In this article I will describe the steps that I took to convert an empty corner aquarium into a functioning paludarium for carnivorous plants and later, freshwater shrimp.

Equipment:

  • Aquarium with Perspex lid 
  • Camping roll mat 
  • Plastic drain pipe (narrow) 
  • Aquarium sealant
  • Saw
  • Wire cutters 
  • Scalpel or sharp knife 
  • Plastic egg crate 
  • Plastic fly screen 
  • Dremel multi (optional)
  • Cable ties 
  • Hot glue gun (or similar)
  • Water pump
  • Hose and connectors for pump
  • 2 x spray bars
  • Aquarium heater 
  • Internal power filter 
  • Expandable foam
  • EpiWeb panels 
  • EpiWeb moss mix
  • Hygrolon
  • Peat
  • Perlite 
  • Sphagnum moss (live)
  • Java moss
  • Dry coco fibre
  • Fishing line 
  • Gravel 
  • Toshiba e-core par 30 LED bulb 
  • Vivarium lamp clamp 
  • Decor – cork bark, rocks, magnolia leaves etc. 
  • Plants (see bottom af article for list)

1. False Bottom

The most important aspect of a paludarium is creating a false bottom to allow drainage and after cleaning the aquarium I set in on a home made stand built from 2″ x 2″ pine and 6 Breeze blocks. To allow for maximum light and humidity retention, a lid was previously made out of clear Perspex. 

The first step is to cut sections of narrow black drain pipe to the height that you want the water to reach. Using either a Dremel multi tool with a cutting disc, or wire cutters (much easier – I tried both), snip sections out of the pipe pieces as shown in the photo below. The reason for this is to allow water to drain out of the pipe and prevent it from stagnating.

Next, cut your egg crate into the size and shape that you want the land mass to be. Wire cutters are the quickest and easiest tool for this job. You may need to use several pieces of egg crate to get the desired shape and they can be easily attached together with cable ties.

Arrange the pipe pieces (with the drainage holes against the bottom), so that they evenly support the egg crate. Once you are happy with the position, carefully silicone the pipe pieces in place with aquarium grade sealant. Take care not to silicone over the drainage holes.

Next, add side pieces to the existing egg crate shape and attach with cable ties. These will help with stability and also prevent any future livestock from disappearing underneath the land area. I opted for a deep sided pool as I wanted to give the impression of a section of jungle stream. I created a small lip with the side pieces to stop substrate from falling straight into the water. The lip is higher on one side so that I can bank the sediment up higher.

As this set up requires a water pump, I cornered off an area at the back of the land area where the pump can sit. Using more egg crate i created a small lid to prevent any future livestock from going where they might get trapped. Initially I made a hinge with cable ties, but later decided to remove them and just cut sections out that snugly fit the pump pipe and power cable. I then used expandable foam to fill in the gaps in the lid to also stop substrate from falling in. The pump housing can be easily concealed with a cork bark tube and allows easy access for maintenance.

To prevent the substrate from falling through the egg crate holes, I covered the whole piece in plastic mesh, sold on Ebay as fly screen.  I used several pieces and glued them in place with a hot glue gun.

I decided that the lip on the egg crate was too shallow in places and also looked unsightly, so I used expandable foam to create a larger lip. Once it had set, I used a scalpel (a bread knife also works well) to cut it into the desired shape. If you cut off too much, don’t worry – you can always add more. To hide the expandable foam I thoroughly covered it in aquarium sealant and applied dry coco fibre and moss to it. Some people prefer to use brown sealant for this job, but I was trying to keep costs to a minimum and used the sealant that I already had.

As this is a tropical paludarium I needed to install an aquarium heater. I wanted this to be hidden, so I cut a small access flap into the mesh/egg crate, to allow me to slide a heater underneath the land area. The flap in held in place by leaving the mesh intact at the top of the hole. It also means that should I need to, I can remove the heater without disturbing the whole set up. You could also hide the heater alongside the pump if your design permits.

2. Living Background

I wanted to create a living moss background so I opted for a material called EpiWeb. It is a synthetic tree fern substitute and although not immediately as pleasing as tree fern panels, it is  more sustainable and it will not rot.

The EpiWeb panels were cut to size and siliconed in place with aquarium sealant. I left a small gap above each panel so that I could fit a spray bar in. I split the pump uplift pipe with a T-shaped connector and attached a spay bar to each end. If you want a living moss background, the EpiWeb will need to be kept moist at all times, especially when the moss is still establishing. You can buy pre-made EpiWeb moss mix or you can make your own. I opted for the EpiWeb version as it contains a mixture of tropical mosses and plant seeds. After soaking the dried mix in water overnight I evenly pasted it on to the background with a clean paintbrush. I set the pump to the lowest setting, so that water just trickles out of the spray bars and runs down the background. Anything too strong and the moss mix will wash off before it establishes!

I also purchased an EpiWeb planter, which I hot glued onto the panel. This can be seen holding one of the pitcher plants in the right hand side of the second picture, below. I also used a scalpel to cut horizontal slits into the panels, to create mini-planters for a smaller pitcher plant and a Bromeliad. You will also notice that I added some blue cushioning (camping roll mat) underneath the aquarium, which I forgot to do when I originally positioned the tank! This is to stop the tank from cracking if there are any irregularities in the stand surface.

In order to hide the underwater part of the frame, I sewed Java Moss (Vesicularia dubyana) straight onto the plastic mesh with thin fishing line (see photo below).

3. Substrate

My paludarium was primarily created for a collection of tropical pitcher plants (Nepenthes ssp.) so the substrate is a mixture of live sphagnum moss, peat and perlite to improve drainage. I added this before the water as it is inevitable that it will fall in and create a mess. I then arranged the plants and once happy with their positions I landscaped the substrate around them. Perlite makes quite an ugly mix, so I covered the surface with live sphagnum, dried magnolia leaves and pillow moss. In the left hand photo above, you can see that I used some off cuts of a product called Hygrolon to hide the higher part of the egg crate frame. Hygrolon absorbs water very well and is great for growing mosses on. Fortunately a few off cuts came in my EpiWeb order, so I didn’t have to buy any. As with the EpiWeb, I siliconed it in place. Now is also the time to add any other decor that you like. I used cork bark tubes and an interesting piece of stone to create an outcrop amongst the moss.

4. Water 

Next I added the water. If you are keeping carnivorous plants you should really use reverse osmosis or rain water. If not, ordinary tap water is fine.

When I ran the pump, the water immediately turned brown, which is to be expected, especially if using peat. Originally I wanted to have the pump running constantly, but it caused water to pool in areas of the sediment, making it too wet even for the moisture loving pitcher plants. I decided that instead I would attach the pump to a timer, to run for short intervals throughout the day, simulating rainfall. I had no choice other than to add a small internal power filter to firstly clear the murk and secondly continuously filter the water. I could have opted for an external canister filter and attached the spray bars to the return pipe, but I wanted to keep costs down. It may be an upgrade option in the future.

Add which ever gravel to the water area that you like (remember to rinse it first). I prefer something dark brown and small grained as I intend to add some red crystal bee shrimp in a few weeks time and it will show off their colours better. Small grains are also preferred by shrimp and they also help to create a better illusion of scale.

5. Lighting 

I first tried running an AquaMedic metal halide light and although it gives off a fantastic amount of light, it is expensive to run and gives off too much heat. It also dried out the set up quickly. So instead I switched to a Toshiba E-core par 30 LED bulb, held in place with a vivarium lamp clamp. It emits a decent amount of light for the plants, is only 14W and doesn’t get hot. But because it is a spot light in quite a wide tank, the beam is relatively narrow and I will look to add another bulb to the set up. Even with two bulbs it will be cheaper to run than the metal halide.

6. Plants

It will take several months for the moss background and plants to develop. I intend to add a few more plant species in the future but currently there are the following carnivorous plant species:
Pinguicula (hybrid), Cephalotus follicularis, Nepenthes x hookeriana, N.rajah, N.bicalcarata, N.sanguinea, N. sp ‘Linda’, N.murudensis, N.hirsuta and N.thorellii. There is a mix of highland and lowland species of Nepenthes here, so I will have to keep an eye on them as some species prefer warmer temperatures than others].

Other plants include tropical liverwort, pillow moss, live sphagnum moss, Java moss, unknown Bromeliad sp., Hoya carnosa, Geranium sp., and a couple of unknown foliage plants. There is still space to add some epiphytic orchids and some jewel orchids at a later date.

In my opinion, the best supplier of carnivorous plants in the UK is Hampshire Fly Trap. They have a good selection of very healthy plants and delivery is quick. Occasionally some good specimens can be found in EBay too.

For further reading on carnivorous plant care I would highly recommend the book The Savage Garden by Peter D’Amato. 

DartFrog is currently the only supplier I could find that sells EpiWeb and Hygrolon in the UK. I have seen mixed reviews for this company but I have to say that they were a pleasure to work with and all items were dispatched very quickly. 

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