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Here's how I build my backgrounds and naturalistic terrariums and the materials I use.

Until recently I have only ever furnished my terrariums with branches, rocks, plants in pots and cork bark for hides. It was one image that I came across on the internet of a stunning terrarium built by a Dutch dart frog enthusiast that sparked my interest in having a go at making realistic backgrounds for my terrariums.

The very first thing I do is to try and get a rough idea of how I want the background to look.
I wanted to create basking ledges and hides on both the warm side and the cool side of the terrariums but without loosing any floor area of the enclosures. I also needed to make sure my backgrounds would support the weight of the snakes.

For the build that I am showing here I wanted to have rocky outcrops as ledges and have vines and roots coming down over them.
I started by fixing pieces of styrene to the walls using silicone sealant. Unfortunately I don't have any images of this first step.
Once this was done I started to carve the styrene to form the rocks.

I found that the best way to carve the styrene was to use a cheap set of craft knives.
The image below shows a little more detail of the carved styrene. The smaller piece on the left of the image is stuck straight to the enclosure wall with silicone as this wouldn't need to support the full weight of a snake and the larger pieces have wooden supports inside them and are screwed through the terrarium wall.
The white rod that you can see taped to the wall on the left is 6mm plastic tube and I place one each side of the terrarium to run thermometer cables down. The one you can see here runs down onto the basking area under the heater. The one on the other side of the terrarium runs down to the substrate level and measures the temperature in the coolest part of the enclosure furthest away from the heater panel.

Once all the styrene is in place and carved to shape I covered it with four coats of tile grout. The first two coats that I put on were quite watery to make sure that it covered the styrene well and got into all the cracks.

The last two coats were mixed a little thicker. It could still be painted on with a brush but being thicker meant that by wiping the brush I could get a smooth texture and by tapping the brush on the grout I could get a coarse finish looking more like natural rock.

The next step was to paint the rocks using artists acrylic paints. I don't have images of the painting but the first thing I did was to make up a very watery dark grey and used a sponge to dabb the paint onto the rocks. I also used very watery yellows, greens and browns that I applied using a small artists brush in small patches over the surface that I then dabbed with a wet sponge to smudge the colours out. It was a little bit of trial and error to get the look that I was after.
Once these coats of paint had dried I used a stiff artists brush and a "dry brush" technique using white paint to add highlights to the rocks.
The image below shows a close up view of a painted and finished rock.

The last process on the rocks was to seal them using four to five coats of sealant. This is to stop the paint from washing off and also make cleaning much easier. For this I used a product called Modpodge.
I used the matt finish type but even so it still left a slight shine to the rocks once it was dry, however the final look is not glossy but more of a wet look, so pretty good for a rainforest terrarium.

After the rock work was finished I started on the roots. These were made from a selection of different diameter PVC pipes.
I used a heat gun to bend them to how I wanted them to fit into the terrarium.
By heating with the gun and bending to shape then holding them under cold running water to quickly cool them off I was able to get the shapes I wanted easily.

Once all the pipes were bent to shape I held them in place in the terrarium with tape to get an idea of how they would look.



The next step was to cover the pipes with background material. I have found it better to remove the pipes and cover them rather than trying to do this step with them in place in the terrarium.
I use a mix of natural peat, coco fibre and a waterproof wood glue called Titebond 3. The peat is the main component of the mix and I use the coco fibre mainly to get a lighter colour to the background. The amount of coco fibre used will alter the background colour considerably. The glue bonds everything together and dries giving a very hard surface. The mix that I make up isn't an exact science and is roughly (by volume) 20 parts peat to 2 parts coco fibre to one part glue. I mix it all together and add water until it is the consistency of a cake mix. It should hold together when squeezed but not be too wet or too dry.
Before covering the pipes I used some sand paper to try and roughen up the surface of them. Coating them can be a little tricky trying to get the mix to stick and not fall off but with some trial and error and a little adjusting of how wet the mix is you can squeeze and mould the mix onto them.
Once they were covered I let them dry for 48 to 72 hours. During the drying the covering shrinks a little and cracks leaving patches where the pipe shows through as can be seen in the image below. I then placed the pipes back into the terrarium and fixed into place with expanding foam.

Once the expanding foam holding the pipes in place was dry I covered the worst cracks in the surface of the pipes with more material and allowed it to dry. The smaller crack could be touched up once the terrarium was finished.

The back and sides of the terrarium were then shaped using the expanding foam to form root like structures running down from the terrarium ceiling.

 

Once dry the foam can be carved using sharp knives to remove the glossy surface as the background mix will stick better once this is done. After all the foam work is finished the really messy job of covering it all in background mix begins.

This 120cm long terrarium took about three evenings to cover. Again as the mix dries it will shrink and leave cracks that will need to be patched up with more mix. This size terrarium can take a couple of weeks to dry completely and for the cracks to show.



The end product is rock work that is extreemley tough with a hard slightly rough texture and the peat background that also dries very hard with a very rough texture.

At this stage you can go into as much detail as you like. In the image below of another terrarium you can see the detailed root work made by covering pieces of string with silicone sealant before covering them in dry fine powdered peat and coco fibre then fixing them to the background.



Once the background is finished I add a two layer substrate. First I put in a thick plastic sheet that covers the bottom and about 10cm up the sides to protect the base ot the terrarium from excess moisture. After that I add the first layer of 2-3cm deep clay beads to act as drainage for the soil.

Once the top layer is added I can remove the tape that is holding the plastic in place.

Before adding the top layer I place a piece of mosquito net over the beads to stop the two layers mixing together.

For the top layer I have used a mix of bagged top soil from a garden center and peat moss with some sand and bark chipping's added for better drainage. This layer needs to be at least 7-10cm deep to allow for planting. Once the layer is in it's time to add the plants and finish the display.







The five images above show a terrarium just after planting. Plants include; Schefflera arboricola, Tradescantia zebrina, Monstera deliciosa, Fittonia albivenis and Ledebouria violacea.

About a month after planting the Monstera had developed an infestation of leaf eating pests and was removed from the enclosure. None of the other plants were affected. I added another broad leaf species of Philodendron to replace the monstera and this has done very well and needs to be cut back by removing two or three leaves a month. The ground cover plants seem to suffer a little from lack of light as the broad leaves do cut out a lot of light reaching the terrarium floor.
I placed some vines into the terrarium and it now houses two yearling ( Corallus hortulanus) Amazon Tree Boas. They seem to thrive in the enclosure and rest during the day in amongst the plants or on the many small ledges around the walls made by the foam.


The image above shows the terrarium as it is today.

Although I haven't built background for all my terrariums yet I have converted all terrariums over to a bio-active substrate as it has shown such good results. I have found that by adding a couple of litres of water at a time it will soak down to the clay beads and and water the soil from the bottom up and keep high humidity levels (65% plus) in the enclosure without making the inside of the enclosure too damp.

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