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Landscaping - Artificial Terrain

How to Landscape An Artificial Terrain

Landscaping - Artificial Terrain

Many of us, myself included, would prefer to create a natural looking vivarium for our pets. In captivity we do not always have the necessary resources to create a naturalistic vivarium using naturalistic materials from the geckos native environment. In order for us to create a naturalistic appearance we must resort to using artificial materials to create a naturalistic, yet artificial terrain.


Before you can select what materials you will use to create the effect you want, you first need to decide on what type of look you are going for. As our landscaping article discusses, planning is essential to delivering the final product. Someone looking to offer the appearance of sand will not use rocks to create this look. Those looking to create a rocky outcrop look will not use carpet for this purpose. You need to come up with a plan and a look that you are striving for. Different materials will achieve different looks.


From the few published reports, leopard geckos occur in areas of clay soils with or without some surface sand, or with alluvial soils (formed of sediments deposited by flowing water), as well as from rocky areas. One report noted leopard geckos avoided sandy soils. The above information offers rough guidelines for possible substrates in captivity. A common feature is the dryness of the substrates and the arid or semi-arid nature of the habitats. (2005, p.53)

The Herpetoculture of Leopard Geckos

  • Author(s): Philippe de Vosjoli, Ron Tremper, Roger Klingenberg
  • ISBN 10: 0974297127
  • Pages: 260
  • Publisher: Advanced Visions Inc.
  • Published On: July 22, 2005
  • Book Dimensions: 9 x 5.9 x 0.5 inches
  • Purchase This Book: Amazon

Rocks - Stones

Rocks are great because they can be purchased and collected outside. Since geckos come from rocky areas, creating a rocky terrain isn't only easy and affordable, it can also be very attractive. Slate is an ideal choice for creating rocky terrains. Slate is a flat stone that can be piled to create different levels for the gecko to explore as well as used to create natural hides. Stacking slate must be done with care. Your gecko is going to climb all over the place and the terrain you create must be secure. Contact cement can be used to create stacks that are adhered to one another. This must be allowed to dry thoroughly and to "off gas". If you can smell the cement, it is still gassing. A variety of substrates can be used beneath the slate. Have a look at our substrate page for more information.

Of course you aren't limited to just using slate. There are a large number of rocks and stones that can be used. The idea is to make sure everything is stable and large enough that it isn't consumed when your gecko is hunting crickets. All materials collected from nature should be thoroughly cleaned. I actually boil my rocks when I collect them from outside to ensure that anything that could cause my reptiles illness will be destroyed.

Sparse Grasslands Leopard Gecko Enclosure

Sand - Clay

Leopard geckos do not come from the Sahara Desert and their enclosure should not look as if they do. Many enthusiasts read online that geckos do well on sand or have been told by petstore employees that they do and their gecko is suddenly residing in the vast emptiness of the desert. As the quote above states, leopard geckos appear to avoid sandy areas. I go more into depth as why they do this within our substrates section.

The enclosure above was created using artificial grass, real stones and a substrate called Excavator. Excavator is a type of clay that comes as sand. Once it is mixed with water it becomes moldable. After the molded clay dries, it becomes a solid that can become a moldable clay again by just wetting it.

I used 3 plastic containers to create the enclosure above. I have an under tank heater beneath the container on the far right, which has a piece of cut repti-carpet inside it. The middle container has sphagnum moss inside it and the container on the far left simply has a piece of cut repti-carpet in it and is unheated. I have a probe inside the first container (you can see the cord) so that the temperature is regulated using a rheostat. The probe turns the UTH on and off as needed. You should use a container like I have done for several reasons. The clay itself will hold in heat and create "hot spots" if it is placed directly over the UTH. The container prevents this from happening and the probe ensures the desired temperature is always maintained. I check the temps regularly with a temp gun and a thermometer with external probe. I place a piece of repti-carpet inside to help dissipate the heat collected and to make the floor more comfortable for the gecko. The container also allowed me to use less substrate, which saves money. The grass is physically adhered into the substrate. I was shooting for a Sparse Grasslands look and I am happy with how it came out. I keep the hides clean by vacuuming them through the openings. I physically open the containers once a month by moistening the substrate and lifting the top off of each one. Once they have been washed I place them back on and slightly moisten them again and run my fingers around to hide the seams. My food, water and calcium dish are all recessed into the substrate. I vacuum off the actual substrate when I vacuum inside each hide to remove any loose particulates.

Zoo Med Excavator Clay

  • Manufacturer: Zoo Med
  • ASIN: B000N5OM8S
  • Item model number: XR10
  • Shipping Weight: 10.2 pounds
  • Dimensions: 20 x 8 x 4 inches; 10 pounds
  • Purchase Excavator Amazon


Carpet can be used to create hills and valleys if you use Styrofoam beneath it. I suggest using Velcro to keep the carpet in place and to keep the Styrofoam from moving around if it hasn't been adhered with silicone. Tan repti-carpet looks nice when done in this manner as does the stone washed colors. Caves and rocks can be added to create a nice visual effect.

Leopard Gecko Enclosure


The above enclosure uses live succulents with tan fabric wrapped around a Styrofoam base. I used this enclosure for a couple of years with great success. I recessed the plant pots into holes I cut. Inside the warm hide (front left corner) I removed the Styrofoam inside the hide. The gecko would "step down" as he entered the hide. I had repti-carpet in there for the same purpose as I have the carpet inside the clay hides listed above. The enclosure a recessed water dish, a food dish, 2 calcium dishes and housed 2 female geckos.


Many people use grout to create their terrains because they come in a variety of colors and can be applied over Styrofoam and then sealed. Sealing them makes them easier to clean and helps remove any particulates that the gecko could ingest. In most instances, grout can only be used once. Unlike the Excavator substrate, once grout has dried it can no longer be molded again. These enclosures can look stunning but need to be done right the first time. As with the clay substrate, I would advise using containers versus just the grout for creating the hides. You would also want to make it so that the tops could be removed. This can be achieved by placing the hides in place and covering them with vegetable oil. This will prevent the grout from locking them in. Once the grout has dried around the hides, remove them. This will create the permanent depression where they will sit. Now place them back where they belong (after cleaning them and the opening) and place the cover on them. Using more grout, create the "top" of the hides and allow that to dry. This will make the base of the enclosure and the top of the hides two separate pieces. Once dried, remove the tops of the hides and seal them outside of the enclosure. Seal the inside of the enclosure while the tops dry. Once the sealant has dried you should now have covers to your hides that can be removed but appear to create a seamless terrain.

There are many other ways to create natural looking enclosures with artificial substrates. Looking at other designs and learning how those people achieved their goals is a great way to learn about new methods. Creating naturalistic enclosures just requires research and some ingenuity. Preplanning your enclosure is vital to the successes and failures you will encounter.

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Author: Richard Brooks
Enclosures © Richard Brooks