What is a Vivarium?

What is a Vivarium?

If you’ve ever taken a walk through a botanic garden, it’s likely you’ve become a touch jealous over the variety of exotic plants that can be grown in greenhouse conditions.

Not only are there rare specimens of horticultural significance, but there are also many familiar faces in the form of houseplants. While it’s fun to point out the ones you recognize as you enjoy your stroll, you’re often left wondering, “Why don’t my houseplants look like that?” 

While there is an incredibly lengthy list of plants that will do very well for you in your regular household conditions, there are many others on the market that, while gorgeous, never seem to look as good as the day you bring them home. They might live, sure, but they certainly don’t thrive. Droopy leaves, crisped edges, dulled colors; plants that die no matter how much you baby them. It leaves you feeling defeated and wondering if that plant you adore just isn’t in the cards for you.    

Luckily, you don’t actually need a giant greenhouse to begin replicating some of the wonderful conditions found inside one. In recent years, many house plant hobbyist have begun to create vivariums as a way to reproduce some of the fantastic growth they’ve see in jaw-dropping Instagram photos of nature. But, what exactly is a vivarium? Why should you consider it for your houseplants?

What is a vivarium?

A vivarium, often called a terrarium, is a bio-active, closed-container for plants and sometimes animals. In its essence, it is a mini eco-system captured inside a glass box. It can be a humid jungle, an arid desert, or an otherworldly fairy garden. Part of the fun of vivarium’s is the creativity which can be expressed through them. They can be as large as 600 gallons, or as small as a corked bottle. Finding the right piece for you can be as easy as using an old glass bottle, or as personal as tracking down the perfect sized piece glassware for your windowsill.

Before getting into how best to make a vivarium, let’s talk about what a vivarium does for your plants.

Unlike a traditional potted plant, which is exposed to the climate of your house at all times, a glass container creates something called a micro-climate – a small space that differs dramatically in humidity, temperature, and airflow. This micro-climate, created by our glass container, gives us a much greater level of control over the conditions our plants are kept in. With a closed top, we can trap in the humidity, making our jungle plants thrive without turning our whole home into a muggy mess of humidity.

This added humidity is essential for a large variety of plants, including ferns, pitcher plants, venus flytraps, sundews, fittonias, begonias, splash plants, and many more. You can further increase the humidity by adding a layer of baked leaf litter. This simulates the jungle floor, trapping moisture underneath the leaves and creating a perfect home for a cleanup crew. This also acts as a very mild nitrogen fertilizer as it breaks down, which a number of ground dwelling plants adore.          

So, you’ve decided you want to create a vivarium; how do you do it?

It’s actually a very simple process, although there are many more complex things you can do as you get better to create increasingly intriguing setups. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to walk you through how to make a barebones, bioactive vivarium. The steps are as follows:

  1. Select a glass container that suits your space. Avoid having any overhanging edges as this will wear on the glass. If you are looking to keep high humidity plants, try to choose a container that has a fitted lid.
  2. Choose what type of biome you’d like to replicate. The most common for vivarium applications are jungles, however you can do temperate forest, or desert as well. For desert applications, choose a container that’s open topped to avoid trapping humidity.
  3. Next, create a drainage layer by pouring a 2-3 inch layer of stone on the bottom of the container. This is most commonly done using clay hydro balls, but you can also use any available lightweight stone. Lava rock is a cheap and porous alternative. The purpose of a drainage layer is to keep our plants from sitting in water, since our container has no drainage holes. Optionally, you can cut a layer of weed fabric to lay across the stone. This keeps the drainage layer and the substrate separate.
  4. Next, mix an appropriate substrate. For jungles, use 1 part orchid bark, 1 part horticultural sand, 2 parts sphagnum moss, 2 parts perlite, and 3 parts organic potting mix. For temperate forests, use 2 parts perlite, 2 parts sphagnum moss, and 3 parts organic potting mix. For deserts, use 1 part organic potting mix, 2 parts horticultural sand, 2 parts degraded stone, and 4 parts perlite.
  5. Spread this mix evenly and graduate towards the back of your container. Look for at least 2 inches depth of soil near the front of the container. For areas you know you want a plant, increase the substrate depth by at least an extra inch.
  6. Situate your hardscape elements. This can be rock, wood, natural debris, or even figurines. For natural setups, try to stick to one variety of stone and one variety of wood.
  7. Time to plant! Remember, plants lower in the container will receive more humidity and less light. Give everything a thorough misting once it’s situated. See the bottom of the article for a curated list of excellent vivarium plants!
  8. Optional: Add a cleanup crew!

What is a cleanup crew, and why should you have one?

A cleanup crew typically consists of two beneficial insects: Springtails and Isopods. Fortunately, both of these creepy crawlies are rather cute! Springtails are tiny, tiny, tiny little bugs that “spring”, flinging themselves across the soil when disturbed. They eat fungus, mold, and dead plant debris, breaking it down into a natural fertilizer for your plants. Second are the isopods, which you likely know by the name of “rollie pollies”, or “pillbugs”. Isopods are a land dwelling crustacean that adores humidity and acts as a detritivore, meaning it eats dead plant matter and leaves on the ground. They serve a similar function as the springtails, only bigger and cuter. There are hundreds of different color varieties to choose from! If you have kids, they will absolutely adore your isopods, and can enjoy feeding them fresh fruits and vegetables!    

Once you’ve got you vivarium planted, it’s time to sit back and enjoy! Either place it near a well lit window, but not in direct sun. Otherwise, try adding a grow light to see your plants really pop off! For high humidity setups, mist every other day. For desert tanks, water only sparingly, typically once every two weeks in the summer, and once a month in the winter.

Great vivarium plants brought to you by Als:

False Aralia (Scleferra elegantisima)

Nerve Plant  (Fittonia albivenis)

Pepperomias (Nearly every variety)

Swiss Cheese Vine (Monstera adansonii)

Mini Monstera (Rhaphidaphora tetrasperma)

Parlour Palm (Chamaedorea elegans)

Umbrella Tree (Schefflera arboricola)

Philodendrons (All smaller varieties)

Jesters Crown Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)

Selaginella (All species)

Gold Dust Croton (Coadiaeum variegatum)


  • Davey Jones

    That was a great read, thanks so much! I would love to see some more examples of finished vivariums of various sizes.

    Do you have a vivarium sitting around at any of the store locations? :)

  • Donna Kemp

    The list of suggested plants seem like plants that become trees or larger plants….. how do they stay small?

  • Merry Ann Bartholemy

    Will you be offering a class on preparing a vivarium including all the materials needed? If such a class is available in my area, I will be there.

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