appear much more natural. Straight lines rarely occur in nature, and these plants will help absolve any apparent straight edges. In this case, we are replicating a cloud forest, so a variety of epiphytes are used, including Tillandsias and an ant plant.

  5. Fill in the gaps. At this stage, step back and observe the vivarium for a couple minutes. Get a feel for how your eye flows from plant to plant. I’m sure you’ll find that a particular gap or two simply makes something scream out as unnatural. Go ahead and place additional plants in these gaps, adding to the finished appearance of the vivarium.

  6. Add foreground plants and accents. These are located up at the front of the vivarium, and will add to the illusion of depth in the vivarium. In this case, I placed a pair ofTillandsias in the central branch towards the top of the vivarium. To view into the vivarium, you have to look past the plants, aiding to the illusion that you’re peering into dense jungle. Josh’s Frogs Sheet Moss was also added, to replicate epiphyte laden branches covered in lush moss. This gave the vivarium a finished, grown in look, as if the tank could have existed like it is for several years.

  7. Plant terrestrial plants (not pictured). Since this particular Abronia vivarium was focused on epiphytic plants, terrestrial plants took a back seat, and were not planted until substrate was added. Taller plants should go towards the back, while shorter, creeping plants should be utilized up front.

  8. After the vivarium has grown in, add additional plants (not pictured). It’s pretty hard to get all of the planting correct initially. Remove any plants that are dead or dying. If some plants are not doing well, remove them or relocate them to a new position in the vivarium. If there are any gaps in growth that look unnatural, add some plants there.


 The simple bottom of an Abronia vivarium, comprising of a hearty layer of ling fiber sphagnum moss and leaf litter.

 For the substrate in this vivarium, I went with a 3 inch layer of sphagnum moss, covered in leaf litter. In the wild, Abronia will take shelter in damp moss during dry periods, or periods of extreme temperatures. Should the humidity or temperature in this vivarium drift outside of the animal’s comfort zone, the deep layer of long fiber sphagnum moss will serve as a refuge. As such, it will have to be changed every couple of months, and springtails and isopods will only minimally be depended on for waste control. The added layer of Sea Grape leaves is just for looks. If this vivarium was for any other species, I most likely would have utilized the typical hydroton/substrate barrier/ABG/sphagnum/leaf litter substrate layers.

Have more questions? Submit a request