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Living Clay background test

Well I've been reading about this and finally decided to try it. This involves using Calcium Bentonite powder (from brickyards) or Sodium Bentonite (all natural kitty litter) mixed with water and sphagnum peat moss to make a thick mud spackle that goes on the tank wall and is kept wet. Plant's root in it, moss grows on it and it wicks water up from the bottom of the tank soil helping keep the whole tank humid.

That's the theory anyway. I have seen wonderful photo evidence of this being awesome so I thought I'd like to try it as I'm tired of the spray foam and silicone which is very hard to keep wet enough for moss growth without an automatic misting system. This method is WAY cheaper than foam and silicone and is all organic and that's a plus, so here we go...

I looked at Home Depot, they don't have Calcium Bentonite powder, you can get it at brick yards and pool places but I didn't have time to find one today. However, Sodium bentonite used in all natural clay kitty litter is almost the same according to those who have gone this way before me. I am using the $2.26 unscented/natural bag from Wal Mart. Some have even mixed some reptocal powder into the kitty litter to give it a bit of calcium.


Here is the back of the bag. I think the scented stuff is in a blue bag IIRC.

Boil a gallon of water and dump 3/4 of it into 3 quarts of clay and wait a while for it to soak up the hot water and soften. Then using a Jiffy Mixer on your power drill ($9 at Home depot in the cement dept) mix it up until it becomes smooth and then keep beating it until it becomes like cake frosting. You may have to add more water.

Now dump in 3 quarts of sphagnum peat moss and the last quart of water and mix again.

You're done when you can grab a wad of it and open your hand upside down and it won't fall, if it's too wet add another handful of peatmoss and mix again. You can do all the mixing of clay and water and peat by hand, it's just so easy to use a jiffy mixer that if you have a drill no sense wearing yourself out.


Now you just take that thick mud and squish it onto the back glass and make sure it's packed tight, you can sculpt planter bowls and ledges in it. It sticks as long as it stays moist it cracks and falls off if you let it dry out so no good for desert setups. Use that Floor Patch product and sand I showed a while back for dry setups that won't crumble when dry.


If you want to add driftwood just poke it in and pack some mud on it and smooth it down This will easily hold a dart frog, insect, or small lizard (anole, small gecko sp.) but not snakes or iguanas! LOL



The water portion is Flourite clay gravel, the drainage layer on the swampy land portion is Hydroton clay balls (Petsmart sells it now but for a whole lot of money)

I used peat & cypress mulch for the planted portion, some people even use the clay background mud as a soil but I'm not so sure about that yet, I'll try it on a small nano tank scale first

I've embedded java moss all over the background and made a little riccia patch across the water line. The tank will be misted 1 - 2 times a day along with the others so we'll see how it goes.

I will be adding more plants of course but I've slashed my leg open on a pile of glass I cut for my 6 nano vivariums so I'm done for the moment keeping my leg elevated hoping I won't need stitches! LOL
Wow..that is amazing, lol.
Hope your leg heals up!
Ack, casualties of war! :D
Do you think that this could work as a finish on top of a sturdier material like concrete and sand?
I'm sure you could do it over top CURED concrete and sand but with the wet mud if you ever want to remove it you just pull it out. Apparently it gets knitted together with the moss and plant roots as things grow in.

I stopped the blood flow so I had to get busy here's a few more pics planting not totally done yet.


I'm not sure why "Marimo moss balls" are popular or what they're supposed to do, but I got handful of them with a few cups of java moss I ordered so I put them in here. They remind me of Tribbles from Star Trek. I got a bag of live wild sphagnum (a very short stiff stem variety) I have poked some of it in between the rocks.


This is a "bonfire begonia" and it gets enormous (leaves get no bigger) but it creates lots of offshoots and is a very prolific bloomer I've had a 10" pot on my front step in full bloom all spring/summer. This tiny piece I cut off tonight I'm going to try it in here.

There is "English Baby's Tears" on the left and epiphytically mounted Dendrobium princetei on the right

I may plant a few more little things here and there but mostly now it's just the waiting game to see how things progress. I'll post some photo updates in a month or two after things have settled in. The wood stuck in the mud is already soaking up water and partly saturated so it should be nice to keep the mounted epiphytes and mosses moist.
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Marimo are described in Japan as a "national treasure." I guess they're just kind of weird and inexplicable to the casual observer. Apparently you need to roll them over occasionally to help them keep their shape - the agitation of the small waves in their native lakes normally keeps them moving so that they grow spherically. At the souvenir shops in places where you can go see marimo they have little baby ones inside keychains and paperweights and stuff.
Looks great! When I have time for projects again we should trade terrarium plants. I think I may have found a few things you'd enjoy.
WOW, that is an amazing setup !!!!

Nice work :)

Think I may have to borrow some of your ideas soon ;)
Very nice! It would also be a good house for a tarantula with that wall to climb!

Hope your leg gets better soon!
Great DIY post, thanks for sharing!

Hope your leg is ok...
Ever considered using your home made clay as an ingredient in soil mixtures for CPs?

  • #10
how long have you had a setup like this going? My only concern with the clay is how long it will stay looking like that if it stays wet a lot of the time. Get looking tank none the less, thanks for shareing.
  • #11
I'm going to replace the crappy exoterra foam background with this sometime in the short future. Going to stick a bunch of ping pullings and hope for the best. I'm curious to try adding cotton strips behind the wall of goop, from top to bottom, to aid in the wicking.

Great work, once again, your bag of tricks ever increases in depth. How deep do those sleeves go? There must be more hidden..
  • #12
I'm curious to try adding cotton strips behind the wall of goop, from top to bottom, to aid in the wicking.

I don't think you will want to put anything into the structure that will wick water into the background, if it gets too wet it will slide down the wall. You'll know if you have the mix right because it won't slide off the clear glass when you stand the tank up, think of the thickness and gooeyness of Spackle, I actually think the stuff seems like horse manure, clay with fibers in it - thankfully it doesn't smell like it!

how long have you had a setup like this going?

As I said in the introduction, I'm just trying this now as a test/experiment. It's a relatively new technique being explored in the dart frog world which is showing lots of promise. Several keepers have had these clay backgrounds going over a year. Some are even using plain old Red Art earth clay as a background material but that's very expensive compared to Calcium Bentonite or kitty litter. Their backgrounds which have been setup for longer look much better than what you see just planted in mine. They have thick moss growth, climbing plants apparently love rooting in it and crawl all over. But it's all theory until I try it out for myself and see. So far I'm loving the ease of mixing the recipe, application and planting. Just poke a cutting into the mud and you're done, no figuring out how to hold it in place until it takes root. The mud also holds moisture well compared to the spray foam and silicone which dries out very fast.
  • #13
Well here's a little update on this tank approximately 2 weeks later:


The java moss is establishing itself pretty rapidly on the background, Begonia boliviensis "Bonfire" is still blooming like crazy. The singl leaf section of sensitive fern has had it but it has spores on it so hopefully they will inoculate the wall.


English babies tears has gotten a good foothold making lots of roots. I'll be trimming it to keep it as a semi trained spreading mound.

I put one of my female Geosesarma sp. "Red" into this tank last night because she was pale colored and being chased by other crabs. I'd never seen that happen before but I wanted to put a stop on it asap. When she colored back up today I see she most definitely has PURPLE legs and not black so I think she might not be the same species as the red and black which is the bulk of the ones I have. I saw a paler colored one earlier today too so I may take that one out and see if it turns purple as well. These crabs are somewhat communal but not with ones not of their own kind so any pale ones I see might be under stress because they are a different species and mixed with the others. I have red and black females as well.

  • #14
this crab doesn't even look real , Swords , you have the coolest thingy's all about you, more pics please,
how do you feed these. what do they eat, and have you ever thought about doing a whole room in a full scale enclosed , (I dont know the name) rain forest / jungle?:hail:
bet you could make a very nice one, with your mad skills man.:0o::0o:
  • #15
You do have a flair for the artistic!
  • #18
No I haven't seen that site - very nice! If I ever got the chance to do a Greenhouse it would be all naturally planted like a botanical garden, no pots in the main area.... I can dream can't I? LOL

Here is an updated overall shot:

The Bonfire Begonia's old growth died off but I have new growth made in this tank starting up from it's rootstock so I should get that nice orange splash of blooms back again soon. I had to take out that nice piece of wood I had the Bulbophyllum orchid mounted on because there was something wrong with the wood, the plants mounted on it would die and the moss around it died and refused to colonize it so I pulled it out, I don't like the straight stick so as soon as I find a nice interestingly shaped branch I will pull the straight one, basically it's just there to keep a hole open for placing the new branch. I have more plants coming so maybe one of the new mini orchids will make it into this enclosure.

And after more time with the vampire crabs I've discovered they are a mottled color after molting and then turn purple then back to red & jet black. Also that the molts look (and weigh) almost the same as a dead crab which is what I'd been throwing out (molts) and not dead crabs so I'm happy to report I've not actually lost as many of the crabs as I initially thought. Whew!
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  • #19
WOW swords! This tank is impressive. Very beautiful, I've always wanted to set up a tank like this but have the little dart frogs.
  • #20
Thanks, I've setup about eight tanks using this mudwall recipe so far, some with water features and some without. I've wanted dart frogs for many years too, I will probably will start with the blue Panamanian form of D. auratus. Cheap ($30 or less each) and supposedly hardy compared to $140 O. pumilos who might die because I've never kept them before. Not sure when I will get some though, late this year or maybe next year.

I think my next critters will be a trio of pygmy leaf chameleons (R. brevicaudatus) a species who lives in small harems and can be kept in these types of humid planted vivariums instead of the large arid sun drenched cages like the larger chameleon species.