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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Hi all,

So, I am trying to build a terrarium out of a gigantic armoire I acquired through Facebook Marketplace. Its interior space is a little less than 5.5ft x 4ft x 2ft. It is quite large, and so I know that some traditional rules of terrarium maintenance / health will not apply and that I will need to ask some questions.

[I want to say, no animal beyond microfauna is going to inhabit this terrarium, so strategies to help it grow are free from that restriction. It is not a vivarium.]

The amoire, after the doors have been temporarily removed and the shelves sawn out, looks like this:

https://imgur.com/8Jipw7r

I plan to do several things with the final setup, which I have drawn up in a notebook. It's going to include such things as:

- A waterfall, which will not be active all the time, which consists of water spilling from a piece of driftwood that resembles a dragon's skull.
- The ruins of a castle, which will surround a small indoor-friendly tree that I hope to get to grow branches through the castle.
- A background constructed of traditional spray foam + silicone + background texture + driftwood, etc.

For some sense of what I'm doing, here's a pic of the dragon skull for the waterfall:

Wood Driftwood Tree Plant Trunk


And a pic of (a piece of) the ruined castle wall:

Orange Tapestry Pattern Textile Design


So far I've used part of the shelves I cut up to make a lip to contain the false bottom and substrate, and this is what it looks like currently:

Furniture Room Wood Wood stain Antique


Next up on the chopping block, not necessarily in this order, are:
1) Painting the interior of the substrate / false bottom area with several layers of West System epoxy or FlexSeal across several days.
2) Creating a chamber from the back of the armoire in which the waterfall pump is accessible, so that I can remove it if I absolutely have to.
3) Installing many PVC pipe pillars to hold up the eggcrate that divides false bottom and substrate.
4) Putting in the waterfall pump, surrounding by some kind of filtering foam or other substance that is both i) higher than the waterfall pump and the drainage layer's maximum height, and ii) able to permit enough water through to the waterfall pump that it can operate continuously. (If this is even possible.)

...and many other things during or after that.

I have some questions, and I'm sure I will have many more later, so that I hope someone with more knowledge than I have will be able to help me.

- Is there anything better than layers of epoxy or flexseal for waterproofing an enclosed area? How many layers would I need to apply of one or the other? I already have some West System epoxy, but I doubt it's enough to coat the space ~5 times, which is what I was going to aim for to make leaks impossible.

- Is there a better substance than pond foam filter to allow water through to the pump but filter out everything else, and still allow enough water through quickly enough to operate the pump? I will get a picture of what I'm referring to by "pond foam filter" later if needed. My tests with it right now suggest that the water flow up to the waterfall starting point is going to be interrupted frequently, because the foam only allows a tiny bit of water through while the pump is needing much more water.

I can clarify if needed. Thanks for your consideration. I know this is an ambitious project, and probably some things I've planned won't really work as I think they will. So I'd love any input.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Thank you. I probably will have to move it one day, years from now I hope. But I will make the castle with as few connections as possible so it can be disassembled, and I will of course have to dig up all the substrate. (It was heavy enough to get in, without anything in it.)

Just a couple of notes, to myself as much to anyone else:

- Because I'm using driftwood, I decided to seal it. I already sealed the dragon head with polyurethane, which changed its appearance, too, in a more or less attractive way. I have yet to seal the "ribs" or the "arm," though. (I'm thinking of having a driftwood arm attach from across the terrarium to a piece of the ruined castle, as that will provide some support for it and provide a sort of backstory to this terrarium.)

- Regarding the castle, I'm having trouble figuring out how to make it support itself above the ground. This castle is very ruined, and as such I didn't even design it in one piece, but several very broken pieces. Really, it's more of a tower than a castle. One thing I thought I could do is seal parts of the castle to the walls of the armoire before GS-foaming it and texturing it, then attach other parts to those parts. I don't know if that will work, though, and I don't have much way of knowing before I actually get most of the terrarium finished.
 

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Greetings,

I've had multiple vivs over the years with several having water falls or dribble walls. Three coats of West system epoxy should be sufficient to fully seal your wood but you should allow/test for any deformation of your structure due to weight. Cured west epoxy is somewhat flexible but it has its limits.

As for your water intake, I would suggest a couple of things:
  • Assuming you will have front access to your viv. I highly suggest using a powerhead as your water pump and placing it where you can reach into the viv from the front (maybe at the bottom of the waterfall?) to service it. A pump running 24x7 will clog no matter what your filter method and easy access will make your life more enjoyable.
  • Don't worry about filter foam - it won't do much for you beyond clogging the power head quickly. Instead, the plastic intake diffuser that comes with many powerheads will generally do a decent job of blocking large debris but letting small stuff (that will clog filter foam) through. I've had good luck with Rio brand power heads - they are small and cheap and they do well as waterfall pumps in false bottoms (they resist clogging pretty well).

I would have recommended against trying to seal your driftwood. Even the tiniest unsealed surface, bubble or crack will let water into the wood; the wood will swell and cause runaway failure of the sealant.
 

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Discussion Starter · #5 · (Edited)
Thank you for the information. Unfortunately, I read your message only after I had sawn out a square in the bottom of the back wall, for retrieval for the pump from the back --- access which I believed would allow me to keep the pump entirely subterranean. My intention was to leave enough hand space for me to unscrew the pump and clean it or, if necessary, replace it, all while having it entirely underwater.

I should note:


  • I had intended the waterfall not to be on except for observation. The only exception to this, I think, would be if I found that the humidity it afforded for the plant life made a difference.
  • In the interest of better filtering the pump, I had earlier today thought to make multiple layers of eggcrate (maybe only 2), each with double-netted mosquito netting (or another filtering substance). My idea was that water should still be able to return to the waterfall pump quickly enough to replenish it, even with two eggcrates with doubly-thick netting filtering out the substrate. Of course, I recognize that even that is not a perfect solution.
  • It is true that I sealed the "dragon skull," although I did not seal any other driftwood. I guess I will just have to go with what i've done and hope it doesn't get warped / destroyed by soaking, because it's far too valuable to the setup to get rid of. I doubt there is another piece of wood on the planet that so perfectly gets across the image I am trying to convey.
Even though I don't think there's much I can change at this point, I am very grateful for the input. I don't know much about water-related technology like powerheads, so this intel is much needed for a project like this and future projects, too. (I will definitely consider switching out my waterfall pump, but I already have a couple of them and I've tested one of them, so I'd prefer to stick with what I have.)

EDIT: Also, after doing some searching, I can't seem to find the Rio powerhead I need! I'm using a 300-500 G/PH-capable pump that is set to 300 GPH, which is still a little strong. The closest equivalent would be the 990 L/PH model (about ~262 GPH or so), but I can't seem to find it for sale, only listed on one site.
 

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Likely you could shave off a few GPH with a ball valve on the outlet side, or use smaller tubing to restrict the flow. Or, you could wait until the pump and lines gunk up and then you'll be right where you want to be.;)
 
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Discussion Starter · #7 ·
Well, I was thinking of doing what I had done to past waterfalls, that is, sticking a crumpled piece of mosquito netting or something like that just into the head of the waterfall to slow down (or otherwise alter) the flow a bit. Does that mess up the water pump in any way, to have its flow restricted?

I have a couple of photographs to show a little progress:

Wood Floor Metal


^This is the hole I sawed into the back. I already made the eggcrate cage for it and netted it many times over, but I can't put it in until the waterproofer cures. I know it doesn't look like the height of professionalism, but the back board split while I was cutting it for reasons I didn't expect. Anyway, it's big enough for me to fit a couple hands inside and remove the pump from the tube.

Flower Plant Houseplant Flowerpot Tree


^This isn't really progress, but my ficus retusa came in. I know that having a tree ordinarily reserved for use as a bonsai inside of a terrarium instead is unconventional and reckless, but I've at least taken many precautions. I have a huge amount of ceiling space for light fixtures as well as some powerful lights coming in, and the ficus retusa is going to be raised on a mound (within castle walls) so that it isn't swamped with moisture. (And if the waterfall proves dangerous to it, I'll just keep it off.)
 

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I understand that any pump can safely be restricted by restricting the flow downstream from the pump, so long as you leave enough flow to cool the pump (e.g. if you restrict a 1000gph pump to 2 gph, it will likely overheat and fail). If you restrict the flow upstream of the pump, the pump will cavitate and fail. So, restricting a moderate amount and after the pump is acceptable.
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
I should be fine, then. The stuffing isn't just to restrict the water, but to alter it so that it looks less like a hose shooting out water, which is what it really is.

I have a question regarding the castle walls, which I am including another photograph of:

Cage


So, to describe what exactly you are looking at, it's crossed lengths of aluminum wire attached and decorated with "Apoxie" brand epoxy clay. As far as I can remember it's nothing besides those two substances.

Now, the piece in the picture is going to be suspended above the ground; I have another piece that is going to be on the ground below but not connected to it, so that the two pieces are separated and display part of the ficus retusa within them.

There are other fragmented pieces of the castle that are going to be in the air, so my question is, how do I connect these pieces and keep them suspended? They are up to 3 or 4 pounds of weight, so that epoxy clay alone --- powerful though it is --- can't connect them alone.

My options right now appear to be:

1) Attach fragments of the castle wall to the sides of the armoire and glue them + cover them in Great Stuff and silicone (which I'll be doing to build the castle, anyway), then attach the "floating" castle wall pieces to the other ones via aluminum wires and epoxy clay. This makes the weight and stability of the castle wall fragments dependent on the strength of GS foam, though, the strength of which I'm uncertain.

2) Attach those heavier castle wall fragments to the ceiling of the armoire. They'll have plenty of strength, but they may dangle, and they may interfere with maintaining the lights.

3) Give up and just lengthen every "floating" castle wall piece so that it touches the ground. The only problem with this is that it somewhat clashes with the aesthetic I'm going for, although if that's necessary, it's necessary.
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
Some notes to myself:

  • I need to consider some things for the walls of the terrarium, besides the usual spray foam + silicone + coco coir / coco husk / peat moss texture. I've played around with the usual things, like driftwood, rocks, and niches dug to allow for trailing plants, although I also have slate and pieces of castle walls available to insert. One type of item I've had around for a while that I never used due to risks to animals is the selenite crystal "wand". It can dissolve slightly in water, making it dangerous to animals drinking that water, but without any animals around, it could be a nice aesthetic, if it ends up complementing the rest of the setup. A picture of what I'm talking about, although not my exact crystals:

Wood Plastic Finger Mineral Quartz


  • I need to determine whether or not these Jungle Dawn lights will survive in the humidity of my setup. It will indeed be rather humid, and these lights come with fans to prevent overheating. If they'll be safe inside an enclosure, that would be great, as that will put them closer to the plants as well, but these were expensive lights, and I want them to last a very, very long time.

  • I have frozen magnolia leaves I've gathered for leaf litter, and I have springtails ready to eat them and keep up the soil, but I'm not sure if I need to mix some of the leaves in with the soil (substrate I mean) to keep up the underground springtails. Or if springtails will be helpful for this kind of setup.

  • For that matter, I don't know if ABG mix, which I'm used to using, will be good for my ficus retusa.

  • I've gone to the Mississippi River and found a good selection of driftwood to serve as ribs and arm bones. I'm tempted to pressure wash them to get off all the rotty-ness, but I don't know if that is a good idea yet. I also don't know how I'm going to make the dragon arm that connects to the castle, because it needs to be supported both by GS foam and by the castle. It seems like a Catch-22: I have to have the foam to make the castle, but I have to have the castle to support the dragon arm, while at the same time I need the foam to support the dragon arm, too.
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 · (Edited)
Is there anything else people have used to texture their foam walls with besides the usual coco coir / coco husk / peat moss / etc. ? I might consider leaving it just as cut-up black GS foam, but I don't know if that will really complement the look I'm going for.

EDIT: I'm wondering what drylok looks like, not on pink foam but on black GS spray foam? It may make more sense.
 

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Discussion Starter · #12 ·
So, some updates and explanations.

Furniture Desk Table Antique Room


^I put the armoire on its back with some help three days ago, in order to attend to thinks like spray foaming. I live alone, so help had to be called in, as it will the next few times I have to shift the armoire.

Wood Plant Beam


^The driftwood intended as the dragon's head / skull had a hole drilled for the waterfall pipe, which isn't visible in the photograph. This was the first thing I did once the armoire was on its back. The pipe was long enough for the pump to rest comfortably in its cut-out chamber. I hadn't applied foam at the time of the photograph.

One of the things I did foam in, yesterday, was this castle fragment. I only did enough to fix it in place, as I'm not yet sure how the background will work:

Python Reptile


^A brief explanation of how I make the castle fragments: a few pieces of aluminum armature wire are crossed and sealed together at the joints with epoxy clay. Once the clay links have hardened, I start adding wires in different directions, joining them where they meet. (Later, I can use a wire cutter to remove some links in order to make the castle look more "ruined".) When the aluminum-wire skeleton is made, I use epoxy clay to solidify the lines of wire that are crossing each other. Depending on the fragment, other things may be added, like walls (which are patterned like bricks and mortar using a dime), stairs, and little supplies like boxes and cannonballs. I'm not really talented enough with clay to make things finer than that.

Floor Table Furniture Couch Flooring


^These eggcrate pieces, double-wrapped with mosquito netting, were made about a week ago, but I haven't fixed them inside the armoire, mostly because I haven't tested the waterfall, yet. I may be having a friend come over later this morning in order to pick it up, let me test it really quickly, then turn it off. I have, however, fitted the pieces in and am pretty close to certain that they will cover the area, excepting the cracks along the wall, which I will close with silicone.
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
Thank you! It's always good to hear feedback.

I've made some progress:

Furniture Chest of drawers Chiffonier Drawer Wood stain


^This is one of the two doors --- specifically, the left door --- sprayed with Flexseal spray on the inside. It was not a wise choice aesthetically; there are clusters of bubbles / foam that look like large scuff marks from a distance. But my limited understanding of the interactions between humidity and wood led me to go down the safe road and coat the interior of the door.

Same with the ceiling:

Wood Chest of drawers Furniture Wood stain Chest


^Two of the three "segments" of the ceiling have been sprayed so far; I am waiting to spray the 2nd door in order to use the remainder of the spray can on that door, just as I did for the first door.

The holes are rather messy, being the product of a jab saw. I cut an outline of the hole with a circular Lenox saw bit, which made it easier for the jab saw to follow the shape. This was not intentional: I bought the saw bit thinking it could do the job itself, but found it was too much work for the power drill, being 5" in diameter. But it did do a good job of making a groove and being a compass at the same time, so I can't complain.

https://youtu.be/nKZIj0iokYs

^If this video loads, you can get kind of an idea how the waterfall works. Due to time constraints (specifically the need to put it back down and the need for another person to help me do it), I couldn't get better lighting; the clamp bracket was as far from the socket as it could be stretched.

It worked as intended --- after a clump of mosquito netting was jammed into the skull. The water dribbles down from the "chin" and the "cheek" of the skull, so that it falls more or less on the chamber where the pump will be housed, which will be covered in rocks.

There were still some leaks in the bottom, so that I will have to silicone some more to make sure everything works. I intend to leave it filled for a couple of days before I give it the thumbs up. There was a leaking spot in the front and two tiny leaking spots in the back-left wall.
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
I've suffered sleepless nights trying to find a proper background texture for this terrarium. I don't want to go the traditional coco coir / coco husk / peat moss route because, in my experience, that surface washes away over time, leaving black silicone that clashes with the terrarium look.

I've considered many things --- castle pieces embedded in spray foam and made of pink foam and drylok? selenite crystals? the moss-and-cork mosaic? lianas made of rope, etc.? drylok'd rock walls?

Right now, I'm considering a mix of several of those things. My inspiration came from a video game I played a long time ago, Final Fantasy XI, and a map I found very beautiful: "Sanctuary of Zi'tah." A couple of pictures:

Tree Light Atmospheric phenomenon Biome Purple


Purple Games Tree Screenshot Pc game


It was an area that combined glowing crystals, small pools, and tremendous trees. Now, I can't have all that in a terrarium, but it did get me to thinking that I could combine the idea of a moss mosaic with the crystals. This would complement spaces of plain cut Great Stuff foam, which looks like rough black rocks, especially when matched up with those other things.

Two points about the crystals:

  • If I am going to use selenite crystals (which would look beautiful in the light), I am sure I will need to waterproof them so they don't dissolve in bits over time. This was the very reason I chose not to include them in a vivarium; watering them could endanger animals.

  • Selenite crystals don't naturally converge in points, I believe; they are usually sliced at two ends by the people who extract them, as far as I can tell. To avoid this artificial look, I would need to cover both ends in spray foam or moss (or something else).
 

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  • Selenite crystals don't naturally converge in points, I believe; they are usually sliced at two ends by the people who extract them, as far as I can tell. To avoid this artificial look, I would need to cover both ends in spray foam or moss (or something else).
Selenite is also commonly sold in "tower" or "skyscraper" formations, artificially cut into a point. Those formations may fit the look you're going for without any additional scultping or crafting.
 

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Discussion Starter · #17 · (Edited)
Thanks, although the incremental selenite "tower" --- the one that appears to have steps cut into it and is commonly sold as a lamp --- isn't really the kind of look I would like to use. I prefer the obelisk shape of quartz crystals, but as far as I can tell selenite crystals can't be made to look like that without also looking very artificial. Obelisk selenite crystals seem to look unnaturally smoothed-over, although the natural crystals are not glass-smooth.

I thought I would show some photographs to illustrate my castle and how I am doing it:

Photography


^These are most of the materials I use to create the castle fragments. Gray epoxy clay (Part 'A' and Part 'B'), 1/8" and 1/16" aluminum armature wire, pliers-wire cutters combo tool, a wax-carving tool to make that flowery filigree on the outer-wall pillars, a utensil I used for scooping out that hard-to-extricate clay at the bottom of the container, and nitrile gloves. Not pictured but invaluable is the dime I used to create patterns.

Wood Metal


^Some of the castle pieces that have been fixed in place with foam. I don't expect this to look comprehensible yet; the pieces look randomly placed and the foam (including some already-cut foam bits) is distracting. But there is a method! Those aluminum wires you can perhaps see circling up from the back wall are going to connect the "floating" castle piece (the one in the next photograph) to the back wall and right wall.

Room Wall Flooring Floor Furniture


^Here are (most of) the castle pieces that haven't been fixed into the terrarium yet. The big, tall piece to the left is the "floating" piece that will won't touch the ground but won't directly be fixed to the walls. It will, however, be attached to other castle pieces by the aluminum wires in those pieces, as well as to the ceiling by that aluminum wire you can't see at the very top. To the right of this piece is a piece that is going to lie at the base. The floating piece and that base piece are (in theory) going to form what almost looked like a mouth when they are fixed into the proper positions, although I am skeptical that it will work as easily as I hope.

EDIT: What is a reasonable way to seal selenite crystals that does not mar their luster? I am sure I need to seal them, but I want them to be as beautiful afterwards as they were before.
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
A bit more progress and some notes.

Floor Furniture Room Wood Architecture


^I've had these couplings around for a while, but I finally got around to notching them. They are 3" long and 3" in diameter, good measurements for my purpose. They will support the eggcrate layer above the waterfall pump, but not far above it, so that the water can get high enough to cover the pump but not high enough to spill out the pump-retrieval hatch. They aren't really "notched," of course; I thought it would be good to have a cut through the whole length of them, so water can't possibly not get out.

Litter box Floor Plastic Food storage containers Plant


^My springtail culture. I suppose microfauna are probably not even necessary for this kind of animal-free terrarium, but I wanted to ensure the health of the plants.

Drawing Plant


^Some polymer clay decorations, made in order to accentuate the "stories" going on in this terrarium. The gold may be put in an open wooden chest, perhaps, and the spear inserted into the bones of the dragon skeleton. Some of these (like the animals) probably won't make it into the final version, but the gold and weaponry will probably be multiplied many times over if I decide to keep them.

Floor Tail Flooring Wood Silver


^The "wings" of the dragon, which have in the last couple of hours been inserted into the terrarium back wall. Like all other bones, they have been coated in polyurethane, not for waterproofing anymore but to match the tone of the skull.

This was a difficult piece for which to decide a final position, because unlike the other body parts included, wings on a reptilian animal like a lizard don't have a really clear form. I had simply to go with what looked good. There was also limited space, and the problem of keeping it suspended while the GS foam was (is) drying. My late grandmother's pill box has actually been sealed forever underneath it, as it was being used to support the wing at the correct angle.

Rock


^The right arm of the dragon. The hand will be resting on a part of the ruined castle, which it was presumably in the process of ripping apart when it perished. The wrist is technically not attached to the arm yet, as I have to wait until basically the entire castle is done to figure out what position it's going to be fastened in, but this is basically what it's going to look like.

And most importantly...

Table Wood Hardwood Furniture Floor


^My fire-elemental model inspects the terrarium. He says it's going in the right direction, but that it could use more fire.
 

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Discussion Starter · #19 ·
Some more stuff:



^I've had this resin around for a while. Originally I bought it planning to make some form of art with it --- I had become enamored with multimedia projects like making eggs out of colored resin and root burls --- but that never manifested.

Like I said earlier, I wanted to include selenite crystals in this terrarium, but I didn't want them to dissolve in a few years from exposure to water. Yet I didn't want to lose the luster of their pearly filaments, so I looked for something to seal the crystals with. I originally tested clear Flexseal spray on the selenite, but that took away almost all of the sheen. I begrudgingly went for the epoxy resin, although something told me it would turn out exactly the same.

Material property


^Fortunately, it didn't. I won't say the crystals had the same look to them as before, but they were still rather beautiful, and in a different way. The filaments are less visible, so they look more like quartz crystals. But I've bought myself peace of mind.

----------------------------​

I wasn't going to post this until the project was complete, but here is a drawing of the "dragon skeleton" I made earlier for the sake of viewers who might not see the dragon in the driftwood:

Drawing Sketch Artwork Illustration Line


^ Some notes: The vertebrae are not going to be included in the final terrarium, they are just there to give some sense of anatomy. Also, there will probably be a bit of the left hand just barely visible to the top-right of the skull, even though there is no left hand depicted.

And here are some labels for your convenience:

Drawing Sketch Text Notebook Line
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 · (Edited)
Soil Plant Twig


^I installed the "floating" castle piece this morning. It had to be supported by dowels in order to prevent it from falling in on itself, a challenge I had not foreseen, but like all challenges in art, it is also an opportunity to make more art. Now that I have something running through the middle of the castle, I can make more branching lines throughout it and give it a more intricate, ruined appearance.

My two concerns are:

  • The crossing lines may obstruct the growth of the ficus retusa in a way that I can't predict. This could also be a good thing, if it grows around it, but I don't know enough about the plant to know how it will grow in this setting.

    The bigger concern, though, is:
  • The crossing lines may obstruct the passage of light from multiple directions. This is also very hard to predict at this point. There are, of course, six different lights, all of them flood lights (right now). It may end up being all right.

EDIT: A note about the castle: it's far from finished. So if there seems to be a paucity of detail somewhere, that's because I haven't attended to that area yet. I will be able to continue editing the castle even after the terrarium is "done," too.

Plant


^These aren't that important at this stage in the development, but I did want to run these past the forum in case there is a problem with using them. I purchased these at a Lowe's with the intention of using them as the "substrate" above the waterfall pump's cage / chamber. My thinking is that, being rather large and round stones, they will have big gaps between them. Thus, water will trickle through them quickly and replenish the pool from which the pump draws water. They won't cover the whole floor of the terrarium, though, just the space where the waterfall makes impact with the floor (and perhaps a little further out, where it splashes).

EDIT: It seems the list screwed up, although I put "LIST=2" instead of "LIST=1" for the second item.

EDIT: Never mind, figured out how it works.
 
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