Caring for our plants is an integral part of providing the best care for our chameleons. This is one the things new keepers may not consider at first, but quite often wilting or dying chameleon plants becomes a concern. Plants that are dying or have stunted growth are most often going to have one of four most common issues in plant care.
1) Light - Lack of full spectrum lighting is usually marked by plants staying alive, but not thriving.
2) Water - This can be too much or too little. With too little it usually results in a wilted plant, while overwatering can cause yellowing or dropping leaves.
3) Nutrients - Though abundant in new soil, over time plants will drain nutrients and fertilizers will be necessary. Leaves may start turning yellow, light green, or a reddish purple depending on the type of nutrient your plant is deficient in.
4) Air - Plant roots need air. Appropriate soil composition and adequate drainage holes will prevent your roots from suffocating and/or drowning.
Caring for your plants is both challenging and rewarding, yet doesn’t always come easily for many of us. Though it may seem complicated we will get down to the basics of plant care to help you discover the key to having a green thumb.
The first step is to start off with the right soil composition. In an enclosure that gets misted regularly, you will want your soil to be quick draining, and also retain some moisture for humidity. Your soil must have the right balance of water retention and drainage, and a combination of various elements that provide nutrients for optimal growth. Over time, plants will use up a lot of the soils nutrients and they will need fertilizing. The soil will slowly break down and eventually replanting will be necessary.
Aeration is as critical to plant health as water and light. Having a fast draining soil mixture and proper drainage holes in planters will ensure your plants roots can breathe, reducing the risk of root rot and aid in air purification.
The types and amounts of soil additives and amendments in your mixture can be increased or decreased as needed. If the plant is near a mist head or dripper, a fast draining mixture would be best, while a plant that is near the heat bulb and not in the path of your spray or drip may need more moisture retention. Do not use rocks as the bottom layer in your planter, they do not allow for adequate water flow, if necessary use expanded clay pebbles, orchid bark, or mesh screen to prevent soil loss through pot drainage holes. Use stones to cover the top layer of the soil to prevent impaction of your chameleon due to accidental, or intentional, ingestion.
3 parts coco fiber or potting soil
2 parts perlite and/or pumice
1 part vermiculite
You want your mixture to be loose and crumble easily when damp. Remember that exact measurements aren’t necessary, and the soil can be adjusted to best suit your plants needs.
Fun Fact: According to a study by NASA researchers, the air purifying properties of plants are mainly produced by the plants roots.
Bioactive substrates mixtures usually contain varying amounts of coco fiber, sphagnum moss, orchid or fir bark, charcoal, course sand, tree fern fiber and/or peat moss.
The bottom layer will be filled with at least 1-3 inches of expanded clay pebbles (also known as false bottom, hydro balls, or hydroton). Be sure to rinse the clay before use. Your substrate can sit directly on this or a mesh screen or landscape fabric can be used to separate the layers. Keep in mind your drainage tube/hole.
After setting up your substrate, add your plants and microfauna, then cover the soil with leaf litter. Allowing your microbiome to season for at least 3-5 weeks will give your springtails and isopods the time to establish sizable colonies and gives time for your plants to take root.
Visit the SerpaDesigns YouTube channel for step-by-step videos on bioactive setup
A good substrate recipe that has been used successfully by well-known professional vivarium builder, Tanner from SerpaDesigns, contains a mixture of:
2 parts sphagnum moss (not peat moss)
1 part coco fiber or potting soil
1 part orchid bark
1 part course sand
1 part horticultural charcoal (or untreated crushed lump-wood charcoal)
The next important factor is your plant lighting. Although what seems like a well lit enclosure to you, may feel like a dark cave to to your plants, especially when you are giving your chameleon adequate hiding foliage. Plants located under the dense leaf cover need to be suited for low light conditions. The 6500k full spectrum t5HO fluorescent or LED bulbs are the most commonly recommended plant bulbs and can be combined with your UVB bulbs in multi-bulb fixtures, although both bulbs will emit their optimal lighting in separate fixtures.
One of the most common killers of enclosure plants, besides being devoured by the chameleon itself, is overwatering. Overwatering will cause root rot and kill your plants. Many plants will need to dry out a bit, at least the top 1-2 inches of soil. For some, this can be difficult to achieve with frequent misting and runoff from the dripper. Though for others, the plants may be getting water on their leaves while leaving the soil parched.
Depending on the moisture needs of your plants, you must determine what your watering schedule should look like. Indoor plants can go 1-3 weeks between waterings in normal conditions, keeping your plant in a heavily misted enclosure may extend this period. Testing the soil by inserting your index finger an inch or so down will give you a good idea of whether or not they need watering. If your finger comes out slightly damp and soil particles stick to your skin, watering is not needed. Moisture meters are a great tool for determining your soil moisture levels.
When watering, be sure to water until the soil is saturated and drains out of the bottom of the pot, this flushes excess salts and mineral buildup that could potentially “burn” your plants. Tap water is suitable for most enclosure plants. If your tap water is highly chlorinated, or has high amounts of fluoride, there are some sensitive plant species that may benefit from distilled or RO water, such as air plants, spider plants, prayer plants, and certain ferns.
As your plants use up the nutrients in the soil you must replenish this with fertilizer. Look for a balanced Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (NPK) values. Fertilizers over 10-10-10 are safer to start off diluted to around half strength. Micronutrients and macronutrients are both important, look for fertilizers that include micronutrients in their products. Worm castings and bone meal are also great fertilizer options. The addition of mycorrhizae, a class of beneficial fungi, to your soil will aid your roots in utilizing nutrients.
Periodically you will need to prune your plants, removing old leaves and stems to promote new growth and dividing plants for reproduction. Some large plants may need root pruning to maintain their shape/size, but be sure to also prune the top when pruning the root ball or your plants may suffer.
Mycorrhizae fungi can be watered into your soil and helps increase your plant growth naturally. They create a web-like structure around the plant roots and boosts their nutrient absorption. In bioactive setups, this will provide constant food for your microfauna, who will then excrete waste matter that will also nourish your plants. Also best to start with half strength dilution.
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