Planting an Interesting Habitat

[Guest written for the TortoiseLibrary.Com- thank you Terry!]

by Terry O’Connell

The best habitat for a tortoise is a large sunny, outdoor garden with a small pond, plenty of plants, and a large enough hide to protect them from the elements and the hot sun. Unfortunately some keepers, like myself, who live in a part of the world that has long harsh winters, have to take their tortoises indoors for five or more months out of the year and need a warm, humid place to keep them.

A large planted vivarium makes a perfectly interesting and enjoyable environment for your tortoise, looks great and can easily mimic most environments where tortoises come from.

Substrates and Selections

The substrate that I use for my vivariums is a mixture of half plain garden soil, and half coco coir (dehydrated brick) or peat moss. I don’t like sand as it tends to make the soil heavy, and I’ve had problems with small hatchlings scratching their eyes with it. I put enough substrate so that the plants can be buried right up to the top of the rim of the pot that they came in. If you’re using cypress mulch, that’s fine too. Just make sure it’s deep enough to bury the plants with their pots. 

I buy most of my plants from Home Depot or Lowe’s. They have a great variety of both indoor and outdoor plants and they’re not expensive. If you’re using cypress mulch as a substrate, and you want to plant some seeds (“spring mix” lettuces, etc.) they also sell seed trays that you can put some garden soil in and place in a corner of the vivarium.

There is a very small list of plants a few sections down that I use in my vivariums that are completely edible. Most of these plants stay small, and do well in a humid vivarium. I replace them a few times during the winter when I spot clean the vivarium.

The trees that I have mentioned do well in high humidity vivariums, if trimmed and kept small. There are many more tropical house plants or weeds and grasses that you can plant that aren’t listed here. Experiment, and have fun, just make sure that any plant you put in your vivarium is edible for your tortoise. is my favorite site for plants. I use it for all my vivariums and also my outdoor tortoise and turtle gardens.

Getting Started and Care

Some people wait a few months before introducing commercial plants into their vivariums, as there may be insecticides in the plant tissue. I usually run the water through the pot for a few minutes and wash off the entire plant with warm soapy water, but do what you feel comfortable with.

The plants are fertilized naturally by the tortoises, and are watered directly into the pots once a week. I mist them, (along with my tortoises) about twice a day.

I love any kind of green moss, and ground cover to go around the water dish. They really help keep the water dish clean. 

I keep a screen cover on top of my vivariums with a long tube 5.0 UVB light on top. I like the long tube light the best, because it doesn’t give off heat, which is what helps the plants grow without burning the leaves. If you’re using any kind of heat source, like a ceramic heat emitter, make sure you don’t put plants directly under them, as the leaves will burn and eventually the plants will die.

During the winter months, when the heat is on and I have to keep the humidity up in the vivarium, I cover the top with clear wrapping tape, leaving a long thin opening for the UVB light, and an opening for the heat emitter. I like it because it’s cheap, and I can change it if it gets dirty or soiled. You can also use Plexiglas. Inside the hide, I use long fiber New Zealand Sphagnum Moss. I like this moss the best because it’s very soft, and stays fluffy. Once a week, I take it out and wet it with hot water, squeeze it out and fluff it up. The hide always stays very humid, which to me is more important that the overall humidity in the vivarium.

Advanced Ideas

During the winter months, I throw in some spring mix seeds and Rose of Sharon Seeds. They eat the little sprouts as soon as they come up. Again, if you’re not using soil, you can use seed trays for planting the seeds.

I love spring flowers for my vivariums, but be prepared to replace them often. My Red-foot “Cherry-head’s” (Chelonoidis carbonaria) will eat pansies, begonias and petunias right down to the ground. My tortoises are fed twice a day, as much as they want when they’re inside, so they usually don’t bother any of the other plants, but they just can’t resist those spring flowers. I usually buy a few flats that have 24 small plants, so they can be replaced as they are eaten. By the time they finish them, it’s time to go outside to the Tortoise Garden.

Ground covers that spread easily like Sedum or Creeping Jenny are good to use, as they are almost impossible to kill, and can be walked on with no problem.

When the tortoises are small I usually bury the plants (keeping them in the little plastic pots that they come in) in different spots around the vivarium, using them as obstacles so they have to walk around them, giving it a more natural and interesting look. I also like to put plants in back of the hide, letting them grow over the top of the hide, giving it a cave-like appearance.

As your tortoise gets older and bigger, you will have to use fewer plants, so he’ll have more roaming space. I have my 8in/20cm Cherry-head in a 125 gallon vivarium. I put a lot of plants around her hide, one larger plant in the middle, that she likes to sit under, and some around the water dish on the opposite end of the vivarium. I sprinkle some spring mix seeds throughout the vivarium, and she will eat the sprouts as they come up.

A plant hanging in a corner of the vivarium makes a great natural hide for hatchlings. I like a pot of Baby Tears, a long bushy plant, that hangs down into the substrate. When my Cherry-heads were hatchlings, they loved to hide under the hanging vines and I didn’t have to worry about the plant getting destroyed. It can be any plant that is full and long. So be inventive, use your imagination, and have fun creating your little tropical forest. Your tortoises will thank you.

My plant list

Aloe vera

Begonia spp.

Bromeliads (Bromeliaceae spp.)

Chicks and Hens (Sempervivum spp.)

Christmas (or other holiday) cactus (Schlumbergera spp.)

Desert rose (Adenium obesum)

Live-forever (Sedum purpureum), and other Sedum species

Moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora)

Trees and bushes
(started with seeds or cuttings and planted
in a small pot)

Fig trees (Ficus spp.)

Hibiscus spp.
Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)

Cultivated plants
Baby’s Breath (Gypsophila spp.)

Bridal Veil (Tripogandra multifiora)

Coleus (Coieus spp.)

Geranium (Pelargonium spp.)

Grape ivy (Cissus rhombifolia)

Pansy (Viola spp.)

Petunias (Petunia spp.)

Pothos (Epipremnum aureum )

Spider plant (Chiorophytum comosum)

Strawberries  (Fragana spp.)

Violets (Viola spp.)

Common weeds
Clover, red and green (Trifolium spp.)

Dandelion (Agoseris aurantiaca)

Plantain (or Plantago, Plantago spp.)

Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

Asparagus fern (Asperagus setaceus plumosis)

Boston fern (Nephrolepsis exalta)

Staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum)

Ground covers
Creeping Charlie (Pilea nummulariifolia)

Creeping fig vine

Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummlaria)

Ground ivy (Glechomo hederacea)

Sedum (Sedum spp.)

Swedish ivy (Plectranthus australis)

Wandering Jew (Tradescantia spp.)

Rose of Sharon seeds

Spring Mix (lettuce) seeds

Frog moss

Irish moss (Chondrus crispus)

Kate Moss (Homo sapiens)

Scottish moss (Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’)

This is a 124 gal vivarium that I’m using for my 8in/20cm female Cherry-head, Pio, this winter.

Around the water dish are pothos, and a fern plant.  In the middle is a small tropical palm tree.  Over the hide are two large pothos plants and around the water dish is frog moss, with a natural stone for feeding.

This is a 75 gal. vivarium that Solo, my 1 year old Cherry-head is in this winter.

Terry O- habitiat 2

Pothos and ferns are hanging over the natural wood hide.  In the middle is a tropical corn plant. Frog moss is around the feeding stone and water dish.  On the other end are more pothos and a fern. Spring mix seeds are sprinkled all over the vivarium, but they haven’t come up yet.

Terry O- tort eating pothos

Pio eating some spring mix sprouts.

Terry O- habitat 1

This is another set up, with pothos and a tropical palm tree around the water dish.  Over the hide are baby tears, some coleus. and plantains


[Editor note: Sorry for the little ‘Kate Moss’ joke. I could not help it! Entirely my fault!]