Build a planty, sunlit vivarium for reptiles and photosynthesis

Guest post by Mich

This project has a beaut of a result, but it’s not for beginners. You’ll need to take the time to draw up a plan for a vivarium which fits your needs. This isn’t — if you have a bit of building-things experience you’ll do okay. If all else fails, recruit help or talk to your local hardware store employees. -Cat

Back in 2007 I made a vivarium for a baby Salvator Monitor and took photos for a step-by-step guide. Now, I bring it to you!

My vivarium is mid-sized — 5 feet by 2 feet (about 1.75 meters by .75 meters) — and contains a plumbed in sink for ease of cleaning.

Supply list


  1. Buy wood. I bought from B+Q.
  2. Create the vivarium’s base, back, sides, and bottom lip. I left off the top for easier access.
  3. Measure and mark out space for the sink, then plumb in waste water outlet.
  4. Cut a hole to set sink into the base, and cut holes for air vents.
  5. Cut four layers of 25mm polystyrene sheets to support the sink.
  6. Fit sink. Then add two strips of polystyrene to build up a lip on draining board.
  7. Cover in expanding foam.
  8. Smooth the expanding foam on the draining board so that it doesn’t expand too much. Trim the excess expanding foam so it slopes into sink. Cut the polystyrene sheets to form a tree root shape in the right corner of vivarium.
  9. Trim out areas of expanding foam so that your chosen wood will fit.
  10. Cover all of the polystyrene and expanding foam with three layers of tile adhesive/grout
  11. Decide on locations for plant pots and cut out spaces for them in the expanding foam/polystyrene.
  12. Cover the pots in tile adhesive/grout. There will now be four layers of tile adhesive in total.
  13. Apply two layers of outdoor varnish to the back plywood wall.
  14. Cover all fake rocks with outdoor (waterproof) varnish and sieve on dry sand. Repeat twice and finish with a final layer of outdoor varnish.
  15. Cut the plants pots at an angle, leaving excess plastic on the back to make it easier to stick them to the wall.
  16. Mark the position for the UV tube.
  17. Mount the plant pots to the wall using screws and no more nails.
  18. Cover the plant pots, back, and side walls with coco matting. Cut slits in top of pots so that you may place plants int the pots.
  19. Attach coco mats with a staple gun and screws/washers. Leave loose the edges so you can seal them once the top is on.
  20. Secure the natural wood pieces into the vivarium. Secure them with screws so they cannot fall and hurt your lizard!
  21. Seal the bottom of all the plant pots.
  22. Attach the top of the vivarium.
  23. Seal all the joints in the vivarium with a kitchen/bathroom sealant.
  24. Screw cocomat tightly up to sealed joints
  25. Wire in the heating and lighting.
  26. Pot plants into their places on the floor and wall.
  27. Add air vents — and seal them with No More Nails or another sealant.
  28. Cut the glass runners to size and adhere with No More Nails.
  29. Add the retes stack.
  30. Add substrate/soil. Make it deep in the right side and shallow on the draining board.
  31. Measure your glass for cutting. When acquired, install into the glass runners.

And congrats! Your vivarium is ready for residents!

Comments on Build a planty, sunlit vivarium for reptiles and photosynthesis

  1. This is really cool! Also, I got kinda excited and googled and then was sad because it isn’t a real website 🙁

  2. I’ve been talking incessantly about getting a baby tortoise for both pet-lovins and to feed veggie scraps. We have a space where we could fit something like this, and I have a husband (squee! husband! /newlywed squee) who would love to take this kind of thing on. The only thing with the sink bit, though, is that we’re renters, so how would that work, then? Hm. I’m very intrigued, and we’ve got a lot of time before we adopt a tortoise and all this, but I LOVE that you’ve posted this. It’s incredibly handy.

    • A vivarium isn’t the best for a tortoise – they need a lot better ventilation and it would be much more suitable to build them a tortoise table (google for more info) these are open topped (or I put a mesh lid over mine to stop the cat joining the tortoise under the basking lamp) and are much better suited for little tortoise residents.
      tortoises LOVE water, but babies can drown very easily so you are better to have a flat tray of water with plenty of small rocks in the water so they can drink but not drown.
      I’ll try to find some pics of my tortoise table for you

    • oh and in regards to the sink, it wasn’t really plumbed in, it had to be filled by hand but the plug hole was still functional and with a flexible hose attached to it meant the water from the sink (which the lizard enjoyed pooping in) could be easily emptied, cleaned and then refilled)

  3. also, please suggest readers investigate TYPES of wood. some wood types are bad for reptiles due to the oils and fumes it releases.

    same thing with plants: some are really bad for reptile vivs.

    • DEFINITELY!!!!
      I originally put this together for a reptile forum I was part of so such conversations were being covered elsewhere on the forum.
      but definitely please please please check the safety of the plants and wood in relation to your reptile.
      We did a lot of research of what plants to put in the viv as the salvator monitor liked eating them!!!
      (one I know off the top of my head is to not use pine in the viv building)

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