How do I get rid of waste in a living terrarium?

“This is my first time having a living terrarium for my tree frogs. I plan on using gravel for my drainage and coconut fibers for my substrate. I’m also going to be using a variety of ferns, plants, and mosses. The only thing I can’t figure out is how to clean it properly without damaging the plants but completely getting rid of all the waste left by my frog. Can you help me? Say I have too much water sitting at the bottom of my tank in the drainage. How can I get rid of that extra water without disturbing the plants or my frogs?

In an established living terrarium there are microorganisms and beneficial bacteria that help break down waste produced by frogs and the entire enclosure rarely needs to be cleaned. Live plants also help use frog waste, and if set up and maintained properly a balance can develop between the food you put into the terrarium for the frogs, the waste the frogs produce, and the ability for microorganisms and live plants to use this waste. Sometimes these types of setups are called “bioactive” terrariums.

Still, there is some regular maintenance that needs to be performed in order to maintain the system:

Change the water

Use a siphon to remove excess water from the drainage layer below the substrate by pushing aside a little soil in one of the corners and inserting the end of the hose below the water line. Siphon out excess water before it reaches the soil substrate above.

Spot clean

Despite the ability of microorganisms to help breakdown waste, if too much accumulates in large quantities this can fowl the entire setup. Use a plastic spoon to remove soiled areas of substrate under heavily used perches or basking areas. Remove feces from the tops of plant leaves, or spray feces from leaves and down to the substrate where they will be processed. Shed skin or excess dead feeder insects are other common forms of waste that should be removed from enclosures daily as noticed.


The frequency with which you spray the terrarium with water depends on the species being kept (both plants and animals) and the environmental conditions they need to live well. However, misting also serves a purpose of washing waste from cage items and into lower levels where it has the ability to better decompose.

Clean the glass

Biofilms and algae regularly build on the glass sides of terrariums in humid conditions. Although not necessarily unhealthy, dirty glass inhibits your ability to monitor conditions within. Use a razorblade or aquarium scraper to clean glass as needed, sometimes as often as weekly if there is a lot of growth.

With regular maintenance, living terrariums do not need to be completely cleaned or broken down so long as they are functioning properly. How can you tell? Smell inside. Terrariums should always smell fresh and earthy. If you smell an odor like rotten eggs or a sweet or sour smell the system is not healthy.

More information can be found in the article Tropical Terrarium Maintenance.

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