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.
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.
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.