How to Plant a Tortoise Garden

By Jodi Thornton O'Connell

Tortoises thrive in outdoor enclosures where they have natural food to graze and plenty of places to hide. Plant edible bushes, flowers and vegetables to provide a variety of nutrition in a tortoise-safe enclosure.

Fence Your Enclosure

Walls as low as 2 feet high are tall enough to enclose your garden and keep your tortoise inside. You'll need a footing at least a foot deep to prevent a tortoise from burrowing out and a lip projecting into the garden area to deter talented climbers. The size of your garden depends on the species of tortoise you have. Russian tortoises top out at 8 inches long and can fare well in gardens that are only 4-by-4 feet. On the other end of the scale, sulcata tortoises can weigh up to 100 to 200 pounds and should provide a minimum of 100 square feet per adult tortoise.

Construct walls from cinder block or solid wood, leaving no space where tortoises can see through to the outside. Tortoises who can see through to the other side of the fence become obsessed with escaping their enclosure. Large tortoises such as sulcatas can push through wire mesh and chain-link fencing.

For advanced burrowers such as sulcata tortoises, lining the pen with landscaping mesh and covering with 6 inches of substrate can deter unsightly holes and prevent escapes.

Provide Housing

Prepare a burrow where your tortoise can sleep away the heat of the day. Select a location that receives afternoon shade, preferably facing north or east to keep out the hot sun during daytime hours. You can build the house from cinder block using a piece of plywood for the roof. Cover the entire structure with dirt to form a mound. Keep the mounded earth far enough away from the enclosure wall so that your tortoise can't climb up on it and escape.

Choose Your Plants

You can provide most or all of your tortoise's nutrition through a variety of tortoise-friendly plants in his enclosure. Avoid sowing plants directly against the walls as tortoises tend to patrol the perimeter of their enclosure.


Plant a mix of rye, Bermuda and fescue grasses where your tortoise can graze at his leisure. Nontoxic ornamental grasses such as pampas grass can provide hiding areas if you keep more than one tortoise in your enclosure.


Hibiscus leaves and flowers provide nutrition for your tortoise and add color to your garden. The plant comes in two varieties. The tropical hibiscus comes in various colors and requires deep watering and protection from hot afternoon sun. Blue hibiscus is more drought tolerant once it establishes its root system. The bushes can reach 8 to 15 feet high when grown and can help shade your tortoise's burrow. Rose bushes provide another tasty treat for your tortoise. Floribundas have less pruning requirements than tea roses to produce the flowers tortoises crave.


Tortoises relish the leaves of the mulberry tree. You can buy nonfruiting varieties that won't make messy stains on the wall of the enclosure. Elm trees are another type of tree that is safe for your tortoise.


Dandelions provide a nutritious treat for tortoises. Many ornamental varieties of flowers have edible flowers safe for your tortoise garden including pansies, Johnny-jump-ups, violets and nasturtiums.


Grow a salad mix for your tortoise to browse to round out his nutrition. Include dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, romaine lettuce, spinach and broccoli. Herbs such as rosemary, basil, arugula and fennel have flowers your tortoise can safely nibble. Members of the squash family such as zucchini, pumpkin and cucumbers are other nutritious choices.

Got snails? Your tortoise will enjoy the extra protein in this tasty treat.

Unlike turtles tortoises can't [swim]( They can drown in shallow water features where the water is deeper than their heads. Standing water can contribute to internal parasites. Provide your turtle with a shallow pan of clean water three times a week. He'll get most of the moisture he needs from the plants he eats.