How to Plant a Paludarium Background (+ Best Plants/ideas)

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Making your own paludarium is a process, which is why there are kits available for those who need some help creating a balanced ecosystem. But a kit isn’t for you. You’re more experienced and want to design your own, with plants and layouts that you want, not what everyone else has.

To plant a paludarium background you need to get the right tank, have a good plan design in mind, build the land portion, add substrate, add plants, construct the water areas, and add the canopy.

In this article, I’ll explain each step to building an impressive paludarium background for each primary environment, and how you can make it your own. I’ll also include what all of your plant options are that go together for the ecosystem you want to build, so that you can truly make something unique, special, and sustainable.

Get the Right Tank

The whole process starts with having the right tank, and that depends on the types of creatures you want to put in there and their quantity. Paludariums have two important portions to their tank

  • The terrarium
  • The aquarium

This unique set up allows you to have amphibians, lizards, freshwater fish, aquatic invertebrates, and even crustaceans.

paludarium tank
Image Courtesy of Little Forest Terrariums

Naturally, you need a responsible mix of creatures that won’t eat one another. I have another article on animals that do great in paludariums to help you pick some out if you haven’t already. Some good animal combos include:

  • Green tree python with neon rainbow fish
  • Poison dart frogs with kilifish
  • Mudskippers and archerfish
  • Salamanders and snails (or fish that are too big for them to fit in their mouth)

Whether the tank is longer or taller isn’t necessarily important unless you intend to have leaf-dweller animals, like frogs, which need a tall enclosure. Similarly, any ground/water dwelling species such as newts, salamanders, and mudskippers will need an enclosure with a wide surface area. Whatever size you need, the minimum is typically a 15-20 gallon tank.

Plan Your Paludarium Background

Now that you have the right size tank, you can start planning with its available space. There are 4 main paludarium environments that mimic real-life ecosystems:

  • Brackish coastline
  • Mangrove swamp
  • Tropical rainforest
  • Turtle habitat

Each environment has its own checklist of criteria that distinguishes it from the others and makes it suitable for certain animals. The decorations you choose for each one will all be unique, which we’ll get into in the later sections, but there are a few things you should know about the suitable conditions for each environment.

Build the Paludarium’s Land Portion

The land portion is the first thing to put down because it will be the steady place to put some of your plants and is easier to place before you put in the water. It can be made of wood, stones, sand, or even upside-down dishes.

You can use foam sealant to hold each land piece together so that you can form and carve them into the shapes you want. Just note that there must be some way to drain the water from the land pieces if the water gets too high and there should be enough land area according to the needs of your pets.

paludarium land portion
Image Courtesy of Little Forest Terrariums

Use some plexiglass to keep your land and water sections separate. Figure out the elevation your land-dwelling or semi-land dwelling creatures need to be fully out of the water, and the location and slope for the entrance into the water. Salamanders need hiding places above the water,, so keep that in mind.

This land portion should have enough room to have plenty of plants that provide shelter and cool shade, and it should be stable so that nothing will slip and hurt your pets.

Add the Substrate

Now you can start adding the appropriate substrates to your paludarium. Make sure the fiber glass partition is still up. A substrate is just any material on which an organism can grow. There are usually three layers of substrates:

  1. The foundation and support
  2. The growing medium
  3. The surface layer
paludarium substrate
Image Courtesy of Little Forest Terrariums

The substrate materials will be based on the natural soil stratification of the biome you’re imitating. Ex: if you have plants that need soil, soil will be one of your substrates.

The foundation layer should be your fine-grain substrates, with your land pieces on top of it. The second layer should be medium-sized, such as gravel, and lastly you should have your large cobbles and a topsoil layer for your plants.

Brackish Coastline

For a brackish environment, you would need a sandy substrate to make your crabs feel like they’re at home on the beach. Other substrates that work for brackish tanks include:

  • Gravel
  • Crushed coral
  • Aragonite

Be sure to was all your substrates several times to prevent cloudiness, especially the coral and aragonite.

Mangrove Swamp

The base substrate that you use for the mangroves should be fine sediment with high organic matter content so that the mangroves and seagrasses will grow well. Other substrates that work are

  • Rock rubble
  • Sand
  • Miracle Mud

Tropical Rainforest

The rainforest is very diverse, so you can have your choice of substrates for each layer.

Base/Foundational Layer

  • Clay Pellets
  • Gravel
  • Plastic Grate Material

Secondary Layer

  • Coconut Fibers
  • Cypress Mulch
  • Orchid Bark
  • Potting Soil
  • Natural Dirt

Surface Layer

  • Leaf Litter
  • Moss

Turtle Habitat

Fine grains, such as those in moist potting soil mix, are the perfect substrate types for the terrestrial zones.

Add Your Plants of Choice

As you look through your plant options, plan them according to their preference in proximity to the water portion. Are you using aquatic plants that rest in or on the surface of the water?

Semi-aquatic plants are great for decorating the shallow pools or swamps, and terrestrial plants will grow in the land parts, but you’ll need soil for them to thrive. Lastly, epiphytes, such as moss, will grow on land pieces like rocks, without soil.

If you need more help, I have an article on 27 plants that would be perfect for your paludarium. But for each main environment, here are some suggestions.

Brackish Coastline

  • Anubias plant
  • Java fern
  • Sogo pondweed

Mangrove Swamp

  • Mongrove sapling
  • Mopani wood (mangrove substitute)
  • Mini orchids
  • Bromeliads
  • Flowering epiphytes
  • Tapegrass
  • Lemon Bacope
  • Duckweed

Tropical Rainforest

  • Arums
  • Bromeliads
  • Ferns
  • Ficus
  • Orchids

Turtle Habitat

  • Creeping vines
  • Bracken fern
  • Liverwort
  • Moneywort vines
  • Waterwees
  • Bladderworts

Construct the Water Areas

Now you can add the water. Remember that each environment has specific preferable water conditions and there should be more than enough for your tankmates to swim around.

paludarium water area
Image Courtesy of Little Forest Terrariums

Brackish Coastline

Brackish coastlines are where freshwater meets seawater, and in a tank, that means that the salinity level is between 0.05% and 3%.

Mangrove Swamp

As a type of brackish environment, mangrove swamps have 0.075% salinity.

Tropical Rainforest

All you really need to know about the water for this paludarium is that you need clean freshwater.

Turtle Habitat

Turtles prefer dechlorinated water between 70 and 80℉ (21.1 and 26.6℃).

Add an Island

A space that allows your pet to hang around the water without submerging in it is a perfect resting place. Driftwood, cork, or a floating shelf does the trick.

Add the Canopy

Last but not least is the canopy – the top layer. This layer is for your terrestrial animals to climb around and hide in. It’s usually made of corks, hanging plants, and branches.

In Short

I hope this article helps you realize your dream enclosure for your scaly friends. Besides a few basic rules, the design of your enclosure is left completely to you. Have about 30-70% water land, or 50-50%, have the land high enough with drainage, create a slope for easy entrance and exit from the water, etc.


Meet Brad, the creator behind Vivarium Vibes, where his deep connection with nature and animals truly comes to life.

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