Bioactive Vivarium Project – Part 4 | Ted’s Fishroom

Ted: At last, everything is here to get the bioactive vivarium operational and to start the planting. The wait has been more than frustrating. Some things arrived quickly, but other parts that had to be installed first arrived much later, but everything is finally here and we are ready to get started. Let’s launch a bioactive vivarium

I’ve been working on this project for a couple of months and this is the fifth video in the series. For those of you that would like to take a time-out and go back and watch those earlier episodes, I’ll leave a link right here in the video for you to do that. In the meantime, let’s make a quick review of what’s happened so far. This is a majestic reptile enclosure, and this beautiful wood cabinetry exterior is lined with a hard-anodized aluminum interior that is completely waterproof. Well, I shouldn’t say that the edges and the corners were not completely waterproof. I sealed those up with silicone.

The hardscape is built around a universal faux log that I installed in a vertical position so that it looks like a tree trunk. On and around the space, I’ve installed several pieces of natural wood and some fake vines I made out of rope silicone and dry peat moss. The substrate has a base drainage layer hydroton that sits under a [unintelligible 00:01:30] foam soil barrier. The growing bioactive substrate is ABG Mix that will be topped with a thin layer of long-fiber sphagnum moss, and natural leaf litter.

The plan for this bioactive vivarium is to be a moderate to moderately high humid environment but is not super hot. We’re going to put the plants and the substrate organisms like springtails and isopods in first and give them a few months to become well-established before we put any vertebrate organisms into it. Right now, the plan is giant day geckos, but that may change depending upon how the vivarium balances out with regards to temperature and humidity. Until I know how this entire enclosure can perform, I really shouldn’t decide what lizard is going to go in it.

For the lighting, I’ve decided to start off with two of these 34-inch LED mixed spectrum fixtures from Tincman Herps. I did a lot of research on lights and I chose these based upon reputation, value, and how perfectly they fit into the space above this enclosure. I say that I am starting out with two of these LED fixtures because of I’ve already decided that one of them is going to be replaced by a high output T5 double tubed fixture. For two reasons. One, I do like the way that a T5-6500K bulb shines in a vivarium and how it grows plants. I’ve talked to a lot of people that cultivate a lot of plants and they tell me that the best results they are getting is to combine a high quality LED with T5.

The second reason I’m going to do it, is eventually I’m going to put a lizard in here that needs UVB light, and the easiest way for me to fit a fixture up here for that, is just to be able to replace one of those T5 bulbs with a UVB bulb, and the plants like it too.

I have been experimenting with manipulating the humidity of the enclosure, but until the substrate is complete, all the plants are grown in, we have a watering schedule, a light schedule, all those things are going to affect how well the enclosure maintains humidity. Until that’s in place, it will be impossible for me to predict how hard or easy it’s going to be to maintain the humidity in the range that I want it to be.

I bought this dual temperature and humidity meter from our local reptile store, Reptile Rapture here in Madison. This is their branded meter, but it is pretty typical. I use some black electrical tape to position the sensor halfway up the cage in the back, with the probe itself pointing into the air. It looks pretty ugly now but eventually, you won’t be able to see it. The cable exits the cage through a vent and the LCD panel is mounted on the outside using one of those double-sided sticky pads. It does not damage surfaces. The day may come when I have to install a misting system on this for vivarium.

I am using one of these Evergreen Pet Supplies, Reptile Foggers because I like the effect of fog in a vivarium, but it’s probably not going to maintain humidity by itself. What I like most about this fogger is the effect, especially with Zoo Med splitter on the end of it, which spreads the fog out over a wider area on the enclosure. What I don’t like about the fogger is that this tube coming out of it can have absolutely no flat places at all. It’s got a relatively high profile on the top of this enclosure. When I’m standing over on the other side of the room, I can see that pretty clearly. When I’m sitting in my easy chair, looking up at the enclosure, I can’t see it at all. In the long run, I probably not going to care a whole lot.

The top of the enclosure is that perforated aluminum plate. You may not think it, but it’s actually really, really holding temperature and humidity, even though it’s perforated. One reason is because this enclosure is deep and there’s not a whole lot of air circulation, but I actually have a solution for that too. Right now, I just have the end of the fogger sitting on top of the perforated aluminum plate. As the fog comes out in the sheet, it just drops down into the enclosure. It works pretty well, but it’ll be much more efficient, once I figure out exactly where I want to put these outlets and then I’ll drill some slightly larger holes in the perforated aluminum and just stick them down into it. Then they’ll be going straight into the enclosure.

I have been running the fogger and watching the humidistat to see how well the enclosure holds humidity. What I figured out is that someday, I will probably have to install a mister, but not today. When I turn on the fogger, it only takes 10 to 15 minutes to raise the humidity up to 99%. Once the fogger is shut off, the humidity drops too quickly, back to 75% after about one hour. Granted, this is happening in a relatively dry enclosure. That substrate and the wood of the hardscape is absorbing humidity, and there are no plants transpiring water. Any tests I have done on how well the cage will hold humidity are a bit premature. That is why I’ve not made any decisions about where the fogger will be placed or what its schedule will be, or whether or not I’m actually going to get a mister.

I have also been experimenting with misting the enclosure once a day, and giving that substrate are really good soak. In doing that, I’m able to raise the humidity up over 95% and it will stay above 75% with no additional vapor or anything else for six to seven hours. When there’s plants and there’s more of the sphagnum moss on the surface, that humidity will probably last even longer. I think that with one good daily mist and occasional fogging, I’ll be able to keep that humidity up in that 80% to 90% range most of the day long.

The day will probably come when I have to install an automated misting system because someday I’m going to start traveling again, but I’m not going to install one today because I really liked the hands-on approach of coming in and looking at the plants and misting them and learning about the enclosure, seeing what amount of water does to the humidity, and since I’m home every day anyway, it’s a good time to get into that habit.

There are two air vents at the bottom corners of the enclosure, but until I find that there is a need, I’m going to keep them closed. The perforated aluminum plate at the top of the cage is surprisingly good at containing humidity and temperature, but there will need to be some air circulation. For that, I’ve installed a small fan just inside the top front of the enclosure and I’ve angled it so that it will blow air onto the front pane and hopefully reduce condensation that will obstruct the view.

These fans are relatively cheap and extremely easy to install. If I need more, I can add them later, but the amount of air movement just by this one little fan is pretty impressive. Watch what this little fan does to the fog, which I have pointed going straight down the middle of the enclosure. [silence]

I looked at a couple of different options for timers to control everything and chose these WiFi smart plugs. With this Tripp Lite bus strip under it, this system has got all the electrical capacity it needs, and all the surge protection, and breaker support that’ll keep me from causing a fire. If you haven’t seen these before, these are actually really cool. All it really is, is an on-off switch. You can control with an app on your smartphone. You can set as many on-off cycles during the day as you want. I can turn that fogger on, say for five minutes an hour, or five minutes every 30 minutes, all off of one small plug. It’s pretty cool.

During those weeks of waiting for all the equipment, I wasn’t completely idle. Besides setting up the environmental systems, I’ve also been prepping for adding plants. I pulled out all the long fiber sphagnum moss on top of the ABG substrate because I noticed that the moss from the two different bags I had used, was slightly different color and looked weird. I took it all out and mixed it all together. I also wanted to add a lot more ABG Mix, which is what I am doing here to increase the depth of the substrate in the vivarium.

While this vivarium was still relatively dry, I touched up some places in the hardscape that needed to be covered. Especially some sections of the vines. I use a brush to apply some silicone to bare spots and then press a mix of dry peat, long fiber sphagnum moss into the silicone. Just before I start planting, I’m going to give this substrate a really good thorough soak of water because once the plants go in, I’m really going to be spot watering until I have more plants in the substrate.

With the lighting systems in place, and the ability to control humidity to some extent, it’s now time to start planting the enclosure. This is a big enclosure and it can hold a lot of plants. I’ve already figured out that plants can probably be as addictive as anything else in this hobby, maybe even more so. Buying plants is like buying candy. I know, I’ve already been buying a lot of plants. The first things I bought were these neoregelia bromeliads. These will be the first things that are going to go into the enclosure today. Also, I have a few other plants. They’re going to go in differently than these, but let’s start with just the bromeliads.

I have seven of these miniature neoregelia species bromeliads, which will be brightly colored if I keep them in the right amount of light. I want to make them focal points in this scape. I’m going to mount them out in the open and in a relatively tight group instead of spreading them all over the place. I will mount them in a couple of different ways. At the ends of narrow branches like these, I will tie a steel line in place with cotton thread. The tool that I’m using to control the thread is a bobbin. I held this tool back from my former hobby of tying fishing flies. A bobbin makes tying plants on the sticks a whole lot easier.

The first thing I do is lay down a few wraps under the plant, which will hold the thread in place. Then I set the bromeliad in place, making sure that I leave the very tip of the stick open so I can use that to tie off the thread. Next, I will apply some wraps over the top of the steel line making sure that when I’m finished wrapping, the bobbin is the back end of the bromeliad.

Next, I hold some damp sphagnum moss in place around the steel line and base the bromeliad and wrap the thread from the back to the front again.

To tie it off, I bring the bobbin in front of the bromeliad and do a few overhand knots. That is why I needed the end of the branch to be open. The moss will hide the thread and help the bromeliad to get rooted and since it is cotton, it will eventually rot away. You can use the same basic technique to plant bromeliads into natural crevices, but this can be harder to do or even impossible if you can’t move the bobbin around the branch. The only difference is that I wedge the steel line into the fissure first before I start wrapping with thread.

I try to avoid planting bromeliads on flat vertical surfaces by drilling holes for the steel line to stick into because that is not how I’ve seen bromeliads growing in nature. They are always in some crevice, fork of a branch, or on top of a horizontal surface. If I can’t wrap thread around whatever the bromeliad is going into, I try to find a place where I can wedge the steel line. First, I make sure the fit is somewhat tight and then I wrap a little bit of moss around the steel line so that the fit is very tight. Then I pack a little more moss around the base of the plant.

The positions of these bromeliads are very central in the plant scape and create a visual line that is somewhat perpendicular to the visual lines of the branches. I think that the bright colors, hard textual shapes, and strong lines of bromeliads will help to bring focal attention back to the center of the design. I have three other plants that are ready for the vivarium. Two, like this begonia species Manaus will be planted in the substrate. I will admit that I’m a sucker for begonias, and I suspect this vivarium will end up with several of them.

I like begonia Manaus for its bright coloration that falls between the very dark green and a bright yellow-green, and because the leaves are big and round. I want to make this a focal plant in the bottom of the enclosure or a spot. A lighter color will brighten the dark tones of the substrate wood and shadows that will dominate the bottom of the vivarium once it grows in. I am planting it just right of center at the midline depth between the front and the back of the hardscape. I will try to prune and train it into a bunching mound of plant that dominates the front right side of the scape.

One of the other plants it’s going in today and also planted in the substrate is Pellionia repens. This is a vining plant, and I want to grow up and around the lowest branch in the vivarium. The last plant going into the vivarium today is begonia glabra, which I’m going to plant midway up the scape in a net basket so they can grow out and down. When I want to wedge a plant basket up in the vivarium, I make it out of this plastic mesh that I get with fruit at the grocery store. I cut a rectangle of the mesh that is about 6 inches wide and just about as tall as the plant, maybe a little taller.

I lay some damp sphagnum moss on the mesh and then I place the plant in the middle of the sphagnum moss. I might add a little more ABG Mix or a little more moss to even it out, and then I start at the bottom corners and I roll up the mesh around the plant.

Then I pull the top edge of the mesh down around the bottom of the cone, which helps to hold the cone together.

But if it is a little loose, a few rafts of thread will solve that problem.

Then I use a little more thread to cover the outside of the bag with sphagnum moss.

This is a fast-growing begonia with relatively small dark leaves that start out reddish if they get enough light. The stems are more rigid than many begonia species so I think that while it will grow in a trailing habit out of a basket, it will also reach out for the light and be very three dimensional in the scape.

The last steps today are to cap the substrate and add the first animal, springtails. I don’t really want to dump the charcoal from the container into the enclosure so I’m just going to bury it under the sphagnum moss for a few days and let the animals leave on their own. The cap of long fiber sphagnum moss covers everything and also gets tucked into the spaces around the edges of the hardscape. Then I give the substrate another good soak. The last thing that goes in are some magnolia leaves. I’m just going to toss in there. Over time they’ll break down a little bit. I’ll get some other species of leaves. The reason I have the magnolia leaves is my mother lives in Florida, as she sends them to me.

That’s it, long day. The bioactive vivarium is running. I want to thank Custom Cages for building this beautiful enclosure that will be a big focal point in our home. There will be links to the description of all the sources of the equipment that I am using in this build. The same afternoon that I shot this video, a whole box of plants and some isopods arrived from my friend Paul at Vivariums In The Mist, but most of those plants are cuttings and I want to establish them in the growth chamber before putting them in the vivarium.

The next episode of these series will show how I received and got those cuttings started and then planting them in the vivarium. If you are on Instagram, please follow my Ted’s Fisheroom account. We have been having a lot of fun getting together on Tuesday nights in a livestream that I’m calling the Tuesday Night Mixer. I share updates and all the different projects, and then anyone is invited to share their projects as well. We have seen some pretty cool aquariums and vivariums over the past few weeks. Join us. The livestream starts at 7:00 PM Central Standard Time. If you follow my Ted’s Fisheroom account on Instagram, you will get a reminder. Thanks for watching.

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