Substrates and Safe-to-Use Plants for Tortoise Enclosures
Substrates are defined as the material or surface on which an organism lives. In simple words, it refers to the bedding or bottom layer of enclosures for pets—mainly reptiles and amphibians.
It can get really confusing when you start out to decide what substrate is best for your pet tortoise. Having had my Greek tortoise for a few years now, it took a lot of reading and trial and error before I realized what worked best for my tortoise without hurting my pocket too much.
Can I Put Them in a Glass Enclosure?
Starting out, I used to have him in a glass tank filled with cypress mulch. I quickly realized glass tanks aren’t meant for tortoises—as opposed to what they tell you at the pet store.
Tortoises get confused when they see their reflection in the glass. If they can see outside, they will keep banging the glass to try and get to the other side. It's best if their enclosures have slightly high walls where they cannot see outside. Hence, I used to put newspaper to cover the glass but then it got difficult to maintain and quite gloomy without much light or space to do anything.
Also, on a side note, as they grow bigger, their space will also have to increase. It is alright to start out with a tub or a tank at first when they’re babies. But I highly recommend you take the time to upgrade their living space to a bigger enclosure—something organized but not too big and it will look nice in your home or apartment.
Aspen Shavings or Cypress Mulch
Aspen shavings or cypress mulch are the easiest to get and though it can be economical, using it brings about some issues.
It invites bugs and creepy crawlies, which I highly doubt can be good to have in your tortoise’s environment. It also tends to be very dry which means you will really have to look out for your tortoise to ensure hydration is not an issue.
The shavings tend to sometimes have very thin pokey wooden shavings that could hurt your tortoise especially if they are really small. These little shavings tend to get stuck in their crevices between their legs, in between their front legs, and neck.
In my experience with cypress mulch—maybe other people have had better luck— have had to deal with these really tiny small golden bug/ant-like creatures that infested the enclosure.
Every time I would clean him or visit the enclosure I would see them crawling all over him and his outer shell which worried me. I tried everything to remove and clear these little pests, but I just could not rid of them. These little ants are really microscopic. I’ve tried taking pictures of these things, but they don't show up, I wanted to show a vet or somebody that would know more about these things.
I started experimenting: I cleared out his enclosure and tested different substrates. I noticed that it was just with the Cypress mulch these tiny bugs would appear. It's alarming to see them swarming all over after a few days. I’ve kept the bags of cypress mulch in a cool dry place, set it up for a few days nothing but then again they appeared from nowhere. Ever since then I stopped buying cypress mulch since I found much more feasible and better substrates to use, I haven’t seen these little bugs ever after.
Having said this you could use aspen shavings for part of your enclosure and observe your tortoise and judge based on the time it spends in that area. The heat lamp will also help with the bugs sometimes since most of them don’t survive in the heat so much.
50/50 Organic Soil and Play Sand
The other option you could look into is 50% organic soil with 50% play sand. Just ensure that you mix the two together properly to avoid big clumps. This I feel is one of the ideal substrates to use as my tortoise seemed happy in it. Especially since this gave him enough room to burrow and dig, it’s always a go-to area for them.
This substrate may be a little easier to find and mix, but it can be quite a task to keep changing every month. Enclosure substrates need to be changed every month to ensure your tortoise is kept in a clean and healthy environment.
Another safe option you could use is substrate bricks. These are all-natural bricks made mainly of coconut fiber which expands when mixed with hot water. However, depending on the size of the enclosure you may need quite a few bricks.
The advantage of using these are they are easy to store, and it's easy to make the substrate as you just need to add hot water and wait for 30 minutes for it to dry. It’s also not very expensive. The biggest plus point of using this is that odors that result from excretion can be absorbed.
What I Recommend
My recommendation for an ideal enclosure would be a combination of substrate bricks, eco mat, and pebbles or play sand. If you have a relatively good-sized enclosure, have one area with the substrate bricks soil, a little portion with pebbles and flat rocks, and lastly some part of the enclosure just covered by the eco mat.
If you really want to be cost-effective, divide the enclosure like as I mentioned above—half coconut fiber bricks, half Eco coconut fiber mat. The bricks come in various litres. I use about 4 bricks equivalent to 1 whole bucket to cover half the enclosure and give it enough depth for my friend to burrow.
Some of the brands/substrates that I have used and recommend would be:
- or Hobby Terrano Coconut Fiber expandable substrate, are the ones I have been using for awhile now. My tortoise seemed to like this substrate the most in comparison to all the substrates I've tried. The Coconut fiber is fine and seems to retain heat and moisture better. Coconut fiber is not only safe but also best suited for tortoises as they get to bury themselves and keep warm other than be under the heat lamp at all times. Zoomed Med Eco
- Coconut Fiber Eco Mat: is a good brand that I have tried and tested. These mats are breathable and easy to maintain. You can cut them to size to fit your pet enclosure and they can be washed easily with just water. They also don't attract any bugs and protect your tortoise from dampness and dirt. Popetpop
- Organic soil and play sand: This is a very good combination to use for your tortoise. However, you have to ensure that they are mixed well. You need to ensure that you have enough of it to be at least 2 inches deep, so that your tortoise can burrow themselves. I would normally use my hands and mix the soil and sand together as otherwise it tends to get clumpy here and there. This is both a safe and feasible option, one your tortoise will love, but be prepared for a quite a bit of work every month, when the substrate needs to be changed.
As mentioned in my other article on enclosures for tortoises, you could add some artificial plants to create some shady areas; however, those of you that are into gardening may want to add some real plants.
Adding actual plants is not a bad idea however you need to be extremely careful with the plants you choose. Tortoise safe plants would be Dandelions, Hawkbits and lemon balm to name a few. Buttercups, Daffodils and Foxgloves should be avoided at any cost as these are extremely poisonous if consumed by tortoises.
Tortoises can be very active as opposed to the perception many people have. Sure, they like their personal spaces, but they can also be very adventurous and want to explore and climb places. Make no mistake they may be a bit slow but their determination and will power to do things in their enclosures is highly underrated and at times really entertaining!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.