Base layer:/Drainage layer: Your vivarium should have a drainage layer. This layer has a substrate with Hydroton or similar clay balls that provide surface area for beneficial bacteria to break down wastes. This layer is called the drainage layer as it is where water runs off through the soil to prevent soil saturation and stagnation. Consider adding a drain pipe to routinely empty water from this reservoir to prevent water build up and reaching your soil. You can have a taller drainage layer by creating a "false bottom". Using egg create (plastic square sheets sold in home improvement stores for lighting). Cutting to form and zip tying pieces together you can create a box structure that supports the weight above it reducing the amount of Hydroton or substrate you need and allow your vivarium to hold more water. If you use egg crate or not you will want to separate your drainage layer from your soil. Otherwise water will start washing your soil into your drainage layer water and creating a soggy stagnated mess. This can increase your frogs to bacterial and fungal issues. You can use fiberglass screen used for screen doors as a barrier. You can also use a weed liner material as well. Just test that water drains through your barrier easily. Otherwise you might find your soil being soggy with drainage issues.
Separator layer: Above your drainage layer is your false bottom egg crate topped with screen. Above the screen you will want to use a light layer of charcoal (aquarium grade). This will help absorb ammonia.
Substrate aka "soil": The most popular substrate to use is ABG. ABG is 2 parts tree fern fiber, 1 part peat moss, 2 parts coco-fiber, 1 part charcoal, and 2 parts orchid bark. This is often available from various reptile shops/ online pet supply. If you source from a garden center make sure that no additives such as preservatives, fertilizers or pesticides are used. Dont use potting soils, raised bed soils, organic or not. It contains ingredients that are bad for amphibians which may include fertilizers, perlite or even manure.
Top layer: On top of the soil you will want a good supply of leaf litter, this will help hold moisture without having frogs on wet substrate. This also serves as food for cucs. Live Oak leaves, Magnolia leaves are sturdy popular options. They can be purchased online or procured yourself and sterilized. Washing then baking for about 220 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour should do it. Just keep an eye on it for over baking/ burning. Note some people avoid due to pungent smell that may persist during the process. Some folks choose to boiled for a half an hour. But note that natural tannin's are lost in the process to the water. Thus people opt to buy a sterilized bag of leaves. Add plants, hiding spots, even a "coco hut" which dubs as a shelter and breeding spot as it has a petri dish bottom for egg laying.
Background: So one area that is often overlooked is the background for reptile and amphibian terrariums. Designing an appealing background really puts the finishing touches on the aesthetic look of your viv. It also allows the vivarium to be enclosed so that your dart frog feels more sheltered and secured when they can see out the back or the sides that matter. A background can be a single piece of cork bark cut in a sheet to fit the back. Or it can be elaborate using expanding spray foam such as Great Stuff Pond and waterfall. The foam can have coconut fiber added to it as it dries. Or allowed to dry then cut down to create shapes such as rock features or to resemble the trunk of a tree. You can make cut outs to place air plants in pockets in your background as well. Instead on thinking one dimensional you can add layers, or steps to allow plantings on your background or allow your frogs to scale the background. After cutting you can use aquarium safe silicon to attach moss or plant fiber to the foam to conceal the foam and give a natural look. Note, you may want to add silicon to the edges of your background to prevent frogs from finding holes or pockets in the back where you may no longer see them or they may get stuck. We also recommend decorating the sides as well. Thus your dart will feel secure and you can really have your vivarium decorated to feel like you are looking in a window into the rain-forest floor.
Wood decor: In decorating your vivarium you will want to use a hardwood that is moisture tolerant and not prone to rot. Not just any wood will meet these conditions. Cork bark, Ghostwood, Malaysian Driftwood, and Mopani are your best choices to stand up the the high humidity of a dart frog vivarium. You can affix living moss to your wood to give a living touch. You can stand pieces long ways to expand the height of your vivarium and allow frogs more access to vertical spaces which many frogs love to do. You can attach air plants, such as Bromeliads to the wood or even the background.
Woods to avoid:
Pine, Cedar, Eucalyptus These woulds are considered toxic to reptiles/ amphibians.
Glass enclosure: Will any aquarium do? Well technically yes, and no. If you think fish tank you may find yourself wishing you had something more. Many reptile enclosures have front opening enclosures that make access and maintenance a lot easier than reaching in from the top. Dart frogs should have a 10 gallon minimum starting size then allow 5 gallons of tank space per frog. (Based on aquariums being sold by gallon size reference). A 10 gallon aquarium is the smallest/ cheapest size starter enclosure to look at for a grow out, but really small for a thriving vivarium. If you are looking for an ideal setup of say a pair of darts or a trio consider a 29 gallon long if you are looking for budget. Ideally you want a minimum of a terrarium to be 24" on its longest side to 36" for the ideal setup. Typically these can have sides which are 18" long. ZooMed and Exo-Terra are the most popular "go to" manufacturers for dart frog (Reptile) front opening terrariums and a good choice. One final note is that for dart frogs and other animals with higher humidity level requirements. You will need to replace the screen top that your terrarium is likely to come with. You will want a glass top. Generally you will measure the vivariums top and determine the length and width to have a glass shop or home improvement store cut for you. Our recommendation would be subtract 2 inches of the back length and attach a aquarium back strip piece of plastic. This will allow you to have wires, pipes or other components easily penetrate holes you add to the plastic back strip. Additionally your can cut holes for vents or attaching fans (computer type) to add additional circulation.
Vents made from egg crate, with screen door mesh attached. This was imbedded into aquarium back strip plastic strip.
Lastly of the remaining sheet of glass have it cut in half long ways. Thus you can add a handle on the front piece to make a lift up access panel. Just run a thin line of silicon between the two pieces so it can open and close conveniently yet remain together.
Lastly you will want to have your finished vivarium "cycle" for several weeks to a month. This will allow your micro fauna to flourish, plants to settle and root. You will want to take time monitoring your humidity and temperature and making adjustments till you find the sweet spot. Ideally in the degrees 70's Fahrenheit and humidity in the upper 80-90% range.
Lighting: Do frogs need lights? Nope, but your plants do! Consider getting a 6500K LED fixture sized appropriately to your vivarium. LEDS are good because they use low wattage and produce a lot of light. One benefit aside from being green and cost factor of a low wattage light is this also means less heat is produced versus incandescent bulbs. Remember, dart frogs are heat sensitive. The last thing you need is a hot light bulb raising the temperature of your vivarium to a dangerous heat level. We mention the 6500K LED's (Full spectrum lighting) as this is the color temperature produced by the lights. It is more natural in appearance and beneficial to plants.
Hydroton or similar clay balls for drainage layer
Screen mesh separator (plastic or fiberglass, not metal)
Egg cray (optional)
distilled water or RO water
Dwarf white isopods
Lighting (Full spectrum LED or low to no heat, uvb not recommended, vitamin supplementation with D3 replaces need for uvb)
Coco hut (optional)
Petri dish for under coco hut (optional)
Feeding dish (optional) (clean prior to each feeding)
Frogs are very sensitive to chemicals. The chlorine and other potential chemical contaminants in your tap water can be harmful to your frogs. (Municipal water may also have fluoride or chloramine, nitrites, lead, high total dissolved solids, and any other chemicals that leach into damaged/ aging pipes.) Thus dart frog keepers opt for using distilled water, or RO (reverse osmosis). Well water may have various mineral deposits to other chemicals leached into surrounding soil so not a reliable water source. Regarding rain water, note big city that have air pollution will have chemicals present in rain water. Methods often used to collect rain water may also introduce harmful elements. Roof top water run off often has harmful chemicals that leach into water run off therefore not recommended.
Additionally using anything other than RO or distilled water may end up leaving unsightly calcification deposits on the viewing glass. Calcification will also provide challenges if you use automated misting systems.
Avoid standing water in your vivarium. (Unless you are breeding frogs and allowing parents to raise frogs themselves.) Remember dart frog are terrestrial who live at the base of trees not in streams or lakes. They do not have webbed feet as you will find with their aquatic counter parts and thus poor swimmers. Standing water is often used by rivals in wresting territorial matches as a means to an end. Frogs will drown their rivals when given the chance in standing water which would include something as simple as a water dish. Water dishes are generally not recommended as they should get needed water from misting. That said paludariums are inappropriate for dart frogs. Additionally water features such as water falls, stream, etc. are really for peoples enjoyment and typically not the benefit for dart frogs. Aside from drowning risks, water features often have water that leaches into soil. Soil stagnates quickly and run off contaminates the water layer. Bacterial and fungal issues can arise quickly under these conditions. Dart frogs are prone to skin infections from constant exposure to damp substrate.
Your drainage layer should be inspected regularly to make sure the water level isn't rising to high and coming in contact with the soil layer. If the water level is too high you will want to siphon water out of the drainage layer. Some folks add a PVC pipe from their soil down to the drainage layer and unscrew the cover to drain. Other folks add a drain pipe in the bottom glass of their vivarium for easy draining. All others will look to add a tube into a corner of their vivarium and siphon water out as they would draining an aquarium.
One of the key elements to make your vivarium sustainable is adding a clean up crew "CUCs". These consist of organisms that will readily and happily work to keep your vivarium clean. These are considered essential and help make a vivarium "bioactive" in addition to beneficial fungi and bacteria. CUCs consist of isopods and springtails. Dwarf white isopods are native to the tropics and ideal for dart frog tropical vivariums. They feed on frog waste and leaf litter. Tropical springtails are the 2nd piece of the dynamic duo clean up crew. They eat decomposing matter and help convert this waste to soil nutrients readily up taken by plants "fertilizer". Plants are the final piece of the bioactive setup. Please avoid using fake plants which can have toxic paint, lead weights, be physically abrasive and just look drab in comparison to tropical plants. They help with air exchange and waste uptake. Additionally they provide shelter for your frogs. Plants such as bromeliads hold water cups many frogs use to rear their young.