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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Hi all,

I've been lurking here for a while, reading up on how to put together a viv. A couple weeks ago I finally settled on putting together something for my grey tree frogs and set to work on building a 29 gallon setup with a clay back wall.

Putting it all together was pretty easy, but my problem is the clay's been up about 3 or 4 days now and it's cracking pretty badly in some places. I used the Dr Ellsley's Precious Cat (since it's what my cats like anyway) which soaked for 2 days before I used it and a mix of about 40% clay, 30% organic potting soil, 25% peat moss and 5% cocoa fiber. Everything mixed up lovely and smooth, nice and tacky (the consistency of peanut butter) and went on soft and stayed put well.

I found the parts of the background I did with a higher clay to organic ratio (closer to 60 clay, 40 organics) was hard to the touch within 24 hours, despite a good misting. The sections that were closer to 40/60 stayed a bit softer, but are still pretty solid. I'm having the worst problems in the area where there's no glass behind the clay mixture, it's just covering egg crate and screen that's hiding my filter setup, but I am seeing some cracking on the wall itself. The clay's currently about 3/4" thick, maybe a bit more in some places, a bit less in others. The tank has no plants at the moment, aside from some pillow moss I'm trying to get started. It's being misted about once a day by hand. Did I do something wrong with the mix? Do I just need to get myself some plants in there to help hold the moisture in the wall better? Will clay not work as well in a viv that's not designed for maximum humidity levels like dart frogs need?

Sorry for all the questions, but I didn't really see any posts about people having this issue in my searches. And yes, I know, I used variable kitty litter rather than the known mail order clay mixes, but the litter softened up and smoothed out wonderfully so I figured it'd probably work, since clay seems pretty forgiving for most people.

Thank you for any help!

Jen
 

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The clay will start to crack when humidity is not kept high. In my 30g with a clay background the clay is cracking near the top towards the light because it is more dry there. Also the mix you are using will not be stable over time... too much organics. the recommended mix is 75% clay to 25% organics or just 100% clay. With more clay the background will hold moisture better itself and crack less. With 40% clay the background will hold less moisture and be more prone to cracking.
 

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I used the same kitty litter. I had the same issue. You need to keep it moist. What is the humidity in the tank?
 

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Seems you are having typical problems. One thing that helped my clay sections covering eggcrate was to put saran wrap on the back side. It helps keep the dry air off the clay and it prevents cracking quite well. You definitely want to keep the clay very moist, and the tank very high in humidity for at least a week.

You will eventually need to do repairs for cracked scetions, as if it has become to dry it will not soften again. Hope you made a little extra clay :D
 

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·
I have no idea what the humidity is in the tank -- no hydrometer -- none of my critters need terribly high humidity, so I've never been overly worried about measuring it. Getting the tank moist and keeping it that way for a week or two won't be hard, not planning on picking up plants for it until the White Plains reptile expo the weekend of the 23rd and I wasn't going to transfer the frogs until it was stable.

So would the best thing be to pull off what I've put up so far, back the eggcrate section with plastic wrap and start again with a higher clay ratio? The 50/50 ratio seemed to be acceptable, from other forum posts, and when I saw that the 60/40 mix was drying out and getting very hard very quickly, I tried adding more organics and it seemed to stay softer, longer. Maybe the clay there just started wetter. Once I keep the humidity high for a couple weeks will it stabilize a bit, so I can go back down to temperate humidity levels without worrying about it disintegrating on me?

The frogs going into the tank are New England natives and don't need more than 'damp' and a soaking pool. I doubt they'd mind a really wet environment, but I don't have a mister and was planning on just hand misting daily or so, like I have been, this would be a perfect setup if I can get it to work!
 

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Your clay does need "terribly high humidity". Is your tank sealed? As in glass top or screen. I think a clay wall would be very hard to pull off with a screen top. Mitch is totally right. 75 clay 25 organics. More organics will cause cavitation in the wall as the organics decompose. One of the problems I found with using all Bentonite (which is what kitty litter is made of) is that it expands and contracts more with moisture. So if it's mixed too wet, it is expanded more. As it drys somewhat to match the humidity of the tank, it contracts, and therefore cracks and pulls away from things like cork bark or wood that you may have embedded in it. Therefore, while a wetter, peanut butter consistency clay is much easier to work with, it cracks more. A thicker, somewhat dryer clay, more like a thick modeling clay, is harder to work with, but seems to hold up better. At least that's what I've found so far. So I switched to more Redart than Bentonite (75/25), put less organics in (75 clay/ 25 organics) and begun to mix mine dryer.
Doug
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
First off, thank you to everyone who's responded so far, your comments and suggestions are really helpful

Now ... What is 'terribly high humidity'? I've got a screen top for the tank, from all I've read, grey tree frogs need a lot of air circulation to do well and while a solid top would be good for humidity, I don't want to do harm to the frogs. It's easy enough to pick up a cheap (and yes, I know, relatively inaccurate) hydrometer from the pet store if that's what it takes to try to get things working better.

I've got a new batch of litter soaking in the kitchen, since I probably won't have time over the weekend to redo things, I'll take it all down and restart next week. A weekend without regular misting (aside from the running filter) will also show me if any of the background that's up is salvageable I suppose. I think my substrate is probably ok, that's a higher clay ratio and there's about 2 inches of organic potting soil and peat above it, but I'm guessing the wall is a write off.

This time I'll go for far less organics (which is good as that potting soil is running low and wasn't cheap ;)) and try to mix a dryer batch. I don't mind the harder consistency, I was planning on carving it with clay tools anyway, I was mostly just concerned about adhesion and being too hard to plant in.

I really just wanted to make a nice, natural and safe environment for my frogs that looked better than the silk plants on suction cups that they're living in now. I looked at the information on Great Stuff and concrete but I have to admit, it was a bit daunting, and with all the information on leeching the concrete to safe pH levels, I was scared of messing up and hurting my animals. The kitty litter seemed like a fast, safe and effective way of going, I'm just not sure it'll work for temperate frogs rather than tropical ones.
 

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First off, thank you to everyone who's responded so far, your comments and suggestions are really helpful

Now ... What is 'terribly high humidity'? I've got a screen top for the tank, from all I've read, grey tree frogs need a lot of air circulation to do well
I was quoting you from the post below. You said "none of my critters need terribly high humidity" Most of our PDF tanks are going to be running 80 percent humidity or higher. A screen top is going to make a clay wall very difficult, maybe impossible.

I have no idea what the humidity is in the tank -- no hydrometer -- none of my critters need terribly high humidity, so I've never been overly worried about measuring it.

Once I keep the humidity high for a couple weeks will it stabilize a bit, so I can go back down to temperate humidity levels without worrying about it disintegrating on me?
Keeping it humid for a while but then dropping it down will not work. A clay wall has to be in a humid environment and moist at all times. I hate to pop you bubble but I don't want to see you waste a bunch of time and effort on this if your viv won't be humid. It won't work if it drys.
Can I suggest some alternatives? How about a cork bark background. Pieces of or cork bark are siliconed to the back wall and sphagnum moss is stuffed between them to seal off the cracks. Below is a picture of part of a cork bark wall. It is pricey and some find it difficult to work with as they are not flat. They are curved and come in all different shapes.
You can also get cork bark "tiles". Here is a link to a pic of those. Zoo Med Cork Tile Background 12"x18" Terrarium Reptile - eBay (item 150515601070 end time Feb-02-11 14:21:01 PST) Very easy to work with as they are completely flat. But not as textured and, in my opinion, missing some of the WOW factor of a real cork bark wall.
Cheap and simple? This coco panel from Joshs frogs. Click to buy coco fiber 12'' square (red) from Josh's Frogs. We also have wide ranges of backgrounds. Fast shipping. Excellent services - Josh's Frogs
Hope it helps!
Doug
 

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Doesn't sound like you're going to have the proper humidity for clay. Why don't you try the great stuff background? It really isn't that hard and if you're not going super thick you could have it done in a week. PM me if you want some details...I actually thought it was pretty easy and you wont have any cracking issues.
 

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I would skip the kitty litter all together and buy some read art and bentonite clay powder. Do 2 cups of redart and 2 cups of bentonite then add two handfuls of peat then add water and mix the whole thing up together Thats what I use and you will need more humidity so try a glass lid with ventilation towards the front of the cage.
 

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Discussion Starter · #12 ·
Hrm, yeah, I don't want to spend a ton of time working on something that's not going to work either. :) Guess I am still a total newbie at this.

Doug -- that cork bark wall looks stunning -- how've you gotten the plants to grow on it (and stay attached)?

Since I figure the frogs need a screen top, with the feedback I've been getting, I was considering still trying to do a clay wall, but perhaps only part way up the background. It should be easier to keep high humidity at the bottom of the tank (plus the wall can absorb water from the substrate and the humidity from the water flowing below in the false bottom) and then using cork or GS above it. My only worry with the cork is that the tree frogs I've got are significantly larger than PDFs, and love to hide in plants, would they end up destroying the flora on the cork? (I guess that goes back to my question about how those plants grow up there)
 

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Thanks for the kudos on my cork wall. Here's what I did for plants. At the top of the wall I made pockets out of the cork. I utilized the curve at the back by making a "stop" out of silicone about 5 or 6 inches from the top. Then I just filled it with dirt at the back. Planted vine type plants in there. As far as the broms go, on some I drilled a small hole in it and stuck the brom stem in it (for the broms that were pups). Then, on both pups and ones with a base too big for a drilled hole, I took a stiff piece of wire and bent it into a "U" shape. Down near the base I put it around the base and just pushed hard, into the cork bark. On harder pieces of bark I had to drill tiny holes for the wire to go into. After a few months you can remove the wire as the brom roots into all the cracks and crevasses in the bark.
You can also utilize thick pockets of sphagnum that you filled cracks with, to root various plants to.
I'm afraid I know very little about tree frogs. I pretty much know that they have 4 legs! lol You say they need circulation. Do you know a recommended humidity level for them? Because you can have a more or less sealed viv, (high humidity), and still put internal circulation fans in. Lots of us do it. http://www.dendroboard.com/forum/parts-construction/55446-diy-tank-air-circulation.html Then you could still do clay.
Doug
 
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I would skip the kitty litter all together and buy some read art and bentonite clay powder. Do 2 cups of redart and 2 cups of bentonite then add two handfuls of peat then add water and mix the whole thing up together Thats what I use and you will need more humidity so try a glass lid with ventilation towards the front of the cage.
Just for clarification, kitty litter is bentonite clay, the only difference between powdered bentonite and kitty litter is particle size. I am unsure if there would be any benefit in switching forms as they should react similarly in terms of response to humidity.

Since I figure the frogs need a screen top, with the feedback I've been getting, I was considering still trying to do a clay wall, but perhaps only part way up the background. It should be easier to keep high humidity at the bottom of the tank (plus the wall can absorb water from the substrate and the humidity from the water flowing below in the false bottom) and then using cork or GS above it. My only worry with the cork is that the tree frogs I've got are significantly larger than PDFs, and love to hide in plants, would they end up destroying the flora on the cork? (I guess that goes back to my question about how those plants grow up there)
I keep most of my vivariums at a somewhat lower humidity Jen, 50-70% usually. There are a few vivariums with slightly cracked clay backgrounds, but there is enough structural support in the form of shale, driftwood, cork ect. to keep it from crumbling. I can see this approach being problematic with larger enclosures, especially if an entire wall of a sizable vertical tank were to be covered, but with smaller tanks I have found it not to be a problem. I also include flourite (a pre-fired "dry" red clay) in the mixture in a very small percentage and that seems to provide some support as well.
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
The tree frogs are native to New England (these were actually grown from tadpoles in my kiddie pool) which is one of the things that made them appealing -- they don't need extra heat or a lot of extra care. The humidity in the house is currently /very/ low, about 25% (gotta love winter), but I try to mist their tank and keep standing water in a bowl for them, so I'd guess it's probably in the low to mid 30% range in there. During the summer, obviously, it gets higher. I don't think they'd have any issue with a higher humidity range, I've read getting them up to 70% is still fine. My biggest worry is the air flow -- just read too many warnings saying 'TREE FROGS NEED FRESH AIR!' to risk a solid cover on them.

I may try the cork bark, though I know nothing at all about bromeliads, I know that there are hardy plants that will root in just about anything, Porthos, for example, I'm sure there are others?

I've still not entirely given up on the idea of the clay wall though -- today was day 5 and the top 5" of the tank (currently it has no lid at all) is pretty much shot However, the sections at the bottom are still nice and soft and are showing no sign of drying out.

On the topic of clay as a background -- I found the sections I did with a large amount of clay and a small amount of organics were the first sections to get hard and dry out. Comments have been made that too much organics in the mix will make it unstable as the contents rot -- this makes sense, but am I missing something? The mix I originally made with 75% clay and 25% organics was almost brick-like in consistency. There was no way it was going to stick to the glass, or be soft enough to plant anything in without using a screwdriver to dig a hole. Did I just need to add more water, or is it supposed to be this hard when it's 'stable'? I was kind of under the impression that the clay backgrounds were pliable, even with a high clay ratio. (I'm getting the feeling this is a humidity issue again.) I am, however, stubborn as hell, so I'm thinking about various ways to make this work. I know plasticine clays have oil and wax added to help stop them from drying out. Has anyone tried that (adding oil to the clay, not using plasticine clays) in a viv set-up or is the oil just a bad idea? I imagine trying to get it mixed properly could be very hard, and then there's still the fact that it probably will go rancid at some point?
 

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So step up to 70 percent humidity! That's easy. Cut a piece of glass to cover about 2/3 of the top and just set it on top of the screen. Put it towards the back of the viv to protect the wall more.
Putting an internal circulation fan in helps to keep the air fresh too. Lots of live plants filter your air and the fan keeps it moving. Very good for the plants and the frogs! Cheap to make if you follow that thread I posted. I found 4, 60mm fans, new, on eBay for $14 delivered!
Another hardy, roots in anything, plant for you is creeping fig. It's a good background plant.
Your "brick like" consistancy clay just needed more water.
One of the reasons people are using the clay so much is because it is so natural. Adding oils would defeat this. I would absolutely NOT do that in my vivs. And yes, you are right in that the walls should always remain pliable.
Doug
 

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It depends on the treefrog, there are some tropical species that tolerate higher humidity well, but with a north american species I think you right to keep the humidity lower.

There are many plants that will root and grow well on cork, bromeliads are just one of them. I have had the best luck drilling an appropriately sized angled hole in the cork bark and sticking the bromeliad stolen in. Plants from the genus Hoya and Dischidia grow especially well mounted, and are generally pretty resilient to trampling. Sometimes Home Depot or Lowes will have baskets of Hoyas for pretty cheap, two types I've seen there are (labeled as) tsangii and sp. sulawesi. Both grow fine in low humidity and mounted with a bit of sphagnum.

There are ways to make this clay background work, it just might take some experimentation :) For my first clay tank I used pretty much strait bentonite with a small amount of peat layered over the exposed top, it didn't work all that well and the clay was kept too moist and began to 'slump.' With other tanks I used a high percentage of peat, and the clay has become bare in some spots but it seems to be a very slow process. The most sturdy combination I've found so far has been infield conditioner and bentonite, with small amounts of peat and flourite. Not sure if this helps but definitely think it would be worth it to try out new mixtures, as it makes a very big difference on the constitution of the final product.
 

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Just for clarification, kitty litter is bentonite clay, the only difference between powdered bentonite and kitty litter is particle size. I am unsure if there would be any benefit in switching forms as they should react similarly in terms of response to humidity.
Part of the reason for this is to have more control over your mix. Being able to mix it with Redart clay. Another reason is purity. If a factory produces scented and unscented kitty litter, how much perfume ends up in the unscented? I'd be willing to bet they don't clean out all the machinery between batches. Plus, for pottery they are going to use a pure clay. For kitty litter they are going to dig it up and form it.
Doug
 

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Part of the reason for this is to have more control over your mix. Being able to mix it with Redart clay. Another reason is purity. If a factory produces scented and unscented kitty litter, how much perfume ends up in the unscented? I'd be willing to bet they don't clean out all the machinery between batches. Plus, for pottery they are going to use a pure clay. For kitty litter they are going to dig it up and form it.
Doug
I have not used powdered bentonite so I cannot say much on the topic, but I have mixed the 'pelleted' form with redart without problems so it's certainly possible. There are other places to get unpowdered bentonite, it is often used as a liner in koi ponds, and this type is not supplemented with any perfumes or scent killing chemicals. Not sure how much the powdered type is, but 'kio' bentonite is under ten dollars for a 50 lb. bag.
 

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I have not used powdered bentonite so I cannot say much on the topic, but I have mixed the 'pelleted' form with redart without problems so it's certainly possible. There are other places to get unpowdered bentonite, it is often used as a liner in koi ponds, and this type is not supplemented with any perfumes or scent killing chemicals. Not sure how much the powdered type is, but 'kio' bentonite is under ten dollars for a 50 lb. bag.
Bentonite runs about the same from my pottery store but it is sodium bentonite. If I could find "Koi" bentonite for that price, I'd be all over it! That would be Calcium Bentonite and would be more beneficial for microfauna.
Doug
 
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