Naturalistic Terrariums

Fully planted tanks will help take care of themselves if you’ve set them up properly. You just have to provide light and water, as well as plants that can withstand the abuse of a crested gecko climbing and jumping on them. Pothos (Epipremnum aureum) and snakeplant (Sansevieria species) are our favorites, but you can have success with sturdy bromeliads, bamboo, and ficus. Once set up, your new vivarium becomes a little piece of nature that promotes the natural behaviors of your pet. A vivarium allows you to observe your gecko in an attractive, more natural environment. You will still want to do some spot cleaning on leaves and tank furnishings, like branches and vines, but the soil will generally become “bio-active” and maintenance-free.

Crested gecko vivarium

A good vivarium setup involves a drainage layer at the bottom to keep the soil from being waterlogged and a separation screen to keep the soil from mucking up the drainage layer. Make sure you have a thick layer of soil for plants to root properly. If using an Exo Terra or ZooMed tank, you’ll need to be careful you don’t fill it too full or the soil will overflow out the doors when you water. You only need a small layer of hydroballs (leca, hydroton), lavarock or pea gravel. Unlike dart frog habitats which should have standing water in the drainage layer, crested geckos need less humidity and an open top to the enclosure to allow proper ventilation. Be careful with gravel, it gets heavy fast! We’ve moved towards hydroton, which is much lighter. Natural setups are more heavy than artificial setups because of the drainage substrate and soil that can absorb a lot of water.

Drainage layer of hydroballs

For the soil, you can use a commercial terrarium mix like ABS or other mixes from places like NE Herp. Or you can mix your own if you use organic, pesticide-free materials. The commercial mixes are great, but for a more cost effective solution, we use a mix of organic potting soil and coco fiber. See our tutorial on mixing up some of your own on our substrate page. Use a screen (with a looser mesh than the screen you are using for a barrier) to sift through the soil to make sure the particles are very small. If the soil does get ingested, the smaller particles are more easily passed. A covering of leaf litter (sold at Pangea and other online retailers) will keep geckos from having contact with the soil on a regular basis. Females will dig down to the soil when laying eggs, and both sexes will bury themselves if they feel too warm or dry.


We have some tanks that have been together for more than 2 years with no more than some pruning and occasional spot cleaning of wood branches and of course the glass. Vinegar and water are great for cleaning glass, and be sure to used distilled or reverse osmosis water to spray your tanks. This avoids water spots, mineral buildup from hard water. Over time you will want to add more soil and a new layer of leaves as things decompose. Speaking of decomposing, using isopods and springtails will, along with other microfauna, fungi & bacteria, will make your vivarium setup bio-active more quickly. You may find tiny little bugs just appear in your tank, they hatch out of soil or appear magically when conditions are right.


There is so much less odor in properly constructed live terrariums than in plastic tubs with paper towel. However, this is not a recommended setup for geckos under 15 grams so keep the babies in tubs and paper towels.

Most of the materials for a set up like this are available locally in hydroponics stores, pet shops and hardware stores. You may find some deals online as well, but glass tanks, drainage and filler layers are heavy and you may pay more in shipping than the savings vs buying local.

You will need lights for your plants. Incandescent bulbs emit about 10% of their energy as light and 90% as heat. Not only is this inefficient, it can heat up a small tank very quickly, and this can be dangerous for geckos. Full-spectrum fluorescent bulbs produce balanced of cool and warm light that replicates the natural solar spectrum. This works well for most non-flowering houseplants, like pothos and snakeplant. You can find LED lights that perform very well and use less energy, but they are currently more expensive than fluorescent. If you want a very showy tank with exotic plants, you’ll want to invest in specialty lighting. But don’t forget the tank’s main purpose is for your crested gecko! They will trample delicate ferns, moss and flowers.

For a very low-maintenance tank, you can buy automated misting systems with timers to water your plants and mist geckos at the same time. You need to have room for a water reservoir nearby for the pump to work effectively. Check on the timer regularly to ensure that it’s activated on the correct schedule; many timers can fail and leave your tank (and gecko) without proper humidity and drinking water. Check misting nozzles as well to be sure they are not clogged with hard water deposits.

It’s more work in the beginning, but there are many benefits to a building natural tank. As for the geckos themselves, it’s hard to say if they care one way or another, but as keepers we prefer a bio-active setup.

42 thoughts on “Naturalistic Terrariums

  1. Hi I’m looking to setup a bioactive for a crested gecko I’ve got devils ivy in with plantason soil can I uses a live plant this is the name of it Grape Ivy (Cissus rhombifolia, aka Oak leaf Ivy

    • Cissus rhombifolia should be safe in a terrarium with crested geckos and other reptiles and amphibians that won’t be eating the leaves. Good luck with the bioactive tank!

    • I don’t recommend it because at 7 grams, there is a possibility of one or both being male with undeveloped pores. This can lead to fighting or early breeding. I would wait until they are over 16 grams for more accurate sexing and for reduced risk of being impacted if they eat substrate. However, breeders have raised young geckos in a large natural enclosure without issue, you just need to be aware of the risks involved.

  2. Thanks! I was going to order them from Pangeas website, it said they are likely females. Do you know how often they are actually females?

    • At that size I’d say you have a good chance (75%+) of at least one being female, if not both. Pangea is a great source!

  3. Hey there! I just set up my very first live vivarium in an 18x18x24 exo terra. I set it up as follows:

    Layer 1: 2 bags of hydroballs (2 inch layer)
    Layer 2: Nylon screen barrier
    Layer 3: Jungle mix soil: contains fir and peat moss (2 inch layer)
    Layer 4: some organic topsoil mix containing humus, canadian sphagnum peat moss and compost (3 inch layer)
    Layer 5: Exo terra forest moss. (enough to cover)

    Two questions: My substrate takes up quite a lot of space in the tank. Did I use too much? It goes all the way up to the bottom of the black door frame.

    Also, I was wondering if the fibrous forest moss was a bad idea for a crestie. I like the look, but I’m not sure if its the wise in terms of impaction, etc (but how much time will he spend on the ground, really.). I was thinking about maybe changing it out for leaf little and just a bit of moss here and there for humidity.

    Any input would be appreciated!


    • If your substrate isn’t literally falling out of the door or the ventilation holes, you should be fine – just don’t flood the tank or you’ll have water and dirt trickling out as water settles. Over time the substrate will compact.

      The moss may or may not be a problem. We use it but usually cover with leaf litter. This has worked best for us. You could add a layer of leaves to keep them from grabbing moss while they hunt or “pretend” to hunt as they will lunge at shadows or water droplets. Each gecko is different, some love to bury themselves in substrate and others tend to stay in branches. Good luck!

  4. My daughter just got a terrarium for her birthday. I was wondering if she can use small tree limbs from our yard in her setup. She has two crested geckos. Thanks.

    • Depends on the type of trees. Some are toxic. Do not use pine or cedars. Fruit tree limbs are the best but some others are good. Some will mold more quickly than others. Always wash them and dry in the sun before placing in the tank. Depending on where you live, you might want to boil the wood or bake it in the oven to keep bugs from emerging.

  5. I’m thinking of getting a crested gecko and i would to put live plants. My question is,how would i go with cleaning? Do i need to take apart? Also do i need to put in the cleaning crew,i’m not really into seeing little bugs crawling around the tank,and around my house if they escape.
    Also how would i go with cleaning my gecko poo with?

    • With a live setup, you only need to worry about cleaning the glass (with lemon or other citrus juice or white vinegar and rinsed with distilled water) and wiping down the plant leaves. If bugs escape, they won’t live long outside the tank and if conditions are right they’ll stay in the tank. You don’t NEED the cleaners, but they may appear even without your intention due to eggs in substrate. It’s just the nature of having a live tank. Without a crew it’s recommended to remove feces weekly and to aerate the substrate every month or two by stirring the top layer of soil.

  6. Hello I’m not able to buy hydro balls so will bio active forest soil be ok instead of hydro balls also in the soil there moss and also it’s for reptile that like pe high humid

    • The purpose of hydro balls is to allow water to drain, so you can either use pea gravel (which is heavy) or you can buy lighting grid and make a half-inch elevated platform for water to collect. You can just be very careful with not over-watering your tank to avoid moisture build up.

  7. I’m currently working on a blue print for a vivarium. I’m getting a little flustered though, because I think I may be making it too big. Once it’s built and the plant life is sustaining, I plan on buying a Rhacodactylus ciliatus(Crested gecko). Do they prefer a large tank? My diagram is based on 34″ length x 22″ depth x 20″ height. Is that too big? Do they not mind big vivariums? Do you think I should make it even bigger?? I’ve never made a vivarium for my reptiles/arachnids(I plan on making several so each of them can have their natural habitat). But this will be my first vivarium and I could really use any info on them.

    • Most adult geckos do great in large vivariums! However, sometimes you’ll get one that feels a little overwhelmed by the space but it’s not common, and this usually applies to juveniles.

  8. Ill be upgrading my crested geckos enclosure very soon and i want to make a bio active enclosure like the one explained above. I was just curious to see if people have problems with the isopod and spring tail colonies growing to large, irritating the gecko, and getting out of the enclosure seeing that they are very tiny and could fit through the gaps in the tank. Thank you for the info!!

    • I’ve never had an issue with isopods or spring tails, you can remove the isopods by hand and control the spring tails by allowing substrate to partially dry out.

  9. Hi! So I appreciate that you offered cheaper alternatives, I’ve been trying to research budget friendly ways to convert to bioactive but it’s not easy to find. I know how to sterilize soil and branches, but if I collect live oak and magnolia leaves, as well as local springtails and pillbugs, is there anything I should do to disinfect these? I can’t think of anything that wouldn’t kill springtails, but I could rinse pillbugs with vinegar water unless that would be absurd/unnecessary? What do you think?

    • I would simply rinse off the leaves because they could contain additional pests – which are typically not harmful. I’ve gathered leaves from the forest floor and put them in a tank that had an explosion of harmless soil mites. They died off after a month or so with no lasting ill effects. Rinsing pillbugs with vinegar is not a good idea as it could harm their gills and other exposed body parts. While technically they can carry parasites, they are unlikely to be anything that would harm a non-native animal – most parasites are very host-specific. They could of course carry bacteria or fungal spores which could be pathogenic (like tetanus Clostridium tetani, anthrax Bacillus anthracis and Listeria L. monocytogenes), so avoid areas near animal pastures or other cultivated areas. However, the risk is very minuscule but shouldn’t be ruled out as a possibility. This is one reason why people buy cultured isopods & springtails, but we’ve harvested wild isopods with no ill effect. You could create your own culture of isopods or quarantine them before putting them in your tank, but this would be an additional 2-8 week process.

  10. I have my two crested geckos Ragnar and Lagatha, currently I have them in a re-vamped jewelry display case which is very tall. On the bottom portion of this stand up corner tank is where I plan for the baby’s to grow once they hatch. I have come across a large amount of information on the care of the eggs but I was wondering what the best conditions and set up would be for the little ones? And also led lighting, I have peel and stick flexible strips and they produce a decent amount of warmth. Wondering if they would prefer that or the common reptile light, possibly one in the day and one at night? Thoughts welcome.

    Great advice on this site.


    • Hi Dillon! Thanks for the compliment. Newly hatched geckos are best housed alone or with clutchmates, definitely separated from the parents who may eat them since they are extremely small. We prefer 6 quart Sterilite plastic tubs for hatchlings. You can find more specific care advice on our baby crested gecko page, but generally they are much the same as adults. The babies don’t handle heat or low humidity very well. Geckos prefer darkness and do not need light at night, but if you are providing light during the day, you can use the LEDs without issue. If you are growing live plants you’ll want to be sure you are providing enough light, depending on the species of plants. UVB generating bulbs are not considered necessary, but anecdotal evidence shows that they do like to bask sometimes in the early mornings and evenings before lights out. Good luck with your cresties!

  11. This isn’t so much a question about Crested Geckos, I already did all my research when I was like 7-8 because I’ve been fascinate with reptiles my whole life. I had 2 Leopard Geckos but gave them to my cousins because I got bored with them, I want something more exciting now, any recommendations? If so, how could I convince my parents to allow me to get one? Any feedback would be helpful thanks!

    • In terms of excitement, cresties are rather laid back and prefer to be active at night when you are out of the room. However, individuals are different and you could find an outgoing one. One of the advantages to their care compared to the leos is that they do not need live food every day, which may help convince your parents. They also do not need heat lamps so less equipment and less electricity is needed. In terms of other animals, bearded dragons are diurnal and seem to enjoy interaction so they may be more exciting to you. They do need live food and heat lamps, like leos, as well as UVB bulbs. There are many reptiles that may interest you, it depends on what you are looking for. We’ve written an article on choosing a reptile pet, hopefully that can give you some more guidance!

    • If the soil is near the level of the door opening, then it’s possible the isopods can crawl out. The isopods generally stay put, but make sure to keep the soil damp so neither feel the urge to leave. Make sure if you have a population explosion to move a bunch of them to another tank to culture for future enclosures. Good luck!

  12. Hello! I’m thinking about one crested leopard gecko. What terrarium size do you recommend? Will he/she need any lighting fixtures? Also, what kind of substrate should I use, I’m worried about soil because of impaction… Any other suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated!

    • I recommend the 18X18X24 terrariums, they usually come with a hood. A good low-level UVB bulb is great, but a regular light will suffice – you don’t have to use it if the room is around 75 degrees. Lights can raise the temps to critical levels so be sure to keep an eye on it if you use a light. Paper towel can be used with younger geckos and adults, but once they are adult size I like to provide a soil/compost mix covered with leaf litter and moss to avoid accidental ingestion. You can read more about it on our Substrate page. Good luck!

  13. Is it okay to use just paper towels for your crestie its whole life? How often would I clean out the paper towels in this case? Thanks! x

  14. I have two vivs out in the bio active set up. I have a female in one and two smaller ones in the other that have been together since birth. I have spring tails and dwarf tropical woodlice with rotting bark for them to go under. As well as planted plants I have used 1/2 coconut shells as hanging plant holders and cork for shelves, I used the bendable vine strands to give a 3d effect to the vivs and that gives the geckos more climbing space. Rain water is what I use to spray and feed crickets as well as the powdered food. I think the bio set up is so much better for the geckos and I have two interesting vivs that I get compliments on as they look very nice as a decoration as well as a home…

  15. Hi there! I was hoping to get your advice on a couple of things as you are very experienced and I want to provide the best possible setup for my geckos. I currently have two crested geckos I’m not sure of age as I bought them from a pet store. But one is 5g and the other 11g. They are being housed separately in plastic tubs. The 5g is very active and loves having a lot of space he (maybe she) is in a 7.5gallon tub. The 11g does not like having a lot of space and is only moderately active and much more laid back I think this one might be overwhelmed in too much space. I was originally thinking of dividing an 18x18x24 exo terra with something dark/opaque so they can’t see through it to give them each 17gallons of space as adults as I had read 10-20gallons was recommended for adults. However, I saw you recommended a full 18x18x24 for one adult. I really think my larger gecko would not feel comfortable with that much space but I guess I don’t know so what would you recommend for them when they’re older? I wasn’t planning know housing them together as I read they can fight but would take your recommendation on that as well.
    My final question is on bioactive vivariums. I have been doing a ton of research on these as I know a lot of people keep their adults in these environments. My concern is that it will always look dirty and I really prefer keeping all my animals environments very clean. I had tried a naturally planted aquarium before for my fish and it isn’t supposed to be cleaned but I hated how dirty it looked and still spent hours a week trying to keep it clean to no avail.
    I’m worried about similar situation will arise if I try a bioactive vivarium for my geckos so I was hoping to get your input on that. A lot of the images I see online of these bioactive vivariums look pretty grimy and I want to avoid that. Also I really dislike the looks of the expanding foam covered in dirt backgrounds and was wondering if you might have any other suggestions?
    Thank you so much and sorry for all of the questions

    • Some babies do get overwhelmed by too much space, so I would recommend waiting until they are over 20 grams or so before putting them in a larger enclosure. Adults seem to do great in a large enclosure, even if they don’t seem to be exploring. As long as they are eating and pooping and not losing weight, a large tank should not be a problem for a sub-adult. I don’t recommend housing together, two cages would be best.

      As for a bio-active tank, it’s always going to look a bit “wild” and not be pristine. However, you can still wipe down the glass with a vinegar solution (or use a razor blade) and clean the decor with a scrub brush to make it look less “lived in”. A substrate covered by leaf litter that you can add a fresh layer every couple of weeks will help keep it fresh as well. Don’t remove the old leaves as they help with the decomposition and bio-activity of the soil. Isopods and springtails help with this process.

      For a background, you can be as imaginative as you want in sculpting the foam backgrounds or applying cork bark flats with silicon adhesive. You can do tile as well to create mosaics (make sure they aren’t too heavy). Anything that doesn’t quickly rot could be used for a background. You can even just tape paper to the outside for a very basic appearance. The terrariums often come with a paper background you can attach to the outside.

      Good luck!

  16. Hi, I have 2 terrariums 45x45x60 and 45x45x90 that I’ve set up as bio active with cleaning crew for my cresties. As I have live plants do I need lighting?
    I’ve also read somewhere that I should have water covering the hydro balls due to having live plants. I tend to just water the plants once or twice a week, is that right?
    Many thanks

    • Lights depend on whether there is light in the room during the day. Without much light the plants don’t tend to do as well. Most terrarium plants don’t require more than a few hours of light a day. You can get grow lights or use regular lights, but be careful of heat – fluorescent tubes or coils are good about not emitting heat. You don’t need to have water constantly in the hydro balls, but it’s a good indication of the need to water the plants. Depending on how dry your ambient air is, watering once or twice a week should be fine if it covers the balls and then re-water when the water has evaporated. Good luck!

    • Hi Bradyn! Bonsai trees are not one species of plant but they are miniaturized versions of other plants, ranging from juniper, maple and pine trees to small shrubs like azalea. Most bonsai generally do best outdoors and would not last long in a crested gecko tank.

  17. I have not had a reptile, and I am planning on getting a crestie. I was wondering what the best substrate is. I want to get a naturalist but still artificial vivarium as I am just starting out, so I will probably get one of those exo-terra sets. Any opinions on naturalist substrate for crests that they won’t ingest?

    Thanks in advance ;)

    • I would get some pre-mixed terrarium soil, or get coco fiber and top it with moss and leaf litter. The leaves help keep them from accidentally diving after an imaginary bug or shadow of a water droplet and winding up with a mouthful of dirt. No worries if you don’t have plants, the soil will work in a full bioactive or just a natural looking tank. You can read about other options on our Substrate page.

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