Adding Live Plants to Your Indoor Turtle Habitat
One of the most frequent questions that new turtle hobbyists ask is whether they can put plants in their turtle's habitat.
The answer is most certainly yes, they can. But there are benefits and drawbacks to having plants in a turtle tank, and you should think about these before making your decision.
For most new turtle hobbyists, I suggest that they wait until they're comfortable caring for their turtles before adding live plants to their turtles' habitats. Adding plants before you're comfortable with your turtle's needs means you have to learn more things at once.
But if you have some experience with aquatic plants (for example, if you take care of a planted fish tank and have managed to keep everything alive), maybe it'll be easier for you because you already know the plant stuff. So let's list some of the the advantages and disadvantages of keeping live plants in a turtle habitat, and then you can decide what you want to do.
Advantages of Keeping Live Plants in Your Turtle Tank
- Live plants add visual beauty to the habitat and make it look more natural.
- Turtles often enjoy exploring and hiding in the plants, as well as munching on them from time to time.
- Live plants help filter nitrites and ammonia out of the water, and may help reduce algae by competing for carbon dioxide.
- Live plants help oxygenate the water, which discourages the growth of anaerobic bacteria. Most "bad" bacteria are anaerobic, which means they don't do well in the presence of oxygen. (Anaerobic is pronounced "an-air-RO-bik.")
Disadvantages of Keeping Live Plants in Your Turtle Tank
- Some live plants require a substrate, which means something on the bottom of the tank for the plants to root in. You'll have to vacuum the substrate at least once or twice a week, or else the turtle poop and leftover food can foul the tank and make the turtles sick. (Some plants, however, do quite well without a substrate and are able to get what nutrients they need from the water, and other plants simply float on top of the water, even in nature.)
- A few plant species are toxic to turtles, so don't use plants unless you know what they are and that they are safe.
- Turtles sometimes decide to make salad out of a certain plants, which can make a real mess in your tank that you will have to clean up.
- Turtles often dig plants out by the roots for no apparent reason. Maybe they're bored.
Like I said earlier, if you're new to the turtle hobby and have no experience with tending aquatic plants, it's probably better that you concentrate on learning to care for your turtle before adding plants to your habitat. But if you feel comfortable enough with turtle care that you're ready to start adding plants even after reading the above, then read on.
What's the Best Substrate for a Planted Turtle Tank?
This question has a lot of answers, depending on who you ask.
Some people say sand is best, but I don't like it. It's too hard to keep clean, and it's too dense to allow water to circulate around the plants' roots. It has no nutrient value for the plants, and it can damage your filter if it gets stirred up and sucked into the intake. You also can't use an under gravel filter with sand. But some turtles, like softshell turtles, like to dig in sand. A thick layer of fine silica with a shallow layer of water is a good substrate for them.
Other people say dirt is best, but I don't like dirt. You have to sterilize it first before you put it in the tank, and it makes the tank water very muddy whenever your turtles dig in it, which they will. And you can't use an under gravel filter with dirt.
Some people say ordinary aquarium gravel is best, but I don't care for it very much. Some aquarium gravel can have sharp edges that could possibly injure your turtles, especially if they eat it (which they sometimes do). It also contains no nutrient value for plants (or turtles), but many aquatic plants seem not to mind very much.
My favorite substrate for planted turtle tanks -- in fact, the only substrate I use in planted turtle tanks or any planted aquatic tank -- is a product called Fluorite, which is made by SeaChem. It's a clay-based gravel that comes in 15-pound bags. It costs between $15.00 and $20.00 a bag, so it's not cheap. But I think it's worth it. Here's why:
- Fluorite is specifically made for planted aquariums.
- Fluorite is non-toxic, stable, and provides a good footing and high nutrient value for rooted plants.
- It's very pretty stuff, and it really makes the habitat look nice.
- For whatever reason, I've never seen a turtle eat Fluorite. I guess it tastes really bad.
- Fluorite is expensive, but ordinary aquarium gravel isn't free, either. Compared to the rest of the cost of setting up a turtle habitat, the cost of using Fluorite isn't such a big deal.
There is one annoying thing about using Fluorite, however: No matter how much you rinse it, the Fluorite dust still turns the water into something that looks like mud (or tomato soup, if you use the red Fluorite) when you add water to the tank for the first time. They claim the dust isn't harmful, but I don't want my animals to be a test case.
The label suggests that the Fluorite be rinsed before use, but that doesn't help very much. It still makes mud when you put the water in the tank. So don't plan on introducing your turtles to the tank for at least three days -- and probably longer -- if you use Fluorite.
Instead, set up the tank a week before you plan to introduce the turtles, install the undergravel filter if you plan to use one, and arrange the fluorite to your liking. Then slowly fill the tank with water, connect all the filters, and let them run with nothing in them except filter floss until the mud starts to clears up. Then plant your plants (which will raise more mud) and wait again. Have plenty of filter floss on hand because you'll be changing it a lot the first few days. But eventually, the mud will clear and your tank will be ready for the turtles.
Once the tank is set up, you can prevent aquatic dust storms by adding water very slowly when you top off or do water changes. Pouring it slowly through the screen cover helps, too. (Be carefully not to spatter the lamps or they'll explode.)
A depth of an inch or so of fluorite in non-planted parts of the tank, and about two inches in planted parts, is usually plenty. One 15-pound bag of Fluorite is barely enough for a 20-gallon tank if you spread it really thin over the non-planted areas, so you can calculate how much you'll need from that. (For my 40-breeder tank, I used 45 pounds.)
What Kind of Plants Can I Add to my Turtle Tank?
When choosing live plants for a turtle habitat, there are three important things to consider:
- Whether the plant is toxic to turtles. Most aren't, but check anyway.
- Whether the turtles will find the plants so tasty that they eat them before they even have a chance to grow.
- How well the plant will do in the relatively warm, relatively low-light environment of a turtle tank.
As it turns out, some of the more common, inexpensive aquatic plants available at pet shops make very good plants for turtle habitats. Here are some good choices:
Java Fern (Microsorum pteropus). This common, inexpensive aquarium plant does well in turtle habitats. In nature, it grows attached to driftwood, rocks, and other submerged objects. It doesn't really have "roots," so just sticking it in the substrate won't work. It'll just come loose and drift around in the tank.
The easiest ways to use Java Fern in a turtle habitat are to wedge it between a couple of rocks or some driftwood; to tie it to a rock or a piece of driftwood with some thread; or to tie it to a suction cup and stick it to the bottom of the tank. Then pile a little Fluorite around the plant's base.
Anubias barteri (Anubias barteri, many varieties and subspecies). These slow-growing, broadleaf plants are excellent choices for a turtle tank. They are considered one of the easiest aquatic plants to grow and maintain and so are a favorite of beginning aquarists. They're also inexpensive and easily available in aquarium supply stores.
Anubias plants do very well in low-light, don't care very much about pH, and must taste really bad because fish and turtles leave them alone. The easiest way to plant them is to tie them to a rock to weight them down, and then pile some Fluorite around the base of the plant.
Amazon Sword Plant (Echinodorus amazonicus; many other species). These plants are relatively hardy, but they do need a decent amount of light. Don't plant them in dark parts of your habitat. Turtles and fish may nibble at them and turtles may pull them up by the roots (like they do to rooted plants in general when they're bored), but they usually don't eat them.
Sword plants have roots and are planted in the substrate. It may help to attach them to a rock at first, however, until they have a chance to grow strong roots. If they're uprooted, you usually can just re-plant them.
Common Waterweed (Egeria densa). I'm not sure whether I should include this plant or not. On the one hand, it's cheap, does well in moderate light situations, grows like a weed (which is is), and is fairly nutritious to turtles.
But on the other hand, some turtles (such as adult Sliders and Painteds) like E. densa a little too much. They pig out on it and make a big mess. Muds and musks will probably leave it alone, though; and it may have a chance with young Sliders and Painteds, who tend to prefer meat when they're young.
Note: This plant is an invasive weed and is illegal in some areas. Where legal, it should only be grown in indoor habitats, never in outdoor ponds.