Refurbished Snake Tank Terrarium

When I lived at home with my parents, I went through a phase of keeping some reptiles. I think it started with a chameleon, and later (after it died), I tried keeping snakes.

At one point, I captured a mid-sized brown garter snake from our backyard. What I didn’t know was that it was a pregnant female and later it would have 13 babies. The tank we had (from the chameleon) was not really appropriate for one mid-sized snake, let alone a brood. It did not go well.

I was feeding the mom and babies with crickets, and at one point even got a white mouse to feed to the mom. Eventually the snake babies cannibalized themselves. I think the mom may have even ate some of her own brood. The mouse ended up becoming a last-minute pet instead of someone’s dinner, but after that I don’t remember what we did with it. It was a mess. We eventually let the mommy snake go.

Suffice it to say I was not educated enough about snake keeping. I still feel bad about it. Since that time I have not had the interest (or time) for pets of any kind. I’ve stuck with plants, and have done quite well. They require a different level of commitment, but are far more forgiving.

Fast forward 30 years when I am now into terrariums…

I have no intention – even now – of keeping anything beyond cleanup crew insects and terrarium critters. But I thought that the tank from back then – if intact – could be a good challenge to scape and setup.

The first issue to solve with the old tank was that a crack had formed on what used to be the front.

The crack got worse within the first day of moving the tank from my paren’t place. Since I had no plans to fill the tank with water, this crack was not a complete show stopper, but obviously it had to be addressed.

After some web research, I opted for a multi-pronged approach. I checked the tank for leaks, and there were none. So after drying out, I resealed the entire bottom with silicone as an extra precaution. Then I used a gaffer tape on the crack on the outside, and applied superglue to the crack as best I could. After the glue dried, I also smeared silicone over the entire area of the crack.

Once dry, the front of the tank (which looked like crap) became the rear of the tank, and I designed everything with the idea of hiding that entire area.

The next issue to address was the lid. When I was keeping reptiles, they needed a lot more air, so the original home made top was plywood with a screen center. Since I wanted a closed terrarium, I had to either replace this lid completely with something else, or rework this lid. Since large pieces of plexiglass are expensive and hard to cut, I opted for the rework option.

After removing the screen, I sanded the lid down a bit and repainted it. Then I found an 11 x 14 piece of plastic that was easy to cut, and set that in place with silicone. The plastic is frosted a bit, which isn’t ideal, but it is all that was available.

I knew that this was not going to be the most beautiful tank. But I wanted to give it a shot. I think it came out OK considering the thing is 30 years old and was sitting in an attic for most of that time.

The next issue was finding a good place to put this thing. After a week or more on the dining table, I finally found a space for it what worked better.

Beware halogen lights… read on…

I found an unused halogen light in my collection, and thought it would be perfect for this application. That turned out to be a mistake.

The first day the light was in use, I noticed how hot it was getting, and knew I’d need to replace it eventually. The next day, after the light was on for a few more hours, I noticed the heat from the light had begun to warp the plastic installed on the lid. This spurred an emergency lid repair and I took the halogen out of service. Another trip to IKEA for a proper light!

This project was a lot of fun, despite the setbacks. I planned everything out over a couple weeks to be sure I had time to think things through. This build used everything I learned up to that point about terrariums, and it felt good to finally see the tank used again rather than have it rotting in an attic.

The dragon stone is from Ebay, and the drift wood is from Amazon (boiled for a couple hours to remove tannins). The moss is all locally sourced. The large, darker ivy branch is from our yard, and it appears to be taking root.

I want to let it stabilize for a few weeks before I tweak anything.

May 25, 2021

Small Terrarium Experiments

These are two smaller experiments. I’m placing both of these in a sunnier location than the rest of the closed terrariums to see how they do.

The specimen jar is from Goodwill.

May 25, 2021

The other jar is from Dollar Tree.

May 25, 2021

The Dollar Tree jar contains left overs from the bastard terrarium and functions as an overflow home for springtails.

I still prefer the mid-sized and larger terrariums because they offer more space for the inhabitants.


IKEA Mason Jar Terrarium

During my earlier terrarium builds, I had some left over bits and needed to get them into a container quickly. I grabbed a large canning jar from the basement, but it didn’t have a proper lid, so I had to improvise something with a canning lid band and some plastic wrap. This worked as a temporary fix, but wasn’t going to work long term.

On the trip to IKEA to replace the bamboo cookie jar lid, I also picked up one of their larger canning jars with built-in lid and gasket so I could redo my temporary mason jar setup.

I affectionately call this one a “bastard” terrarium because it was not planned, not intended to be a full build. It’s doing OK, but was not designed in any way. It’s also serving as an overflow home for the explosion of springtails that have reproduced from the initial small culture from Ebay.

The bastard terrarium May 25, 2021


JoAnne’s Terrarium Scene

Next up is a container that I found at JoAnne’s Fabric on sale for $10 with a coupon. This is purpose-made for a terrarium and worked really well. This is probably the perfect container for anyone starting out.

The centerpiece is an interesting orange quartz specimen from my collection of finds accumulated through the years.

The medium rocks on the surface are from a local stream. The smaller rocks in the false bottom are from a large bag from Lowe’s since we were also doing some other gardening and needed some stone. For $5 you get get a huge bag that is more than enough for a few terrariums, though you’ll want to rinse the rocks to get a cleaner look and make sure nothing else is transferred.

The long succulent (Crassula) is from the back yard, and has grown extremely fast in a short period of time. The rest of the plants are store bought, and the moss is locally sourced. You’ll also notice that I’ve been including a little bit of lichen for color in my terrariums.

Inhabitants include springtails from my ever growing culture and isopods that I’ve started to collect. More on those in a separate post.

May 25, 2021

I know these posts must sound like advertisements at times, but I just haven’t found a better way to name my terrariums yet. I’m also not an affiliate marketer, at least not yet.


Large Open Terrarium Build

After making a number of closed terrariums, I wanted to try an open terrarium with no (intentional) inhabitants.

HomeGoods continues to have great deals on glass containers, and I found this one for $11! It appeared to be a factory second, with a very minor flaw in the glass, but no cracks.

HomeGoods has great, inexpensive, containers.

I’ve seen containers smaller than this go for $40 at Target and other places.

The white rocks are from Dollar General, and I’m still not sure what I think of them. They seemed like a good idea at the time, and they have grown on me. But they are just SO WHITE.

The other rocks are from a local stream, and the plants are all store-bought, still left over from my other plant buying trips.

No inhabitants here… at least that I know of.

This sits in our NW facing bay window that gets hammered with light during the second half of the day. I’m still monitoring how it is doing. There’s a bit of shade provided by some other plant holders and pots, but I am concerned that by midsummer, it will be too hot.

As of May 25, 2021

IKEA Cookie Jar Terrarium Build

As my terrarium journey continued, I had a lot of left over materials, so it was time to branch out. We live quite close to an IKEA outlet, and they have a great selection of containers that are purpose-built for terrariums, or can be used as such.

Great jar, but get the plastic or glass lid – not the bamboo lid!

During the first iteration of this build, I used the bamboo “365+” lid that fits this model of jar. For about a week or so that was fine, but eventually I saw some mold starting to grow, dangling from the underside of the lid.

What I didn’t realize at the time of purchase, was that there is also a plastic, snap on lid. IKEA’s web site shows a glass lid option too. When I returned to IKEA, they didn’t have the glass type, so I got the plastic version and it works great: no mold!

This video is from several weeks after the build, and it seems to be holding up.

This build features store-bought plants, local moss, rocks from a local stream. I also include leaf litter now as foot for the isopods. The leaves are baked to avoid the introduction of pests. The gray/white rock was part of my collection of nature finds over the years, though I don’t recall the original source.

Inhabitants include springtails, a couple isopods, and worms. I’m still learning about isopods, so I try not to crowd them to much. More on this aspect of things in a future post.

The original bamboo lid will fit another 365+ container, and after deep cleaning, it was fine for use – just not for plants. I am sure we’ll be seeing more from IKEA both in terms of closed and open terrariums in the future.

The lazy Susan is from Big Lots, and I now have several of them for the circular terrariums to make them easier to explore.


My first large terrarium

With a little success under my belt with two smaller terrariums, it was time to try something larger. I found this rather interesting Polish glass container from Home Goods, on sale for $8!

Following the guidance of my terrarium gurus, I planned this one out a bit more, and waited until I had all of the elements on hand before diving into the build. The result is one of my favorite terrariums.

The idea with this one was to create a definite scene with some height to take advantage of the unique shape of the vessel. I got the cork bark from a supplier on Amazon. All of the plants are store-bought, but the moss is locally sourced.

One of the positive outcomes of working on terrariums has been the motivation to get out to some of our local parks to see what types of moss or plants might be available. It’s been interesting to see just how many types of moss are available in our area, and the different places it grows.

With this build, I also got more brave with the number of plants and the selection of inhabitants. Aside from springtails and isopods, this one has a very active millipede and some other critters. There’s a small beetle that is very hard to capture on camera . I didn’t consciously put him there, so my guess is that he came in on some moss.

This has been a very stable terrarium with minimal maintenance required. Every day I see something interesting. I’m going to do a video on all of my terrariums eventually, so stay tuned for more.


Recovering an old terrarium

My second terrarium experiment was a rework of a terrarium that Audra made during an education retreat a number of years back. It had completely died off, even before our recent moves, and needed a major overhaul.

This has done quite well, needing only minor maintenance. I will feature a video of this one in an upcoming post.

Blog Touchdesigner Video

My Touchdesigner Journey

Some Touchdesigner samples on my YouTube channel. These really just scratch the surface of what I’ve been doing.

TouchDesigner is a node based visual programming language for real time interactive multimedia content, developed by the Toronto-based company Derivative. It’s been used by artists, programmers, creative coders, software designers, and performers to create performances, installations, and fixed media works (from Derivative web site).

Why Touchdesigner?

After a few years working with Magic Music Visualizer (also a great video animation and processing application) I wanted something a bit more robust. The COVID lockdown, followed by the drab winter of 2020-21 left me with time to focus on learning a new skill.

Most of my learning came throughout November 2020 to February 2021 via YouTube tutorials by the very supportive Touchdesigner community. I treated this like a college course, with daily lessons, building along with the instructors (not just watching passively). I estimate that at 30 hrs/week for four months, I logged at least 480 hrs of focused education, probably more. And of course, I am still always learning and exploring.

Using Touchdesigner for live performance

One of my primary motivations to learn about Touchdesigner (TD) was for creative live audio-reactive visuals, both for my own performances and others. I soon found TD was much more than just a visualizer. I also found that I could build things that would not otherwise be possible in other tools.

So far I’ve used TD in a live context several times, feeding signals into OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) via NDI and Syphon for live broadcast.

This performance uses a video mixer that I built within Touchdesigner, taking the place of the scene switcher in OBS. All of the video generation and broadcasting is running on one machine.
Proof of concept for some ideas that combine TD and the Elektron Digitakt.

To further explore TD, I made some videos for my wife’s 4th grade class.

To get more practice, and to take a break from my own creative work, I offered to make some videos for other artists. This also served as a helpful use case while developing my JDRenderEngine, a pet project that leverages TD to overcome some of my frustrations with traditional video editing platforms.

“Yellowcake” is an album by musician Breakfast that features 10 videos I made in Touchdesigner.

What’s next?

There’s a lot more that I’d like to share on this. I’ve created a lot of experiments – with and without music – that I think people would enjoy. Just as my music has been exploring chaos, noise, and probability, TD has allowed me to explore those concepts visually. However, the work is time consuming. With COVID lockdown lifting, and with some other higher priority projects picking up, I’ve had to step back from TD a bit. The weather is also much nicer now, so I’ve been trying to get outside more – away from screens. I still create something new weekly, so perhaps I’ll post more of that content soon.

At the moment, the big weakness in my setup here is the GPU on my mid-2015 Macbook Pro. Things run pretty hot, and some functions in TD (like Line MAT) don’t even work properly on the MacOS. I am now trying to decide how to justify the purchase of a more powerful machine to continue development and learning. For now, Touchdesigner remains a fascinating tool in my toolbox for creating things I never would have thought possible even a few years ago.


Terrariums: Distracting hobby, or mental health exercise? Both?

During the Spring of 2021 as COVID still raged, I wasn’t getting out much. Between significant computer screen time and evening Netflix couch time, I knew that I had to force myself off of the machines and back into something more natural.

Many years ago, during a trip to Chicago, Audra got me a very nice terrarium container made in Poland. My green thumb was focused for years on growing hot peppers outdoors. I didn’t spend as much time on indoor plants, except for my many clippings of Pothos (aka Devil’s Ivy). The terrarium container was never properly used, and found its way into storage. Thankfully, it survived several moves, waiting for the day when it would have a proper place to display.

A few Google and YouTube searches turned up plentiful resources on terrarium builds. The most helpful resource by far has been the YouTube channel SerpaDesign, run by a guy named Tanner in the Pittsburgh area. Aside from bringing an artistic sensibility to everything he does, I found Tanner’s site most helpful because he’s in a similar climate and uses the same type of resources I can access near Philly. And yes, there’s some irony here in the desire to get away from screens, only to turn to YouTube to get up to speed on a new hobby.

Later I’ll note a few other resources, but for now I want to get into showing some things I’ve done.

First up is the “Chicago Terrarium”. This actually went through two iterations so far, the first of which didn’t look very good and only lasted a couple weeks before I wanted to redo it using things I learned online.

The current iteration of the “Chicago Terrarium” uses a combination of local moss, store-bought plants, and locally sourced rocks. I decided to remove the jade buddha because he didn’t look natural in this setting. The springtails came from an Ebay vendor, and the isopods came from local parks.

Following Tanner’s advice, I made a very good false bottom with store-bought aquarium rocks from Lowe’s. I kind of have a problem buying rocks when I can get them from nature, but for this first build I wanted it to be as clean as possible.

The false bottom also uses carbon fiber screen (Lowe’s) and activated charcoal (Ebay). I’m using Serpa’s typical substrate mix of sphagnum moss, sand, orchid bark and sometimes coconut fiber. For this first build, I used some indoor potting soil I already had on hand.

If a terrarium is made correctly, it should not need a lot of maintenance. But one of the highlights of my day right now is looking in on these little worlds and seeing what’s happening with them. Not only does this get me away from the computer, it gets me outside a bit more as I search for moss or other elements to incorporate.

I suppose like anything else you enjoy, terrariums can become addictive. The “Chicago Terrarium” was successful enough that I started looking for other containers to try.

The one thing I’ve noticed about the terrarium enthusiasts is that they seem to fall into three categories. Tanner, who seems to fall in the middle, is very thoughtful about what he does and approaches things with a bit more of a plan and an eye for aesthetics.

Others – particularly some of the terrarium builders from Japan who incorporate bonsai techniques – are even more detailed and show an amazing level of artistry and complexity. The other end of the spectrum are those that just grab whatever is in their backyard, toss it in a jar, and hope for the best with little thought! All of these approaches have their charm.

In future posts, we will take a look at my other creations, and I’ll share some other things I’ve learned along the way.

Coming soon…

Home Goods Tree Scene
IKEA Cookie Jar
IKEA Mason Jar
Joanne’s Terrarium Scene
Reconditioned snake tank!

And maybe a few other experiments!