How to Make a Bioactive Substrate Mix (Recipe + Guide) - Terrarium Tribe (2022)

You could call a bioactive substrate the holy grail of terrarium and vivarium soil.

Truly, the foundation of a self-sustaining terrarium. It has all the hallmarks of an effective tropical plant substrate and it supports the needs of your bioactive helpers.

As a harmonious blend of nourishing organic materials and fibrous elements, it can keep all of your plants, springtails, isopods, and beneficial bacteria/fungi happy and healthy.

Perhaps most importantly – when properly balanced it renews itself.

So, in this guide we’re going to break down all of the important elements and provide you with an easy DIY bioactive substrate recipe.

Let’s spill the dirt! (Metaphorically).

How to Make a Bioactive Substrate Mix (Recipe + Guide) - Terrarium Tribe (1)

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Table Of Contents

  1. What is Bioactive Substrate?
  2. How to Make a Bioactive Substrate
  3. Tropical Bioactive Substrate Recipe
  4. What About an Arid Bioactive Substrate Mix?
  5. Do You Need Different Bioactive Substrate Layers?
  6. Where to Find Bioactive Substrate for Sale
  7. There You Have It!

What is Bioactive Substrate?

A bioactive substrate is a growth medium that’s able to support all the plants, microfauna and microflora necessary for a functional ecosystem.

There’s a few angles (and technical words) to consider here, so let’s break it down.

(Video) How To Make Tropical Bioactive Substrate 2020 DIY Bioactive Soil

To be truly self-sustaining, a terrarium ecosystem needs to be able to use decomposing organic matter to drive a nutrient cycle. Just like in nature.

Plant and animal waste gets converted back into food for the plants.

But, it doesn’t happen by magic! There’s a network of microfauna (tiny critters like isopods and springtails) and microflora (bacteria and fungi) working together to drive the process.

The isopods and springtails make up your cleanup crew. They’ll eat mold and decomposing waste, turning it into natural fertilizer for your plants.

Their burrowing activities help to aerate the substrate too – so they’re a double-whammy of benefits.

You can also employ a range of beneficial microorganisms from bacteria to mycorrhizal fungi. These colonies are seeded directly into the substrate (it’s usually as easy as sprinkling a powder of sorts), and they bring a host of benefits from root health to nutrient availability.

Vivariums can take it to another level by adding animals into the mix (e.g. lizards and frogs). Which makes things a fair bit more complicated, but at least you mostly just have to feed the pets and not the isopods.

They’ll feed on… well lets just say the animals will take care of that themselves.

Onto the mix!

How to Make a Bioactive Substrate

Going bioactive will vastly improve the health and diversity of your terrarium/vivarium.

However, it’s essential that we get the balance right.

After all, a bioactive substrate blend needs to do all the great stuff of a typical plant substrate, and it needs to meet the needs of our tiny biological workforce.

Here, you’ll learn how to build a strong and healthy foundation for your plants (and animals), what ingredients you’ll need, and how to put it all together.

Choosing a Base

You’ll need a base with excellent water retention.

For tropical plants, that’s a given – but in a bioactive setup your isopods might need it even more.

(Video) Tropical Terrarium Substrate Mix - Terrarium Tips

Isopods need consistent moisture, they’ll actually die if they dry out. So, the base of the substrate must be able to hold moisture that they can easily access (ideally throughout the top layer where they spend their time).

I use coco coir as the base in all of my tropical substrate blends, and it remains my choice for bioactive setups too. It’s able to hold lots of water and it lasts a long time without degrading.

How to Make a Bioactive Substrate Mix (Recipe + Guide) - Terrarium Tribe (3)

Sphagnum moss always helps a lot here too.

Supplements

Just like any tropical terrarium substrate, you’ll need to supplement your base to improve its drainage and aeration.

Materials like orchid bark, lava rock, charcoal, and pumice all help a mix to resist compaction and help water run through it.

This is critical in a healthy substrate mix.

Wet and/or compacted substrates have no space for gas exchange. That means no air for your plant’s roots or your beneficial bacteria, and no spaces for your isopods and springtails to live.

Those materials with high surface areas (e.g. horticultural charcoal) can really help with that gas exchange issue. They help to keep those roots oxygenated and healthy, and it also provides plenty of spaces for beneficial microbial colonies to flourish.

> See my guide to Terrarium Substrates for more options.

How to Make a Bioactive Substrate Mix (Recipe + Guide) - Terrarium Tribe (4)

Compost

Both your plants and your cleanup crew need to feed on organic material in the substrate mix.

This is easily achieved by adding in some form of compost.

Personally, I always recommend earthworm castings. They’re my go-to choice for natural, renewable compost and they’re quite literally the waste from worms – which is exactly what isopods and the like would feed on in the wild.

Topping

Leaf litter may not be common in smaller plant terrariums, but it’s an important part of bioactive vivarium substrate layers.

The microfauna (and animals if you have them) use leaf litter as hiding spots, but most importantly it’s the slowly decomposing leaves that form the backbone of their nutrition.

How to Make a Bioactive Substrate Mix (Recipe + Guide) - Terrarium Tribe (5)
(Video) How To Make High Quality Terrarium Soil | UPDATE!

This can just be sprinkled loosely on top, but it will need refreshing every now and again.

Soft driftwoods (like Cholla Wood or Cork Bark) will also slowly decompose in a humid tropical tank. So these are great additional options to explore.

Honestly, they also look really cool too!

Tropical Bioactive Substrate Recipe

We’ve arrived at the moment you’ve been waiting for.

Though the “ideal” mix will always vary depending on your plants and the setup of your bioactive terrarium, a versatile tropical substrate recipe will do just fine in most projects.

Something like the tried-and-tested ABG mix is an excellent starting point.

Here’s the classic ABG substrate recipe:

  • Sphagnum Moss – 1 part
  • Tree Fern Fiber – 2 parts
  • Orchid Bark – 2 parts
  • Peat Moss – 1 part
  • Charcoal – 1 part

Personally, I prefer to use my own take on this recipe. Opting to useearthworm castings over peat moss (as it’s far more renewable) and adding coco coir.

  • 2 parts base of your base e.g. coco coir.
  • 1 part sphagnum moss.
  • 1 part earthworm castings.
  • 1 part aeration/drainage supplementation e.g. orchid bark or lava rock.

What About an Arid Bioactive Substrate Mix?

For those who are keeping desert animals in an arid bioactive terrarium – you can still get in on the action!

You can still get an arid bioactive substrate recipe and an arid bioactive cleanup crew.

We’ll still be using (mostly) sand, but we also need some of the typical bioactive components. Pure sand won’t support much in the way of plants or microfauna, right?

From what I’ve seen recommended online, the recipe is a variation of a simple formula:

Sand + water retentive base + compost.

These are the materials I would use, and their ratios.

  • 2 parts horticultural sand.
  • 1 part coco coir.
  • 1 part earthworm castings.

Do You Need Different Bioactive Substrate Layers?

(Video) Substrate mix for terrariums (Soil mix for terrariums)

How you implement your new substrate will vary depending on your project and needs.

Really simple enclosures for small terrarium animals (say for isopods or tarantulas) can probably get away with just a single thick layer of the bioactive substrate.

You’re only meeting the needs of one type of organism, right?

Whereas more complex planted containers – the kind we’re really talking about – will likely need a few distinct vivarium substrate layers.

Firstly, to allow your substrate to drain freely, a drainage layer in a vivarium can be a big help. That way you don’t get water pooling at the bottom, waterlogging your container.

This sits beneath the substrate, and it usually consists of leca or rocks (though rocks can get heavy).

This drainage layer is usually divided from the substrate layer by some sort of terrarium substrate mesh. Just to keep them from mixing and ruining the whole flow.

Where to Find Bioactive Substrate for Sale

ABG mix can be foundhere on Etsy on the Glass Box Tropicals store.

Or, you can also go for dedicated mixes and bioactive substrate kits like the Terra Fauna or Terra Sahara from the Bio Dude.

These proprietary blends have been optimized for bioactive setups (tropical and arid respectively), and if you’re using it with animals it’s always better to buy from a trusted source.

I particularly like the idea of their BioShot supplement too. What a convenient way to set your microflora populations up for success!

> Shop The Biodude on Etsy.

There You Have It!

Phew, things got a bit technical there for a while but we’ve made it.

If you’ve stuck it out to the end then you’re clearly a genius.

Do you have any bioactive substrate tips that I’ve missed?

(Video) How to Setup a Bioactive Enclosure (Two Ways!)

Let me know in the comments.

FAQs

How do you make a substrate for a terrarium? ›

There are many combinations that would work but this blend has been very effective for me. You can

What are the 6 elements for a successful bioactive enclosure? ›

The Bioactive 6
  • Substrate. Start from the ground up. ...
  • Fungi. When discussing bioactive enclosures, there's always a fungus among us! ...
  • Bacteria. Bacteria will grow in a bioactive tank. ...
  • Tank Janitors. Creepy crawlies seldom save the day, but they're the heros of your bioactive enclosure. ...
  • Natural Decor. ...
  • Live Plants.
17 Jul 2019

What is in AGB mix? ›

Our mix is the original ABG Mix developed by the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Each bag is a precise mixture of charcoal, milled sphagnum moss, fir bark, tree fern, and peat. The mixture creates the perfect balance between retaining moisture and proper drainage; it can last for several years if used properly!

How do you make ABG soil? ›

How to make abg substrate mix to grow plants in your bioactive. Vibranium explain to you in 90

What makes a terrarium bioactive? ›

A bioactive terrarium (or vivarium) is a terrarium for housing one or more terrestrial animal species that includes live plants and populations of small invertebrates and microorganisms to consume and break down the waste products of the primary species.

What is the best substrate for terrariums? ›

Sphagnum moss has become a true staple in the terrarium and vivarium industry (in both its live and preserved form, but preserved is best for substrates). Just like coir, this wonder material is fantastic for terrariums thanks to its excellent water retention and its fluffy texture.

How often should I water my bioactive terrarium? ›

For species that need a humid hide, such as Leopard Geckos, replace the sphagnum moss in the hide once every two months. This helps ensure cleanliness and encourages bioactivity. Plants should be lightly watered once a week or so, depending on the plants' needs and the moisture content of the substrate.

How often should I clean my bioactive terrarium? ›

In turn, the plants use these nutrients to grow so they can provide shelter and humidity to the animal inhabitants of the enclosure. One of the main benefits of bioactive enclosures is how low maintenance they are once they have been fully set up. The enclosure only has to be fully cleaned about once every five years!

Do bioactive terrariums smell? ›

Odors in a bioactive terrarium are typically caused by anaerobic bacteria. Anaerobic bacteria are microbes that do not require oxygen in order to grow. They often have a bad smell, and are generally the primary culprit when it comes to odor buildup.

What substrate is used for isopods? ›

Isopods do well with peat moss as an exclusive substrate.

What does ABG mix mean? ›

The ABG mix, first developed (and named for) the Atlanta Botanical Gardens has been the gold standard substrate in the terrarium and vivarium industry for many years.

What moss is good for terrariums? ›

Most of them grow in shady and damp areas. The main types of mosses for terrariums is Dicranum. They are often called mood mosses. These include rock camp moss, mountain-fork, broom-fork moss and others.

Do you need activated charcoal for terrarium? ›

A terrarium can and will function without a charcoal layer.

What is reptile soil? ›

Reptile Bedding and Substrate

Substrates such as coconut fiber and forest floor are great at holding humidity for tropical species, whereas sand and walnut based substrates will be more appropriate for your desert dwelling dragons.

What can I use for bioactive substrate? ›

Tips for creating a great bioactive substrate mix:
  • tree fern fiber.
  • fir/orchid bark.
  • coconut fiber.
  • peat moss.
  • cypress mulch.
  • sphagnum moss.
  • clay.
  • fine charcoal.
6 Jan 2022

How do you make a bioactive setup? ›

How to Setup a Bioactive Enclosure (Two Ways!) - YouTube

Does a bioactive terrarium need a drainage layer? ›

Drainage layers are the first step in a tropical planted bioactive terrarium, while not necessarily needed to provide a planted terrarium drainage layers do help provide ease of mind while catching excess water draining through the soil to prevent stagnation, bad bacteria and in most cases an odor.

What are the 4 levels of a terrarium? ›

A terrarium basically has 4 main layers. They are, in order from the ground up, the gravel, moss, soil and decorative layer.

What is the best base material for the bottom of a terrarium? ›

Small Stones or Pebbles – Small stones or pebbles will be used as the base of your terrarium. The small pebbles act as water drainage for the plants' roots to ensure that excess water doesn't stay in the soil and cause rot.

How deep should a terrarium substrate be? ›

It ranges anywhere from 0 inches to 6 inches deep before the second layer (the A Layer, which is called top soil) begins. Those 6 inches are deeper than most terrariums anyway, and wild plants seem to get along just fine without 4 layers in their root zone.

How long can a bioactive terrarium last? ›

In theory, a perfectly balanced closed terrarium – under the right conditions – should continue to thrive indefinitely. The longest known terrarium lasted on its own for 53 years. They may even outlast us!

How do you keep plants alive in a bioactive tank? ›

How to Grow Plants in a Bioactive Vivarium - YouTube

How often should I mist my terrarium? ›

You can also mist your air plant 2-3X per week but again make sure they are not sitting in water. After watering, leaves will be stiffer as they are full of water. When in need of water, the leaves will feel softer and lighter. If you notice any wrinkling or rolled leaves, these are signs of dehydration.

Do I need springtails in my terrarium? ›

The answer is no, they're not a strict necessity, and I've happily grown many a terrarium with bugs and without them. That said, these beneficial terrarium insects really can make the whole care process much easier. I'd absolutely recommend at least a handful of springtails in every setup.

Do all terrariums have bugs? ›

Closed terrariums do not require insects or bugs. However, mold is a common enemy of terrariums, and springtails eat it. Pill bugs and millipedes are helpful, too, as they eat decaying matter. However, other bugs, such as spiders, may not last in a closed terrarium due to lack of food.

Are earthworms good for bioactive terrariums? ›

Earthworms tend to be effective bioactive cleaners. They'll make short work of any decaying organic matter.

Do bugs get out of bioactive terrarium? ›

One of the most common uninvited “guests” is insects, such as fruit flies and gnats, that were not added as part of the intended microfauna. Small insects like these can get out of control in your exotic pet's bioactive terrarium, and they do not usually add to the aesthetic you're going for.

Do you need isopods and springtails? ›

You do not need to use Isopods and Springtails in your setup to be successful. However, the benefits of using a Clean-Up Crew out way the time and energy you will spend making up for the work they do! This means a healthier, more stable, enclosure and more time for you to enjoy it!!!

How do you clean the glass on a bioactive terrarium? ›

How To Clean Terrarium Glass
  1. What You Will Need: White vinegar. ...
  2. Step 1: Combine Water and Vinegar 1:1. Mix 1 part water to 1 part white vinegar. ...
  3. Step 2: Add Lemon Juice or Veterinary Disinfectant (optional) ...
  4. Step 3: Scrub. ...
  5. Step 4: Razor Blade Scum Removal. ...
  6. Step 5: Rinse.

Is bioactive substrate good? ›

Bioactive substrates allow your leopard gecko to explore different smells and textures to give them a more realistic experience versus other types of substrates such as sand or newspaper. A bioactive substrate makes it easier to keep your leopard gecko's habitat clean and well-maintained.

What do isopods do in terrariums? ›

Isopods for Terrariums. Isopods are the great recyclers of a bioactive setup. Any decaying organic material (commonly known as “detritus”) is fair game for these hardcore munching machines. They'll make sure that any departed plant matter or mosses are taken care of before any rot sets in.

How do you make a reptile substrate? ›

Basic Desert Vivarium Substrate Mix
  1. 2 parts natural sand.
  2. 1 part ground coconut husk fiber.
  3. ½ part fully composted leaves.
  4. Organic, complete general purpose plant fertilizer, including trace minerals – use only one-third the amount of fertilizer per volume of mix recommended on package.
18 Jul 2012

How do you make an isopod substrate? ›

Better Isopod Substrate | 2 New Isopods - YouTube

Is potting soil okay for isopods? ›

Commercial potting soil can be used but it is usually sterilized and may not contain material that the isopods can consume and bacteria which will break down organic waste. You may need to add some soil from an area in your lawn that has not been treated with pesticides to inoculate commercial potting soil.

How wet should isopod substrate be? ›

The substrate should be moist to the touch, but never soaked, if you can squeeze it and drops of water come out, it is probably too moist. Now that you have a properly ventilated enclosure and substrate for your isopods, let's talk about cover.

How much substrate do I need for bioactive enclosure? ›

The minimum suggested amount of substrate & drainage media is 2.5" (each), but we've also included a spot to add your own custom height, if you'd like to calculate a different substrate depth.

Does peat moss hold water? ›

Excellent water-holding capacity: Peat moss is known for its remarkable water retention. Some gardeners mix it into sandy soil to keep it from draining too quickly.

What substrate is best for dart frogs? ›

The substrate should retain moisture and be relatively light and airy with good drainage - my personal substrate is a mix of coir (coco fiber), orchid bark, coco chips, chopped sphagnum, chopped leaf litter, and peat moss.

What is the best base material for the bottom of a terrarium? ›

Small Stones or Pebbles – Small stones or pebbles will be used as the base of your terrarium. The small pebbles act as water drainage for the plants' roots to ensure that excess water doesn't stay in the soil and cause rot.

What is a substrate mix? ›

Such a mix will come with a lot of good things mixed in to provide structure and nutrients. Usually you'll find soil, bark, perlite or pumice, natural slow release organic fertilizer, and other similar ingredients.

Can I use potting soil for a terrarium? ›

A purchased potting mix is a good choice and most are sterile. Before the potting soil is placed in the container, you will need to mix in some charcoal. Just a handful or two is all you need, depending on the size of your container. Charcoal will add organic matter and absorb any chemicals or odors.

Can you use soil from outside in a terrarium? ›

Can I use dirt from the forest for a terrarium or would something bad happen? Yes you can.

Do you need a drainage layer for bioactive terrarium? ›

Drainage layers are the first step in a tropical planted bioactive terrarium, while not necessarily needed to provide a planted terrarium drainage layers do help provide ease of mind while catching excess water draining through the soil to prevent stagnation, bad bacteria and in most cases an odor.

How deep should a terrarium substrate be? ›

It ranges anywhere from 0 inches to 6 inches deep before the second layer (the A Layer, which is called top soil) begins. Those 6 inches are deeper than most terrariums anyway, and wild plants seem to get along just fine without 4 layers in their root zone.

How do you make a substrate? ›

To create a manure substrate, mix two parts of manure with one part coco coir. Add enough water so the mixture is moist but water is not pooling at the bottom.

What substrate is good for isopods? ›

Isopods do well with peat moss as an exclusive substrate.

What are the 4 levels of a terrarium? ›

A terrarium basically has 4 main layers. They are, in order from the ground up, the gravel, moss, soil and decorative layer.

Does a closed terrarium need to be airtight? ›

Do terrariums need to be airtight? Terrariums are fine if they are airtight, but we suggest removing the lid periodically (about once a week or even daily) to allow fresh air into your garden.

Is charcoal necessary for terrarium? ›

Charcoal is an important element in a terrarium because it helps remove toxins and odors. If you don't have charcoal, you can still make a terrarium, but you'll need to to take extra steps to ensure your plants remain healthy and that the environment inside your terrarium remains clean and odor-free.

What do you put in the bottom of a terrarium? ›

Terrarium containers do not have drainage holes, so it is important to create drainage layers to prevent plant roots from rotting. Start by putting a 2-inch layer of coarse gravel, sea glass, or beach stones on the bottom of your container.

Can I put moss from outside in my terrarium? ›

They're a non-vascular type known as a bryophyte. This means they don't have vessels for transporting water like other plants, and basically why they appear as a simple grassy mound. No roots, no problem! You can simply add moss to a terrarium by the clump like this.

What is the purpose of sand in a terrarium? ›

Sand is one of the most versatile substrate components one can use inside a terrarium. It serves both form and function. Sand can be used to promote drainage and aeration. It can also create mesmerising and colourful layers that ripple underneath the surface of your ecosystem.

Videos

1. The SECRET To The BEST ARID Bioactive Substrate Mix
(NORTHERN EXOTICS)
2. How to make Bio-Activated Vivarium Soil!
(Reptiliatus)
3. Terrarium Soil Mix - A QUICK And EASY Guide!
(Worcester Terrariums)
4. DIY Tropical Vivarium Substrate (How to vivarium) #vivarium #bioactive
(Mr.vivarium)
5. DIY BIOACTIVE ENCLOSURE | Step By Step With Links
(Clint's Reptiles)
6. Bioactive Vivarium Substrate!
(Mike Tytula)

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