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Thread: Setting up a new terrarium - watering (and other) advice requested

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    Setting up a new terrarium - watering (and other) advice requested

    I received a terrarium for Christmas last year and, I'm embarrassed to say, am just getting around to setting it up now. It's got an elegant design, and I've worked out how I want the inside laid out, but could use some help figuring out how to best water the plants. Other suggestions, thoughts, or cautions on just about any aspect are also welcome though. I've gardened a good bit in my life but I'm new to indoor projects like this. And money is a little tight right now so I really only got one shot at making this work.


    For informational purposes, the terrarium is square and approximately 16"x16" (and some 20" or more high). It's completely enclosed by glass within a wood frame, and the top has two sliding glass halves for controlling humidity. I'm building myself a little waterfall that will feed into a stream leading down to a pond, where an intake pulls the water back to dump into the waterfall.

    This gift was specifically meant to help me get back into carnivorous plants and I plan to place them throughout the terrarium in 4" pots (for easier removal for dormancy). At this time I don't expect to have any animals in the terrarium, instead using it as more of a cat-safe CP garden, but am not totally against the idea of adding a lizard or turtle or something in the future. But I know nothing about them yet and it isn't something I'm bothering to think much about (other than to avoid design gaffes that could limit my options in the future).


    The layout of the terrarium is sketched below from a top down view, followed by a detailed top-down of the waterfall (numbers represent height). The waterfall will reside against a back wall and sit upon a few inches of soil. The waterfall pump will sit under the upper lake with tubing running alongside the stream to the pond, where water is recycled back through. The pots will be buried up to their lips in soil to hopefully hide them from regular viewing. Lighting will be provided by some growlights fitting into the top lattice, as well as possibly some lighting in the waterfall and stream (not sure how to accomplish this yet).






    My main holdup at this point is that I would very much like to automate maintenance as much as possible, as I currently work two jobs and have many parental and other responsibilities leading me to sometimes neglect my hobbies. With moving water flowing across the length of the terrarium, and an available water pump, I feel like I should be able to tap into that somehow to water the plants, possibly using some sort of drip system pulled from the main line. That way I would just need to refill the pond every few days with distilled water as I see it getting low.

    Again, though, I'm completely green in this area. So that's why I was hoping to get some ideas from you guys. Am I on the right track? Are there spiffy little tools designed to help accomplish this very thing? Are there other methods I should be considering instead of drip lines? Or will this whole system end up being more trouble than it's worth.


    As an aside, I also welcome thoughts on the plants I've chosen. I've had D Intermedia and D Capensis before and loved them; hardy little guys. The Sarrs will be a pretty new experience for me (I've mostly had VFTs and Sundews); I'd like to find a variety that will stay relatively small so as not to outgrow the pot or terrarium. D Scorpioides may not be perfectly suited to this environ, but I hope it will work. I've wanted one since I first got into CPs and started visiting Terraforums back in, I believe, the late 90s...it's my little CP fantasy. =P

    As for the environment, we live in Pittsburgh, PA. This will probably be residing near a East facing window getting an hour or two of direct early morning sunlight, but mostly indirect sunlight. The house is kept at between 66 and 72 degrees throughout the year (generally warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer for weird medical reasons). Humidity in the house is relatively low, but the terrarium has a sliding top I can use to maintain internal humidity, especially with the waterfall in there. Some grow lights will be placed on top the terrarium shining directly down, probably on a 14-16 hour/day timer.

    I will probably try to handle my plants' dormancy using my garage; winter temps in there can go below freezing, but I can always do the dormancy a little early or late to take advantage of the milder weather. As the plants will all be in pots it should be easy to remove them for dormancy or other care. Refrigeration is a possibility, but with two kids I'm not sure how safe it would be.

  2. #2
    Decumbent Fanatic Jcal's Avatar
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    I'm having a hard time trying to envision this. It's it really clever and advanced, but if simple and carefree is what you want then I would skip the pond and drip system and just use the tray method.

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    Alright, first off- not making any assumptions about your background or knowledge- if you are looking for something low maintenance I think terrariums are not the way to go- at least not real humid ones. Not properly maintained, they can quickly become breeding grounds for all kinds of nasty stuff. My thought- just get some good air flow in there and clean stuff up regularly- but they will require your attention and maintenance (YMMV). Running water is a good idea vs. standing water, I would be inclined to add an airstone in there somewhere but that would likely be overkill on oxygenating the water. Seems with the water fall you have sufficient passive oxygenation. If it were me, I would put a small circulating fan in there- even if the terrarium has vents.
    Alright, had to say that stuff. I do think it is a cool idea- I am actually in the process of designing a CP terrarium setup myself for Utricularias and Genliseas (so I am actually taking notes here).

    Given your dimensions and the fact that you want stuff to stay small and/or in place, your only real candidates in terms of sarrs is Sarracenia psittacina and the Sarracenia purpurea complex. S. purpurea/Rosea would probably take up quite a bit of room (more than your 4" budget at least) eventually but you could probably keep it in there for a while if you get them small.
    I think D. scorpiodes would be cool, certainly one I would consider but do not let it stay super wet- not like a D. intermedia.

    Alright, so I have bounced around a bit here. The drip idea is a cool idea, I am not saying it is not possible but I am having a hard time visualizing how that would work in practice while still being low maintenance. I am not sure which would be better as both have their challenges but I would think about a wick system as well. If you use a wick system you do not have to worry so much about flow rates and so forth- however you do have to worry more about bacteria.

    I dunno, its an interesting problem- does not seem trivial. I know there are books out there on vivaria/terraria I would be inclined to check some of them out. Might post your question to a reptile forum as well (thinking more about the carefree maintenance and water delivery stuff- less about the CPs).

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    Thank you both for your thoughts.

    I agree that it sounds like the drip system would be a lot of trouble and difficult to setup. However, I've made assumptions like that before in areas that I'm ignorant in and found myself completely wrong, so I thought I'd see what others thought.

    The terrarium is already purchased, and I'm pretty set on having buried pots and the waterfall and all that. It's not necessarily that I'm looking for low maintenance, as much as I'd like it to be forgetfulness proof. I could take care of it perfectly for a full year, then one 100-hour workweek when I forget to water...I figure if I can get some level of insurance against that it would be well worth it. But I think the aesthetic takes a high priority, even superseding this maintenance/insurance issue.


    I would be inclined to add an airstone in there somewhere but that would likely be overkill on oxygenating the water. Seems with the water fall you have sufficient passive oxygenation
    I've had fishtanks before and understand the importance of oxygenation of the water in them. Would this also be relevant in a terrarium? Or is this just a concern in case I decide to add some form of reptile in the future?


    If it were me, I would put a small circulating fan in there- even if the terrarium has vents.
    I hadn't considered this, but will see what I can find. Maybe a little computer fan could be mounted pretty easily; they're nice and thin and easy to hide.


    Given your dimensions and the fact that you want stuff to stay small and/or in place, your only real candidates in terms of sarrs is Sarracenia psittacina and the Sarracenia purpurea complex
    Thanks for the suggestion. I'll begin researching those over the next few days as I can. I had a S Purpurea years ago, though the details are a little fuzzy. I'll have to see if I can find my old emails to jog my memory.


    Alright, so I have bounced around a bit here. The drip idea is a cool idea, I am not saying it is not possible but I am having a hard time visualizing how that would work in practice while still being low maintenance. I am not sure which would be better as both have their challenges but I would think about a wick system as well. If you use a wick system you do not have to worry so much about flow rates and so forth- however you do have to worry more about bacteria.
    I've never heard of a wick system. I assume a string of absorbent material is placed with one end in the water and the other near the plant, allowing the water to climb and the rate to be automatically controlled by the destination saturation? I'll have to do some research on it.

    I've also considered a simple funnel system. A funnel at the top of the terrarium that feeds into a six-way splitter, with a hose that then leads down to each plant. It would still require manual watering, but only one quick pour at the top of the tank instead of reaching in for each plant. I could handle that before work or at lunch much more easily. However, trying to hide the six tubes running down the tank would be difficult and the aesthetic is important to me. Any thoughts on this?

    Alternately, is there any sort of system designed with a pump that fires at a scheduled time and runs for 5-30 seconds?



    Thanks again for all the help. It's a daunting project, especially after being away for a few years. Having fellow enthusiasts around to offer support makes a world of difference.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nicholas_Bostaph View Post
    I agree that it sounds like the drip system would be a lot of trouble and difficult to setup. However, I've made assumptions like that before in areas that I'm ignorant in and found myself completely wrong, so I thought I'd see what others thought.
    Hey, I respect that completely! It never hurts to ask and never hurts to try- its not like you did not do your homework before asking

    Quote Originally Posted by Nicholas_Bostaph View Post
    The terrarium is already purchased, and I'm pretty set on having buried pots and the waterfall and all that. It's not necessarily that I'm looking for low maintenance, as much as I'd like it to be forgetfulness proof. I could take care of it perfectly for a full year, then one 100-hour workweek when I forget to water...I figure if I can get some level of insurance against that it would be well worth it. But I think the aesthetic takes a high priority, even superseding this maintenance/insurance issue.
    I would imagine that would be doable.

    Quote Originally Posted by Nicholas_Bostaph View Post
    I've had fishtanks before and understand the importance of oxygenation of the water in them. Would this also be relevant in a terrarium? Or is this just a concern in case I decide to add some form of reptile in the future?
    I think that was just me thinking too hard, too late at night. The reason for the air stones is to oxygenate the water to prevent anaerobic water conditions and to help (in theory) get more oxygen to the root zones but with the whole waterfall setup, I think you are fine.

    Quote Originally Posted by Nicholas_Bostaph View Post
    I hadn't considered this, but will see what I can find. Maybe a little computer fan could be mounted pretty easily; they're nice and thin and easy to hide.
    That's what comes to my mind. Just to keep stuff moving around a bit.

    Quote Originally Posted by Nicholas_Bostaph View Post
    I've never heard of a wick system. I assume a string of absorbent material is placed with one end in the water and the other near the plant, allowing the water to climb and the rate to be automatically controlled by the destination saturation? I'll have to do some research on it.
    Yeah, now that I have had a few cups of coffee that idea seems less appealing.

    Quote Originally Posted by Nicholas_Bostaph View Post
    I've also considered a simple funnel system. A funnel at the top of the terrarium that feeds into a six-way splitter, with a hose that then leads down to each plant. It would still require manual watering, but only one quick pour at the top of the tank instead of reaching in for each plant. I could handle that before work or at lunch much more easily. However, trying to hide the six tubes running down the tank would be difficult and the aesthetic is important to me. Any thoughts on this?
    Its interesting but with less than 10 plants how much time would that really save you? Plus, there is something to be said for taking a moment to visually inspect your plants each day so you can catch problems while they are nuisances rather than crises. Do both at the same time.

    Quote Originally Posted by Nicholas_Bostaph View Post
    Alternately, is there any sort of system designed with a pump that fires at a scheduled time and runs for 5-30 seconds?
    Those should be easy to "build". Find an electrical timer that allows you to dial in the time intervals you want (Home Depot, etc...), hook it up to a submersible pump(Hydroponics store) in a bucket of RO water or something, use drip irrigation/sprinkler line(Home Depot) to create the indoor plumbing. Home Depot and your local hydroponics store are your friends on that one. I am not personally aware of a light timer that allows you dial all the way down to seconds but I am sure they are out there. Personally, I would be more inclined to water for a minute or so, perhaps once or twice a day at a low flow rate. That can be controlled both with the pressure of your pump and/or using emitters with a known GPH rating.

    Quote Originally Posted by Nicholas_Bostaph View Post
    Thanks again for all the help. It's a daunting project, especially after being away for a few years. Having fellow enthusiasts around to offer support makes a world of difference.
    This hobby is 10 times more fun when you go all nerd over it. I am working on a couple of geeky projects myself.

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    Sphagnum Guru Wire Man's Avatar
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    I would consider revising the plant list. Sarracenia and VFTs require winter dormancy. This is very difficult to do with a terrarium. I would stick with pygmy Drosera. Terrestrial orchids would work, too.

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    carnivorous plants of the world -- unite! DragonsEye's Avatar
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    First and foremost, I "tip my hat to you" for the time in planning this out before jumping into it. Not only can the planning ("dreaming" ) be fun, but it can also help you avoid a lot of issues later down the road.

    My first comment is related to how much "stuff" you plan on having in there -- I think you may be underestimating the amount of space things will take-up. From personal experience, I can tell you that the amount of real-estate you have to work with disappears amazingly fast as you start putting things in. Be very aware of that as you plan this out.

    Is the terr sealed so the wooden frame will not be exposed to the moisture in the terr? (I would assume it came that way but bring it up as assumptions can be dangerous things.)

    Grow lights are typically more expensive then they are worth. Daylight spectrum cfls tend to be cheaper, last longer, and do the job as well. Though they are MUCH more expensive, at least initially, LEDs have reached the point of being useful for growing plants. However, do not just run off to Lowes or some other BBS -- the LEDs they carry will NOT do the job.

    PC fans can indeed be used to circulate air in the tank, and they are quite easy to hook up and last a surprisingly long time.

    Make sure in your water feature design that any and all filters as well as the pump is easily accessible without needing to dismantle everything. In particular, I would suggest (if you haven't already planned on doing so) making the waterfall up of several sections in such a manner that you can remove a piece or pieces while reaching in from the front of the terr to gain access to the pump.

    With moving water, airstones should be unnecessary.

    I would worry about the Sarrs getting too big too fast as well as possible issues with etiolation.

    I know MistKing has timers that go down to the second for use with their misting systems. Might check them out.

    If you are planning on wet boggy conditions, you might try a false bottom, allowing the water from the waterfall to run down into the "pond" and from there into the surrounding soil. The false bottom would be necessary at that point to allow the water to drain down into the bottom of the tank to be drawn up and recycled back through the waterfall.



    "Blessed are the cracked….
    For they are the ones who let in the light."



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    Thanks for all the advice. First, a few responses, then I have a few more questions to bug you guys with.

    Its interesting but with less than 10 plants how much time would that really save you? Plus, there is something to be said for taking a moment to visually inspect your plants each day so you can catch problems while they are nuisances rather than crises. Do both at the same time.
    Well, it's not so much a matter of time, as it is a matter of remembering, or even time on particular days. There are days (even weeks) where I wakeup before the sun rises and fall into bed at midnight, and my whole schedule falls apart if I so much as waste a few seconds walking instead of running throughout the day. During those times I wouldn't have the opportunity to spend 5 minutes watering six plants even if I did remember. Though I do plan to check them daily 95% of the time, I just need some insurance against that other 5%.

    Those should be easy to "build". Find an electrical timer that allows you to dial in the time intervals you want (Home Depot, etc...), hook it up to a submersible pump(Hydroponics store) in a bucket of RO water or something, use drip irrigation/sprinkler line(Home Depot) to create the indoor plumbing. Home Depot and your local hydroponics store are your friends on that one. I am not personally aware of a light timer that allows you dial all the way down to seconds but I am sure they are out there. Personally, I would be more inclined to water for a minute or so, perhaps once or twice a day at a low flow rate. That can be controlled both with the pressure of your pump and/or using emitters with a known GPH rating.
    I like this approach. I'm looking at submersible pumps now to place in a bucket under the terrarium (see image below). I'd like to run a 1/2" line from that to a 6-way splitter, then smaller lines to each plant. I've found a timer that goes down to the minute with good reviews and for a cheap price. Best of all it comes in a 2-pack, so now I have the lights covered as well.

    I would consider revising the plant list. Sarracenia and VFTs require winter dormancy. This is very difficult to do with a terrarium. I would stick with pygmy Drosera. Terrestrial orchids would work, too.
    Thanks for the suggestion. I'm actually planning to remove them for wintering in my garage so the dormancy is already taken into consideration.

    Is the terr sealed so the wooden frame will not be exposed to the moisture in the terr? (I would assume it came that way but bring it up as assumptions can be dangerous things.)
    Yes, it is. And the 'cap' is coated metal so it shouldn't be in danger from escaping humidity.

    Grow lights are typically more expensive then they are worth. Daylight spectrum cfls tend to be cheaper, last longer, and do the job as well. Though they are MUCH more expensive, at least initially, LEDs have reached the point of being useful for growing plants. However, do not just run off to Lowes or some other BBS -- the LEDs they carry will NOT do the job.
    I would like to do two daylight CFLs, plus one LED growlight (see below for reasoning). However, I'm having trouble finding a good ballast. The terrarium is 16 inches wide, and the top tapers. Because of this I may be stuck attaching 12" tubes instead. Any suggestions on where to find the LED growlights? How small can they be?

    Make sure in your water feature design that any and all filters as well as the pump is easily accessible without needing to dismantle everything. In particular, I would suggest (if you haven't already planned on doing so) making the waterfall up of several sections in such a manner that you can remove a piece or pieces while reaching in from the front of the terr to gain access to the pump.
    I was originally hoping to, but I don't think it's in the cards. The structure is so small, and with where I had to hide the pump I think access is going to be limited to underneath.

    If you are planning on wet boggy conditions, you might try a false bottom, allowing the water from the waterfall to run down into the "pond" and from there into the surrounding soil. The false bottom would be necessary at that point to allow the water to drain down into the bottom of the tank to be drawn up and recycled back through the waterfall.
    This 'feels' like a complicated and difficult setup to me. I'm not sure if it really is, but I don't think it's something I'm comfortable with at this point. I think I've decided on an alternate method instead…


    I've decided to go with an inline pump pulling water from a bucket under the terrarium for watering. I ran some calculations and realized that the plants would need so much water that they could run the falls dry in a day or two, risking damage to the waterfall pump. This new approach allows me to keep much more water available to the watering pump too. I just gotta figure out a way to keep the cats out of it . I am having trouble finding a splitter, though. I need something to turn a 1/2" water line into six smaller (maybe 1/4") lines, and that's proving way more difficult to find than I had anticipated. Could anyone suggest somewhere good to look?

    My second question was prompted by another thread talking about growlights. One poster mentioned that although LED growlights don't generally work aesthetically because of the blue/red hue, they can work great at night to simulate moonlight. So I was thinking of setting up some normal CFL growlights to run 14-16 hours/day, then an LED to run either the other 8-10 or just continuously. This will make the terrarium look cool at night (and there are lots of people walking around at night in our house), and as a bonus will give the plants a little more light. The question is: will 24 hour/day lighting cause harm? Do CPs require a day/night cycle?


    I thought I'd post some pictures as I move through each step for anyone who's interested in the progression. Maybe it will help others trying to do something similar in the future. Here is the styrofoam skeleton before I started digging away at it to make it look more organic:




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