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Dart Frog Vivarium Journal

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Hello folks!

I have been absent for about 2 weeks while I have been investigating something new. DART FROGS!

So I have had a fascination with dart frogs ever since I was a child. I have always steered clear of them and other frogs as pets for 2 reasons. 1) they are incredibly poisonous and the thought of keeping something in my house that can kill me seemed like a darwinism, and 2) they require live food and I have been unwilling to venture into the avenue of raising bugs.

This brings us to today. Simply because of my interest in planted aquariums I find search engines and youtube throwing content at me regarding vivariums, including dart frogs. So I quite by accident discovered that Dart Frogs are not poisonous when kept in captivity! Apparently they are not innately poisonous but instead get their poison fromm the food they eat in the wild. We apparently don't even know for certain what they eat that makes them poisonous, but it is not what we feed them in captivity. This left only my aversion to raising live food which frankly as I've gotten more into fish keeping has waned as well.

Thus only one barrier remains.... The WIFE.

But in this one instance The Wife was a complete softy. I had been casually bringing up dart frogs for a few months just to test the waters when 2 weeks ago my wife quite out of the blue was like "frogs? sure lets get frogs, that sounds like fun!" I was floored... I mean she won't let me keep any more aquariums but frogs... yea she is down for that.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth I began at once!!

Step 1 was research and more research. I've never kept any kind of frog before and wanted to make sure I got it right. Apparently dart frogs have several things going for them, especially compared to other froggies. They are diurnal which is awesome. They are relatively tiny so you can keep them in relatively small spaces. They like plants. They breed pretty readily. They live for a long time. And they come in a variety of colors.

Step 2 was gathering materials for the build. In the USA we basically have a few big companies that make vivariums for reptiles/amphibians. These are Exo Terra, Zoo Med, and Zilla. And they all universally suck for dart frogs. I'm not saying they can't be housed in them... actually most of the US dart frog hobby does that. But they all require significant adaptation and even then they have serious drawbacks. Usually you need to seal them up better to retain moisture because dart frogs want 80 to 100% humidty. Then there is the fruit fly issue... Most dart frog keepers feed flightless fruit flies and/or springtails to their frogs. The fruit flies especially will crawl all over the tank and are small.. like most are smaller then 1/8 inch. The USA vivariums are not designed to keep fruit flies in and have holes bigger then this all over them. Which means if you don't block those holes up you have fruit flies everywhere in your house..... yea not doing that.

After making a post over on (dart frog forum) I was pointed in the direction of the Frog Cube which is a guy who sells 3d printed parts to turn an aquarium into a vertical vivarium. And what's more all reports say its significantly more fruit fly proof then any of the exo terra type tanks. I also found InSitu Ecosystems which is a brand new company that is making vivariums specifically for dart frogs but they cost like 220 dollars. This is actually not a terrible price for such a tank but... well I am attracted to the DIY like nature of the Frog Cube.

Thus when going out to pickup cat food at my Petco I also looked through their stock of tanks and picked up a newer version of the Aqueon 20H. I say newer because its pretty clear that Aqueon has older tanks with terrible silicone work and mismatched side pieces, and newer tanks that have CLEAN silicone work and perfectly fitting sides. I am more then half convinced that the petco dollar per gallon sale is just aqueon trying to clear out their inventory of crappy tanks so they can rebrand their nice tanks.

Anyway I got a nice one. The tank was going to require modification to make it work as a vivarium however. The frog cube provides ventilation at the door but most custom designed vivariums have ventilation at the top as well. I decided this was a good idea and bought a 3" diamond drill bit. I've actually never drilled glass before and my first time is a 3" hole ;P This was going to be for a 2" bulkhead.

I knew from watching way too many videos on the subject that to keep chipout to a minimum you want to fully support the glass on the underside. Since I was drilling pretty deep in the tank this led to some interesting.... ways of clamping a piece of wood in place..

And the hole once done:

I also needed 2 other holes cut in this tank. One would be on the "back" of the vivarium (formerly the bottom of the aquarium) and would be an overflow drain hole in the form of a 1/2" bulkhead. The other would be at the top of the vivarium and would be a hole for the misting system all dart frog tanks require. I did both in much the same manner as the 3" hole.

The overflow drain hole starts at 1-5/8 from the glass. This is important because there will be a false bottom in this tank and you want all water to drain out this hole before it reaches the substrate.

And here is the vivarium sitting on the stand in my basement tv area where it will eventually reside:

So what's next???

Well I am getting supplies in for my substrate which is a mix of charcoal, peat moss, milled sphagnum moss, and tree fern fiber. I will also be using the tree fern fiber to make my background. There are lots of ways to make a background for a vivarium and I will be following the "titebond 3 method". This is where you mix something (typically tree fern fiber or peat moss or both) with Titebond 3 wood glue. Then stick this to the part of the tank you want covered. It takes like a week for this to dry apparently but it produces some very nice looking backgrounds that vining plants can actually crawl up, and epiphyte plants can be attached directly to.

This whole process is super exciting for me because I love growing plants in tanks and this gets me access to a whole range of other plants that we can't grow in our aquariums. Plus its a lot easier to grow plants in open air then underwater.

I have more to talk about but this post is already insanely long so I'll save it for future posts. As an aside this is a journal but I decided not to stick it in the journal subforum since its not an aquarium and there will be no standing water in this tank. Hopefully this is the right place for this and if not mods feel free to move it.
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Discussion Starter · #2 ·
And another update:

I got in the rest of my plant order plus my substrate last night. I will have to order some more substrate since I ended using a lot of my tree fern for my background. Speaking of background... lets talk about my background!

A lot of dart frog vivariums have a background of some kind. Froggies can climb backgrounds and also you can plant right into them for epiphyte plants. I will have 2 sides of my tank covered with background material. The method I have chosen to do this is called "Titebond 3 Method". Basically you take your chosen media (in my case a mix of Tree Fern Fiber, Sphagnum Peat Moss, and Safe-T-Sorb) and wet it down so its damp but not dripping. Then you mix in Titebond 3 wood glue. To do one side of my tank I used about 8 oz of wood glue. You need to use your hands to mix this up so disposable gloves are essentially required.

Once mixed the media is about the consistency of wet sand at the beach when making a sand castle. It clumps but won't stay clumped if you drop it on the ground. Then you just place it in handfuls onto the glass. This won't stick at all, so the glass needs to be flat on the ground. At that point you are done, but you can add more detail which I chose to do. I added bits of cork bark and manipulated the media to surround the cork bark and partially cover it. I also added bits of STS as well to break up the homogeneous nature of the media.

Here is how mine looked when I was done:

The blue tape is there to cover up a hole where a bulkhead goes. I don't want anything interfering with my seal in that area.

Now I need to wait for this whole thing to dry. From different people I've heard it can vary anywhere from 3 days to 10 for it dry. Once it is dry, then and only then can I turn it over on its side and do this whole process again.

In other news some of the plant cuttings I got in came in tiny little plastic vials inside a bubble envelope. I thought this was a pretty spiffy way to send small plants so they don't get crushed.

And some other pictures of plants/cuttings I have in various settings to keep wet/control humidity:

And in yet other news I think I found the frog species I want to get. It could still change of course but as of right now I leaning towards Ranitomeya imitator 'Varadero'.

Here is someone elses picture of one:


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Discussion Starter · #3 ·

First the vivarium: I put a small fan on the tank and it dried the background pretty quickly. I don't think its 100% dry yet but its probably 80% or more which is enough to turn it upright.

Here is how it looks:

I also made a hood for this to cover up the equipment from scrap molding leftover from a bathroom remodel. I don't love the look but it would be functional till I got something better. Currently its just primed, it would need to be painted black.

And this brings me to the next bit of news... I am totally redoing this whole thing! Well sort of. You see this tank is not really suitable for a type of frog called Dendrobates Tinctorius or tincs for short. Tincs require a lot of horizontal space by comparison to smaller species since they do not climb much. But I really want a tinc... I was sort of making due before. The Wife when showed a picture of the the frog in the last post and some videos asked "why not get the frogs you want?" and well.. after a bit of talking she told me to just get a bigger vivarium. Thus... I bought an Insitu Ecosystem Vivarium. Will look a bit like this from their website:

Its about twice the size of my current tank and will easily allow me to keep tincs. Exciting! Sooooo... I will be doing this whole background making thing again in a week or so when my next vivarium arrives. ;P In the meantime I am light shopping to figure out what to put on the top of this critter.

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·

Since I last posted I got in even more plants... then bought some more plants! I have also collected a LOT of wild moss of various types. Collecting wild moss is crazy addictive since chances are pretty good they will grow fine in a vivarium and thus there is little reason not to collect a patch of that really cool moss over there.

I also received in my Insitu Vivarium and have constructed the background. After consulting with folks on (the dart frog forum I am at) I was informed that moss won't grow well on my Titebond 3 background but will grow fine on cork bark embedded in the background. Additionally using small pieces of cork with sphagnum moss wedged between the cracks is an accepted background creation method for growing plants. So with this in mind I decided that my background will feature a lot more small pieces of cork bark to provide additional places for planting.

Frankly the background by itself does not look nearly as good as the first background I made but will hopefully look a lot better once planted. Here is how it came out:

I also made a hood for this tank to hide equipment. This time I bought a piece of crown molding and it came out substantially less terrible then the last one:

After the background had dried enough to stand upright I was able to start experimenting with hardscape layout. I plan to have a thick layer of substrate in this tank banked up in the back left corner and sloping down to the front and to the right.

This is the general idea with the rock being mostly covered by substrate and only a portion of the top left rock sticking out.

Continued progression:

With this in mind I moved the tank to it's final location and added the false bottom. In the Insitu they have a trough in the front for drainage with the rest of a prebuilt false bottom raised and sloped towards this trough. So you only need to fill that trough with something. I decided to use Safe-T-Sorb because I love the stuff and already own a bag. After putting it in I added a layer of fiberglass window screen. This is pretty important because you don't want the frogs digging down till they hit the water level and laying eggs down there. There are reports on frog care websites/forums of folks finding morphing tadpoles trapped under their substrate and needing to tear apart their vivarium to rescue them. The window screen prevents this.

With that in place I could begin adding what will likely be my final hardscape:

And a look at the tank on it's stand:

Next up will be building the light! I got in some of the components for the light and hopefully will be getting the rest in early this week. Once the light is in I can finally start planting this critter!

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·

Well the next thing up is not building the light as it turns out. I have in half the things I need to make the light, but I am missing almost all of the actual LEDs. Those come in Friday.

In the meantime I went ahead and mixed up my substrate. So for vivariums you do not just use potting soil or some such. Too dense and tends to cause a lot of mold/rotting issues. Instead everyone uses ABG mix which stands for Atlanta Botanical Gardens the undisputed inventors of the ABG mix. Hilariously no one can agree on what ABG mix actually IS. Instead there are MANY variations. The version I used is one variation that is used for dart frogs. Specifically:

1 Part Charcoal
1 Part Milled Sphagnum Moss
1 Part Sphagnum Peat Moss
2 Parts Fine Orchid Bark
2 Parts Tree Fern Fiber

I ended up making about 5 gallons of this stuff which is WAY too much for my needs but its not like it really goes bad so I should be able to store it against future use.

I added the substrate to the tank and here is how it looks:

I also used some long fiber sphagnum moss to stuff into cracks in the back. These I will use for plantings since the long fiber sphagnum will hold a lot of water.

And finally I needed to do a modification to the tank. Usually Insitu tanks come with a silicone edge to one side. This edge is important as it keeps the fruit flies you feed the frogs in the tank. My doors do not have this edge because they are temporary doors since the good ones were out of stock when they shipped my vivarium (apparently they are mailing me the good ones when they come back in stock). In the meantime I need to add that edge. The way to do this is with an old (no longer needed) credit card. You drill a 1/8th" hole and then cut out a right angle from the credit card leading up to the hole. This makes a tool to shape the silicone. Explained in this thread here.

The first one I did was terrible. I scraped it off and redid it the next day. This one worked much better!

Next up will hopefully be lights and planting!

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Discussion Starter · #6 ·

An unexpected light arrived at my door the other day. I say unexpected because even though I bought it, I frankly thought I was scammed since it was several weeks overdue and the tracking number was no good. Specifically I got a 30cm Chihiros wrgb 2. I bought this light when I thought I was going to be using it for the 20H conversion, so it is undersized for the Insitu Vivarium. That said... its a light! I used my par meter to take some measurements and at 24" it was putting down 50 ppfd in open air. In the vivarium with raised substrate and hardscape getting in the way ppfd values ranged from 80 to 30 at substrate. Good enough to start!

I began with the biggest and bulkiest plant, the Bromelaid. Once that was in I could figure out everything else. I used toothpicks to hold it in place on the background:

Next I added in a Lemon Button Fern, and my Alocasia (tiny dancers) plants right between my driftwood and my main rock. Plus dwarf mondo grass on the left, and dragons tongue... everywhere pretty much. A rabbits foot fern went onto the background with toothpicks as well:

Now things were really taking shape and I was able to see how much space I had (or didn't have left). Unlike aquariums where you can pretty much plant everywhere and the fish just swim around stuff. This vivarium is for a primarily terrestrial frog that is not going to climb much. So horizontal space is what it needs. Thus I can't put giant plants everywhere or else my froggies will not have anywhere to live.

I added a fluffy ruffle fern to the back (though its almost impossible to see at this point) and another rabbits foot fern went onto the background. I added two amazon sword plants (back corners) that I really hope make it because I think it would be super spiffy to grow them terrestrially. I also added an anubias nana, two anubias minima, and an anubias afzelii to the background and or driftwood. I made of a bundle of long fiber sphagnum moss and tried it around some java fern and laid that on a crook in the branches of my driftwood as well. The anubias plants can get GINORMOUS when grown terrestrially so they will likely need to be removed at some point if they take off. But for now they would look nice.

At this point the majority of my purchased plants are in the vivarium. I was now at a place I could add my moss. A lot of vivarium folks buy moss for their vivariums but I couldn't bring myself to buy terrestrial moss... I mean the stuff is literally everywhere. Over the past month while planning this tank I have been collecting moss when going on hikes (which has been pretty frequent with the pandemic quarantine in place as it is one of the few activities still allowed that is kid friendly in my area).

I have at least 4 different types of moss in this tank including some kind of feather moss which I really want to take off since it looks pretty awesome. The feather moss went on the big piece of mopani as well as various places on the background. The other mosses went on rocks and background. The moss is not just for looks, terrestrial epiphyte plants will grow best when 'planted' on moss.

Now at this point you will notice I have an open spot in the front and if you look closely another open spot in the back right. This latter will never be planted but instead is reserved for leaf litter. Froggies apparently delight in hunting in leaf litter for critters plus will use it for cooling and hiding when they feel the need. Most modern dart frog vivariums have leaf litter in them as a result. Hilariously (to my mind at least though not to the VAST majority of people) folks buy their leaf litter online and have it shipped to them. I decided to go with 100% Genuine Backyard Leaf Litter. My 3 year old really delighted in helping me collect dried up old leaves and stuff them in a bag. I then boiled the leaf litter for 20 minutes before straining them and drying them (to a reasonable degree) on plastic storage lid I had lying around. That went into the back right corner area and also under the mopani driftwood. It also went in the back near the wall and frankly anywhere that wasn't planted or the front open area. All in all about half the tank has leaf litter on it.

In the front open area I planted hair grass. While hair grass is pretty common in the aquarium hobby I could not find anyone who had planted it in vivariums though I did find some evidence that folks wanted to give it a try. Given that most vivarium lights tend to kind of suck... I am guessing they had trouble. Anyway I had 1 cup of tissue culture Eleocharis Acicularis. I also have a bunch of Acicularis seeds I have been cold stratifying in my fridge in a cup of water. Every day (or when I remember it had been a few days... ooops) I changed the water in the cup. That has been going on for a few weeks now. I dried those seeds out and added them to the surface. Here is what that looked like:

Next I added the rest of the plants. Moss was tied to some of the branches and/or wedged into crooks. On this as well as other mossy patches I planted some cuttings of Marcgravia Suriname. I also planted some Ficus Pumila 'Quercifolia' in the background and some more at the base of the background. This last is a plant known to TAKE OVER vivarium but it also looks pretty awesome as it does it so /shrug I figured worse case scenario I trim it heavily. Finally I added some Tillandsia to parts of the background and branches. And like that planting is complete!

But I wasn't done yet because my vivarium now needed it's first occupants. BUGS!

This is the part that turns off probably 99% of people who would otherwise keep dart frogs. The little guys eat nothing but live food and that means bugs. While we are feeding fruit flies to them it makes sense to add other bugs to the vivarium as clean up crew and supplemental food source. In my case I added Nosy Peach Isopods and Dwarf White Isopods. I also added Springtails.

And that brings me up to current.

Next I will build my proper light. For reals this time!

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
Awesome build! Can't wait to see some videos of the frog exploring and enjoying the vivarium.
Thank you! I have never edited together videos of a tank before (aquarium or other) but I have certainly thought about it. Comes from watching waay too many youtube videos I think ;P I might make a video of this tank when it's all done. Will need to see how the froggies react to it. I will likely end up getting juveniles which tend to be a little more shy then adults. It may be 7+ months before they are bold enough for me to sit nearby with a camera and not care.

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
That is beautiful! Subscribed.
Thank you! It is absurdly liberating to not to have to worry about balancing light to co2 to nutrients etc. It's just light and make sure there is enough water.. and for both there are timers that take care of it. I feel like I just hit the button for EASY MODE.

Frankly most of the plants we use in aquariums submerged are actually marginal plants that grow better in air then they do in water. So its really fun for me to plant things like amazon swords and anubias the way they usually exist in nature. Plus you know... froggies ;P

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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
Seems like the hardest part is cultivating and maintaining the live food supply. I look forward to reading more about your experiences with that <a href="" border="0" alt="" title="Smile" >:)</a>
Haha, I was just going to say that all of that ease is somewhat negated by fruit fly cultures, but got beat to it!
This is definitely the turn off for most people. I think it's the 'yucky' reaction to having to grow bugs. From watching videos it looks to be pretty easy. Certainly less time consuming then weekly maintenance on my 40 gallon breeder.

I will definitely be recording my trials and tribulations here 😜

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The Light Build - yea it finally happened! Big shout out to @jeffkrol for all the help. In this thread he basically told me exactly how to build this light and what to buy which is hugely appreciated. I could not have done it without this assistance because at the end of the day, when it comes to electronics I am only one very small step above a monkey who stole a soldering iron.

I got in the heatsink, drivers, power supply, and my red LEDs earlier this week. I used thermal glue to attach them to my heatsink in the proper locations. That was as far as I could go until the rest of the LEDs came in. Here is what it looked like once everything arrived:

First thing I did was lay out all the leds to figure out the locations I wanted them in. I marked certain key locations with a red dry erase marker and then removed the leds.

I added a tiny dab of thermal glue to each LED and shmushed it down into place:

This is where I made 2 mistakes. The first is that I got pretty good coverage on the back of these leds with thermal paste... shouldn't have done that heh it made tining the PCBs really hard and in the case of one pad, impossible. The second mistake is that I didn't realize the cyan LEDs had the positive and negative pads on the opposite sides compared to all other LEDs I had.... so yea I could have easily fixed this by rotating them 180 degrees but didn't notice till the glue had set...

Anyway after a bit of work with soldering iron, wire, and solder I eventually got them all wired up:

The heatsink I bought is actually pretty cool, they made it easy to make your LED look like a proper LED light instead of just a hunk of aluminum you glued stuff to. It comes with plastic ends that screw into place. In order to wire this up I drilled a hole for my cord into one end. My cord meanwhile was the same 22 gauge wire I used for everything else but was wrapped around itself using an electric drill. Then I slid an expanding mesh wire sheeth over the bundle. This is purely for aesthetics but I liked the effect. Getting all of this not to put pressure on the solder points was it's own challenge. I ended up settling for extreme low tech and tied a knot in the wire after I poked it through my plastic end cap. This way it couldn't be pulled back through.

This essentially concluded the wiring of the heatsink and LEDs. Meanwhile I had to wire up the power supply and drivers. When I realized I was going to have little plastic boxes called drivers (yes.. this is the level of my knowledge on electronics) I decided I need a place to shove all this stuff so it wouldn't become too cumbersome. With that in mind I bought a project box on amazon. I ended up using double sided carpet tape to secure the drivers and power supply in this box. There is no venting in this box which makes me concerned for heat build up. Anyone know if they can live in there all sealed up or should I drill holes for venting?

Anyway I wired the drivers to the power supply and then the other end of the cord from the LEDs came through the side of the box in a hole I drilled and I soldered those to the drivers in appropriate locations. Knots tired in the LED cord and power cord once again were employed to stop the cords from being pulled back through the holes.

With that done my light was complete. I tested it before sealing it up (because if I hadn't I just KNOW that something would not have worked and then I would have to open it again). It mostly worked the first time though. I say mostly because the middle row of LEDs didn't light up. I checked the connections and one of my pads had let go of it's solder. I fixed that and tada! LIGHT.

After that I added the piece of acrylic sheeting to the bottom of the heatsink effectively sealing the light up and the other plastic side. Then it was done. Pretty good looking for a DIY affair I think.

Now it was time for testing.

I had not taken any par readings since I planted the tank. So before I removed the old light I got out my par meter and took some readings. From the darkest spot in the tank I got a miserable reading of 2-3 ppfd.

The front center being one of the brightest spots was around 40 ppfd.

Then I added the new light. First off the colors are SOOOOO much better. It doesn't show up well in the pictures but wow, it looks good. The old light had a LOT of greenish hues to it unless I really turned down the green and blue levels significantly. I didn't want to do that because when I did my ppfd at substrate dropped too much for me to be happy. The new light has none of those issues.

It is not as powerful as I thought it was going to be (I am assuming because the LEDs have a crazy wide 150 degree coverage area) but I think it will be bright enough for my needs.

In the same corner as before I now got around 10 ppfd:

And in the same front center location as before I now got just over 50 ppfd:

If you look at the pictures with the par meter in it from the old light and compare to the new you get some idea about the color shift between the two lights.

Meanwhile I bought a new lens for my camera! It's a macro lens so finally I can take some decent macro shots. Using it simply as a portrait lens I did give in to temptation and shoot the tank with the new light.

And now enters a longish period of little happening. I need for the tank to 'cycle' which basically means the bugs I put in it need to establish and the plants need to grow a bit. Once that is done I can add froggies but that won't be for a minimum of a month and maybe 2. Probably the next thing I will do is begin my culturing of fruit flies. I don't 'need' to do that now but I want to get reasonably good at it before the froggies come which basically means having a few cultures started up, boom, bust, and replaced etc.

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Discussion Starter · #17 ·
I'm jealous! Any updates on the tank? I've just put a vivarium together for my future D. leucomelas.
Thank you! Things are growing in. I lost most of the aquarium plants when I was trying to figure out my humidity/misting early on and let it get too dry for a few days. Some of my moss has rooted which is good and my dragon tongue and mondo grass is flowering.

My hair grass carpet is not going to plan sadly. I added more from pots but it's just not growing very thick. I decided to supplement with other plants as well including creeping speedwell and dichondra repens. Waiting for seeds to germinate/get shipped on those.

I also found the frogs I plan to add. I am going with tinctorius true sipaliwini. I just contacted a local breeder for these and am waiting for pickup/payment information so that is super exciting!

The whole process is pretty fun! Despite a few hiccups I am really loving how easy it is to grow the plants.

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Discussion Starter · #19 ·
Wow. I love the step-by-step, and the pictures of it are amazing. It looks like such a fun project.
Thank you! It's been a great project so far and I haven't even added the frogs yet. Something that will change this Friday 🙂

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Thank you! It's been a great project so far and I haven't even added the frogs yet. Something that will change this Friday 🙂
Excited to see the next update, stuff like this always intrigues me. I personally wouldn't do the DIY mainly because I don't have the tools, but given the time and expertise, I would definitely dive into it.
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