Building a terrarium from the bottom up – Substrate

Today’s post is the start of the building a tank from the bottom up series.  It will feature everything you need to know to get your terrarium or vivarium started!  First layer was the Drainage layer, read more about it here if you missed it.

Building a tank from the bottom - substrate

Next up: Substrate barrier and Substrate!

Substrate Barrier:

The substrate barrier is important because it will help to prevent substrate from falling below into the false bottom.  This will help the water stay cleaner longer and keep the substrate drier for longer which will help to maintain a healthy ecosystem.

Window Screen-It helps to fold and use multiple layers of the screen as you do not want all of your substrate, isopods and springtails to fall thru.

Weed Block/ landscape fabric– Make sure to verify that it allows some water through.  Some of the weed block will not let any water thru causing more headaches than its worth.

Filter foam– These can be found in the home improvement section and are an easier alternative to messing with screening.

The image above shows how to wrap the window screen and zip-tie it down to avoid any substrate getting down in the false bottom.


The perfect substrate should be light and airy and provide good drainage.  A good rule of thumb is that the substrate should never exceed 50% of soil ingredients meaning coconut fiber, peat or soil.  More than 50% and it gets soggy.

Recently I have been using ‘ABG’ and loving it.  I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good substrate. ‘ABG’ stands for Atlanta Botanical Gardens after the company that developed the original mix.  There are many variations of this mix and each company has its own formula, however the general rule of thumb is that it will include  Tree fern fiber, orchid bark, sphagnum and peat moss & charcoal.

Here are a couple of the reasons that I love ‘ABG’: the charcoal is used to help the mix stay fresh and can also help to create some air pockets allowing the soil to drain while still absorbing a small amount of water.  Charcoal will also take a long time to break down allowing it to still do its job long after other ingredients have broken down.  The tree fern fiber and orchid bark add aeration and also help with the drainage.  I have also found that the ABG last several years and takes a long time to break down, allowing ample time to support the microfauna and allowing plants to thrive.

substrateblockabgPhoto by NEHerp – Visit their website here for all your vivarium needs

Typically you would like to aim for 2-3″ of substrate.

My Method

I personally started out using my own mix of ingredients including coco fiber, bark, peat moss and sphaghum.  I found this to be a pain and that it is much easier to buy the premade ABG substrate.  After all, they have spent quite awhile researching and developing the ingredients and respective quanities so I will leave that portion to the pro’s.  I do like to add some broken up leaves to the mix and add water until it is moist.  I then wring out all the water that I can get out of it and place it on top of my false bottom covered with substrate barrier.  After you have your substrate in you are ready for step 3!


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