Sunday, July 5, 2015

The importance of DEEP shade

Ok, folks, we need to talk about SHADE.

You have probably (hopefully) heard tortoise keepers talking about the fact that tortoises need "DEEP SHADE" to retreat into on a hot Summer day (really any day that has air temps above 80 degrees).

What do we mean by "deep shade?" - this is NOT slapping a board across the tortoise enclosure, nor does a little house do the trick. To create DEEP shade, you have to use the *AND* principal. So, for example, deep shade would be under a tree, AND inside a burrow. Or under an umbrella (or shade cloth) AND under a dense bush. Under a dense bush AND inside a deep burrow. Only there can a significantly cooler environment be achieved that our tortoises need to be comfortable on a hot day.

Not convinced? If you have a temp gun, I would love it if you would go outside, and measure the ground temperature in a nice shady spot, and then in the sun. There can be a temperature difference of 60 degrees! (e.g. the deep shade under our tree is a nice balmy 80 degrees... the dappled shade under a bush is 90, and the flat rocks in the tortoise enclosure measured 140 degrees F before I hosed them down! In comparison, in the burrow that is behind the dense bush, covered in 10 inches of soil, and has been dug out pretty deep by the tortoises, it is 65-70 degrees. Guess where the tortoises are? Except for the 2 crazy ones who are out first thing in the morning, and don't seem to mind the sun (they are also the lightest colored ones), they are all in the burrows right now.

While we are talking about shade and sun - PLEASE do NOT soak your tortoise in the sunshine when it is warm outside - at least not without supervision! Just this year, I have heard of 2 tortoises that died during their soaks, simply because the owner placed the soaking dish in the sun, and then walked away for 30 minutes. A tortoise in a soaking bin has no place to go. If it is overheating, it can't hide, and sitting in 1 inch of cool water certainly won't protect the top of its shell.

Please be sure to provide DEEP shade for your tortoise when it is outside - that's TWO kinds of shade nested inside each other, as explained above. If your tortoise constantly hides during outdoor time, chances are that you might not be providing enough shade in the enclosure. 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Outdoor tortoise enclosure Version 2.0!!!

Our outdoor tortoise enclosure expansion is finally ready to be shown off to you! I started the expansion project last August, and then had to take a break during the cold, wet winter months. As soon as it was warm and dry enough to work outside, I was out there! Before showing you the work-in-progress, I thought I'd first show you the finished product: 

Tadaaa! Outdoor tortoise enclosure expansion!
The above picture shows the large portion of the enclosure in the shade - I took the pic in the morning. That side of the house gets full afternoon and evening sun!

So, let's rewind to last August. Here is the tortoise yard Version 1.0 - not bad, actually... nice sun, nice shade, good weeds to eat... the tortoises were happy.

The 'old' enclosure... Version 1.0
However, I wanted to be able to section off the males from each other and from the females, and wanted to provide MORE room for everyone. I also wanted the enclosure to be attractive and functional. We have the space, and so I went for it.

First, I wanted to make sure that I actually did things 'right' this time - pre-planning, measuring, etc... rather than winging it as I worked. I used a free online landscaping planner to come up with the following design plan:
'The plan' 
Next, I measured, staked, and used spraypaint to mark where I needed to dig. The lines were going to be straight, darn it! Once the lines were marked, I started removing the grass. The grass wouldn't hurt the tortoises, but I needed to dig the anti-escape-trench, and Russian tortoises don't particularly like to eat grass, so it can take over.
Starting to remove the grass where the expansion will go
I had to find a good option to drain the gutters in a way that wouldn't flood the tortoise yard... we get a lot of rain in the Spring and Fall! You'll see the solution I came up with in later pics. I also had to dig up a bunch of toxic plants from the South side of what would be the tortoise yard.

To prevent the tortoises from digging out, I dug a deep trench. This was back-breaking work... I used a prospecting axe, and dug and dug and dug. When the trench was done, I installed a line of pavers/bricks, embedded deeply enough that the tortoises wouldn't tunnel out.

Got a hibiscus bush at a nursery close-out
I had to work bit by bit, digging the trench and removing the grass. This is what it looked like when that portion of the prep-work was done.

The digging and grass removal is done!
After this point, winter came, and it became too cold and wet to continue. Life also got really busy, so I had to put the expansion project on hold until this Spring. As soon as it was warm enough, I got back to work. First, my friend Lynne and I took down the structure of the old enclosure (THANK YOU!). Then we started laying the foundation for the new wooden boundaries. Unlike in Version 1.0, the Tortoise Yard 2.0 has a leveled foundation - extra work, but VERY worth it in the end. I first put landscape fabric into the trench, and then a leveled layer of gravel. Then I installed lawn edging pavers (which I got for free via a neighbor who was going to bring them to the dump) into the trench. Then we installed the 2"x10" cedar boards, using rebar to hold them upright. Cedar is harmful to reptiles. However, these boards had weathered for 1 year, and so don't pose a danger to the tortoises outdoors. You can see the work in progress in the following picture:

Lynne decided to be camera shy, so I didn't get a picture of her working... I did manage to catch our shadows on camera together though! We spent several crisp winter days working out there together.

Once the cedar board boundary walls were all installed and the rebar was hammered in and attached to the boards to hold them in place, the really hard part of the work was finished. The pre-measuring and pre-planning paid off: the boards were level, I had the right amount of lumber, and it looked nice.

Far from done, but it gives a good idea of the space
However, the work was not yet done. The tortoises could potentially climb over the 10" boundary, and the kids (and various other critters) could certainly climb/walk/jump into the tortoise enclosure. (Ps: see the drain pipe that I installed, through a hole in the board?). I started to install the railing, with hardware cloth (similar to chicken wire, but smaller holes).

Installing the railing
Installing the hardware cloth was a 2-person job. I managed to install about 15ft of it myself, using my hands, feet, and head to hold things in place. NOT efficient. Thankfully, I was able to enlist my hubby and Lynne to help me (Thank you, again!). I used little stainless screws and washers to hold the hardware cloth onto the wood - this worked MUCH better than the staples I used in Version 1.0!

If you look in the next picture, you'll see that in addition to the anti-dig-mote (filled with lawn edging pavers), I also placed 12x12 cement pavers all along the inside edge of the tortoise yard. The soil is flush with the edge of the pavers, and so tortoises will walk up and down, but won't be able to dig at the edge. With the many other digging options I've provided, I don't anticipate any escapes.

Functional, but not quite as pretty as I'd like...yet.
The vertical 2x2 posts and the hardware cloth were enough to functionally keep tortoises in and kids out, but since we will see the tortoise yard daily, I wanted to make the structure more optically pleasing. To do so, I installed a 1x2 railing, with a 1x4 railing top, complete with miter cut corners.

...working on making a proper railing...
I reused railing pieces from Version 1.0, so I had to piece them together a little bit... but in the end, it worked out nicely. To add to the anti-escape factor, I installed the railing with an inward-facing lip, just in case a tortoise happened to manage to climb up the hardware cloth.

The structure is finished!
Since my kids sometimes help me feed and water the tortoises, I even installed a little 'short person entrance' - the rest of the fence is purposefully the perfect height for me to step over without much effort.
On the far left is our leopard tortoise's pen, with the big 'juvenile tortoise' bin (converted koi pond). Then the large Russian tortoise area, with the sectioned-off areas to keep the males separate from each other and the females. We named their sections "Dukelandia" and "Rozlandia" (the males are named Duke and Roz).

At this point in late January, the weather was warm enough some days that I could even let the tortoises spend a few hours in their outdoor space.

Duke found a sunny spot to bask in
Here are a few pics of the inside of the enclosure, before plants started growing in properly. I seeded out two broadleaf seed mixes (from Carolina Pet Supply and from Tortoise Supply), and also transplanted hundreds of weeds I dug up in other people's yards (#crazytortoiseladywantsyourweeds).

Rozlandia gets the little tortoise house I built 2 years ago
 I tried to make the interior of the tortoise yard interesting to explore, with different textures such as little hills, rock piles, rocky flat areas, soil, planted areas, and logs to climb over or hide under. I placed sight barriers to help the tortoises not become too territorial towards each other. I also made a weird little log tepee, since tortoises like to bask in filtered shade.

The leopard tortoise area (below) has some grass in it, since this species does like to graze. The large black koi pond will have the juvenile Marginated tortoises in it. I will create a separate post showing more of the leopard tortoise area at a later point.

You can see part of the leopard tortoise area here.
One part of the tortoise yard expansion I am particularly pleased with is the old fire pit that I re-purposed into a baby tortoise enclosure. First, I asked my hubby to drill some drain holes into the bottom. Then I filled it with dirt, and planted a little garden inside with stones, moss, a soaking dish, and plenty of yummy weeds. The mesh cover has holes large enough to let UVB light in, while protecting the babies from predators. The adult tortoises can easily walk under the structure.
Baby tortoise enclosure! (previously: a fire pit)
It will still take a few more weeks for the weeds I planted to start growing in properly. Soon, the whole area will be lush and green! Here are a few more pictures that I took today, a few weeks after the above pictures were taken. The weather has been beautiful (65-70 degrees air temp, warmer on the ground), and the tortoises got to explore their new habitat.
Spring is here!

Some of the weeds I transplanted... 
This year I am keeping the males separate, to give the females a break. The females may still lay fertile eggs, as they can store sperm for years... but at least they will not be bothered. Here is a view of Rozlandia, with Roz climbing one of the logs I put in there for him. The fern is deer fern. The tortoises ignore it.

It was cute to see that Roz knew EXACTLY where the sun would hit first. He positioned himself just right on the log to catch the first rays!
Ready for when the sun hits Rozlandia
It is always fun to watch tortoises explore and claim their 'favorite' spot to make a wallow or burrow. Lady likes to burrow down halfway near a plant, and then lazily lies in the sun, nibbling on leaves close-be.
Lady found a good sunny spot by a fern
Duke didn't settle down in Dukelandia for a while. He spent most of the day walking around.
Duke exploring Dukelandia
Here is a view of the area the female Russian tortoises live in. It is shaded in the morning, but around 10:30am, the sun creeps in. I brought the tortoises outside when there was enough sun for them to bask in.
Do you see the tortoise who found the sun?
Mila did her best impression of being a rock. Well, a weed-eating rock... there was a blooming dandelion plant there a few minutes ago!
Why yes, that is the most comfy way to eat.
I checked on the tortoises sequentially throughout the day... and they were happily exploring and munching away. 
Mila and Timmy girl exploring
Can you believe that Mila is almost as large as Timmy now?! She is growing up! She laid a single fertile egg last year, which hatched in October.

Here is a view of the tortoise yard, as seen from balancing on one of the posts:

Can you spot the tortoise?
 ...and here is another view from ground level:
How many tortoises do you see?

I would say, the verdict is overall: Our Tortoise Yard Version 2.0 is tortoise approved!

Jill has a green mustache from eating weeds...
Was it worth the hard work? Absolutely! Guess what... instead of paying to go to the gym... you could build your tortoises an outdoor enclosure, and get a workout in the process!

Ps: The tortoise yard expansion plan includes a cold frame, which I will show in a separate post. Many of the shrubs are already in place, and I used reclaimed materials when possible. I want tortoise owners to know that it is possible to build a beautiful and functional enclosure on a budget. You may have to comb Craigslist for free materials... but in the end, it is worth it! Grand total material cost was $185, which included lumber, hardware cloth, and high quality screws. The bricks/pavers and some of the lumber was reclaimed. I could have done it for less, but chose the 'pretty' variety for some things (e.g. getting very large continuous pieces of lumber, and building a 'pretty' railing, rather than leaving things rustic). 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Egg season has begun!

Today Timmy girl decided it was time to lay the first clutch of eggs this year. I have suspected that she was gravid, since she was pacing a lot, eating tons, and had scarfed down 1.5 entire cuttlefish bones within a few days.
After 2 weeks of beautiful sunny weather, unfortunately it is cold and rainy again, so putting Timmy outdoors to lay her eggs was not an option. Thankfully, my marvelous Timmy girl is ok with laying eggs indoors into a deep bin filled with warm, soft, moist soil.
When my son observed Timmy digging with her back legs, I set up such a bin near the basking area, with a little ramp up to it, and she knew exactly what it was intended for. Within a few minutes, she started to dig her nest hole!

Timmy starting to dig her nest hole with her back legs
After about 1.5 hours of digging, Timmy started to drop her eggs. She caught each egg with one leg as it came out of her vent. I happened to catch it on my phone camera:
You can see the egg starting to come out of her tail. 

Once the egg was out, Timmy gently moved it into further the hole with her foot

Next egg is on its way out

Timmy uses her foot to catch the egg, so it doesn't fall into the hole and break

Third egg is out. 
Within a few minutes of each other, Timmy laid 3 beautiful little eggs, weighing 20g, 22g, and 22g. These are a little bit smaller than last year's eggs, but still a very normal size. I will incubate them at 89 degrees F for the next 65-75 days.

All tucked in for incubation
When nesting, tortoises go into sort of a trance, and they must be allowed to finish the whole process, from digging a hole, to laying the eggs, to covering up the hole. If they are interrupted (e.g. if they are removed after laying eggs, without being allowed to cover the hole), females have been known to be in a serious funk for many months. This has never happened here, because I make sure that the nesting female does not get interrupted. If I catch the tortoise in the act of laying, I carefully remove each egg from the hole as it is laid, and replace it with a round egg-sized rock. That way the eggs aren't in danger of being crushed. The female doesn't care, and happily covers up the rocks, pats the dirt to firm it down, and walks away.

After laying her eggs, Timmy's legs were super wobbly, but she headed down the ramp, basked for a little while, and then tucked into some fresh weeds I offered her.

You can see that she completely covered her nest hole in the bin before leaving.

Nothing like a good meal after birthing those eggs!
It has been 22 days since I woke Timmy girl up from brumation, and she has not been with a male since last year. However, tortoise females can store viable sperm for many years. If these eggs are fertile, they are due to hatch near the end of May. Last year, Timmy laid a second clutch about 3 weeks after the first clutch, so I am curious to see if this happens the same way this year.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Baby Russian tortoise care sheet (also for other herbivorous tortoise species)

Baby Russian tortoises have very similar needs to adult Russian tortoises. A requirement of higher humidity and hydration is the main difference. With good humidity, UVB, and healthy food, your tortoise will grow healthily and smoothly. If kept too dry, they will have irregular, pyramided shell growth, and may appear stunted. You can transition to an ‘adult’ RT care regimen once your baby is 4” (10cm) or larger SCL, or 2-3 years old.

When your baby arrives, you can unpack her and set her in a small bowl of shallow lukewarm water – just up to the seam where the top shell and the bottom shell meet - for 10 or so minutes. Then place her in her enclosure in front of a pile of greens. She might eat right away, or she might just explore.
Don't be shocked when you pick her up - baby tortoises have some "flex" in their shells - they are not hard yet like adult tortoises. As they ingest calcium, the shell will harden. It will be fairly hard by 18 months. The belly hardens more slowly than the carapace.
You may observe small, light-colored ‘squiggly’ lines in the tortoise’s shell keratin – these are normal in growing tortoises, and are also a sign that the animal is well-hydrated. Below is a good example of a well-hydrated juvenile Russian tortoise.

(picture used with permission from Siu)

WARNING: baby tortoises are VERY quick! If you are picking up the tortoise, please secure it so it can’t jump/run off your hand.

Russian tortoise babies should be kept in an enclosure that provides room to roam, safety from other pets (e.g. dogs and cats), and holds in warmth and humidity well. For this reason, open-top tortoise tables are often not ideal for the first year, as too much humidity is lost otherwise, and the wood can start rotting from the high humidity.

I personally like the 40gal glass breeder tanks for baby tortoises. I cover part of the top with plexi glass and/or heavy duty foil, to help keep in more of the humidity. A large 40-50gal Rubbermaid bin can be converted into a good baby enclosure as well by cutting holes into the lid for the light and heat sources. I have also used Christmas Tree Storage bins, which are about 2ft x 4ft. They are large enough for the first year or two, but not so large that I constantly ‘lose’ the babies in the enclosure.

A space of 1.5ft x 3ft floor dimension is sufficient for 1 baby. Of course once they get bigger, Russian tortoises need much more space (e.g 3ft x 6ft or more)! Depending on the location of the enclosure, it may be necessary to insulate it – I have taped foil-covered Styrofoam insulation board around 3 sides of my baby tank. The foil bubble wrap-looking insulation works well, too.
This picture shows a creative solution Jessica found using a 54gal Rubbermaid bin. She cut out a portion of the lid, and replaced it with mesh that is held on by Velcro, for easy access, and to keep her cat out. Please note that mesh filters out UVB light, so should not be used under the light source.

More information about lighting will be provided below.

(picture used with permission from Jessica)

For substrate I put in about 5” of ACE brand topsoil, mixed with coconut coir. Any additive free soil without perlite or fertilizers or manure will work, but I have found the ACE brand to consistently be good, and it has a nice consistency. I buy it at ACE Hardware.

The soil should be kept pretty moist, enough that if you run your finger across it, it looks a little muddy. I pack it down enough that it provides secure footing. I place a flat stone under the basking spot, and place a nice little landscape of large and small rocks and plants throughout the enclosure, keeping safety in mind.

I add 20-ish pill bugs into the enclosure from our yard – they come out at night and clean up any poop or left over plant matter!

All tortoise babies should be given constant access to a water dish, so that they can drink and soak as needed. I like to use a 4” glazed plant saucer, with several pebbles or small rocks in it, to help baby get in and out safely. Placing a few rocks around the water dish will also help less of the substrate to be tracked into the water.

Please be sure to read below info about soaking your baby!
(picture used with permission from Jessica)
A baby tortoise enclosure must have UVB light, a basking spot of 95 degrees, a hot humid hide (always 80 degrees, using a CHE and a Hydrofarm thermostat). I outline the specifics of lighting and heating in more detail below.

I place a flat rock under the basking lamp, to keep the basking temperature more constant, and I also place a flat rock somewhere in the mid-section of the enclosure, for feeding on. This will later help keep claws and beak nice and healthy.

You can put a variety of drift wood and rocks, tortoise safe plants (in a pot with additive free soil, or planted into the substrate), into the tortoise enclosure to provide climbing/exploring opportunities. Please be mindful of safety… you don’t want baby to flip over into the water, or get stuck behind something.

In addition to the top soil/coco coir substrate, the baby tortoises have moist sphagnum moss in their hot humid hide (see below), as well as in their favorite hang-out spots, and they dig and burrow extensively.
I use a humidifier (which is optional – it just makes my life easier), and I mist them with warm water every time I walk by, minimum of 4x per day using a pump mister that I got at the garden center (see pic below). Be sure to unscrew the lid after each use to release the pressure… otherwise the pump will leak!

If your tortoise is still a baby or juvenile (under 4") it will benefit from a hot humid hide. I like the plastic shoe boxes from the dollar store. I cut a round or square door hole in about 1" -1.5" up from the bottom.
I fill it with wet sphagnum moss (garden center usually has it near the orchids).
Then I sink the hide into the substrate in the middle of the enclosure, between the hot end and the cool end.  I suspend a 60W ceramic heat emitter (CHE) above it, attached to a Hydrofarm thermostat, with the probe inside the hide. I set the thermostat to 80 degrees F. It is REALLY IMPORTANT to use a thermostat, because otherwise the CHE can overheat the whole tank.

Do you like my turkey-pan cover?!
The CHE that heats the hot humid hide stays plugged in 24/7, and is controlled by the thermostat. The key is to keep baby humid and WARM (since moist+cold is bad). Personally, I prefer a CHE over a heat pad - if you use a heat pad, you still need a thermostat. Burning from below can be severe if the bottom of the enclosure becomes too hot, which is why many choose to heat the hot humid hide from above.
Here is a pic of an example of the hot humid hide box a friend made for himself. 

Raising RT babies in a more humid environment for the first year or two has been shown to give them much more even growth. After the 2nd year (or once they reach 4" SCL) they no longer need nighttime heat. 

Tortoises require UVB light to grow healthy bones and shells, and the very best source of UVB is natural sunlight. Because of this, I try to provide at least 30 minutes of outdoor time to the babies any time it is at least 70 degrees outside.

IMPORTANT: Baby tortoises can overheat very easily! Please never leave them unattended on a hot day. Please ALWAYS place their outdoor bin in a location that is half shaded, half in the sun. If necessary, you can move the bin as the sun moves. Frequent misting will help prevent the babies from drying out. Please also be mindful of other animals or children that might harm your baby tortoise!

I made a planted outdoor rubbermaid bin that the babies spent 30 mins to 3 hours in daily during the Summer. Before adding the dirt, I drilled several drainage holes into the bottom. This helps prevent flooding. The hides are made of plastic flower pots that I cut in half, and layered several inches of dirt over top for insulation. The tortoises really enjoyed climbing the little hills! The water dish is similar to the one in the indoor enclosure. I planted some succulents and weeds in there, placed more moss, and I also spread some of Carolina Pet Supply’s ‘Broadleaf seed mix’ in here. Within weeks it was a jungle in there!
Here is another view of the outdoor tortoise bin, with the lid on. I used a Dremel to cut out part of the lid, drilled small holes all around, then zip-tied hardware cloth (similar to chicken wire, but with smaller holes) into the lid. The locking lid let in the sunshine, but prevented predators from getting in.

One tortoise friend of mine got a little wheeled dolly and placed the baby bin onto it. This allowed them to wheel the bin to different locations in their yard, depending on where the sun was! Great idea, Lynne!

Because lighting for baby tortoises is the same as for adult tortoises, please read the following article first:

Baby tortoises require basking light (95 degrees F at shell height), a UVB source (either separate from the basking light, or an all-in-one MVB such as the Powersun), and a heat source for their hot humid hide. DO NOT use the coil-style UVB bulbs because they are also known to cause damage to tortoise’s eyes.  

When setting up an enclosure, I securely install L-shaped shelf brackets (from Home Depot) onto the wall, and use wire and/or a small chain to hang the basking light and the CHE. I DO NOT rely on the clamps that often come with the lamps.

I have all my lights (NOT the CHE) plugged into a timer to turn them on/off.

Here is a creative solution my friend Bobbye came up with for hanging the lights. She bought the shelf brackets that can be used with a hang bar! I have seen a similar set-up where the tortoise keeper used S-hooks to suspend the lights off of the bar. I love this, because it allows you to move the lights back and forth as needed, and you can adjust the height, too.

(photo used with permission from Bobbye)
For a glass tank, if I am using a tube-style UVB light, I lay the fixture across the top and secure it with duct tape on either end. In a rubbermaid tub, I hang the UVB light fixture by drilling some small holes into the long wall of the rubbermaid, and feeding zip ties through it. The fixture has holes, or you can loop the zip tie all the way around the fixture on each end. The UVB tube should end up being 12-13" above the top of the substrate to be effective. .

Here are a few diagrams, as seen from above and from the side, of possible set-ups:
view from top
View from front

If you plan to use a 40gal glass tank, I would use a 75W household bulb for basking, in combination with the tube-style UVB light. If you are setting up a 54gal Rubbermaid bin, or a 75gal glass tank (or larger), I would use the 100W Powersun MVB, which produces heat and UVB.

I order my lighting supplies online, because this is cheaper than going to a pet store. I'll provide a list below that I've put together. No pressure to get those exact items, I just know that 'new' tortoise keepers sometimes like to get specific information sometimes. 

A regular household light bulb (75W) such as this: with this fixture: Zilla 11596 8-1/2-Inch Premium Reflector Dome For Up to 150-Watt Bulbs, Black (later when you have a larger enclosure you can switch to using an all-in-one bulb like the 100W Powersun, but for the small baby enclosure, 100W ends up being too much). You can also get a fixture at ACE Hardware etc - just make sure the socket is ceramic. 

For the first 2 or so years, baby requires a hot humid hide. I use either a 60W CHE (ceramic heat emitter) like this and you can use a smaller ceramic dome fixture for this, since the CHE is only 60W. Alternatively, you can use a heat pad under the tank where the hot humid hide is. To regulate the temperature, the Hydrofarm thermostat is by far the best: - this is important, because both heat pads and CHE will otherwise overheat. You can use a smaller ceramic dome fixture for this, since the CHE is only 60W.

You also want to get a temp gun so you can check the temperature immediately under the basking spot. Here's the one I have used for several years and love: Etekcity® 774 (ETC 8380) Digital Infrared (IR) Thermometer with Laser Sight, -58~+716°F, 12:1 D:S, Instant-read Temperature Gun, Battery Included

Baby tortoises should be fed the same widely varied diet of edible leaves and weeds and greens and flowers that an adult eats. Special care should be taken to provide maximum nutrition. Here is a link to The Tortoise Table’s printable plant booklet:
The Tortoise Table database is also an excellent resource when checking if plants are safe to feed your tortoise. Please always err on the side of caution!

We are lucky to have weeds here most of the year, so I feed cat's tongue, thistle (sow thistle, mostly), hawksbit, plantain, mallow, grape leaves, and hibiscus leaves and flowers, violet leaves and flowers, sedum, daylily flowers, miner’s lettuce, dead nettle, rose petals (only from untreated, unfertilized plants), turnip greens, and many other plants on the 'safe' list of The Tortoise Table database. I add in some dandelions, but only when there aren't other things. If you don't have access to weeds during the winter, you can feed mustard greens, kale, and collard greens. Opuntia cactus (called ‘nopales’ in Hispanic grocery stores) is high in calcium, and can be added to the diet occasionally. There are many other tortoise-safe weeds that may be available throughout the year that I did not mention here.

I don’t give the babies any lettuce, just because the nutritional value isn't great, but if you find yourself in a bind, that would be an option, too.

I don't chop any of it up, or even tear it up. I like to make them work a little bit to get their food.
A rule of thumb is to give them a pile of food about the size of their shell. As long as babies are kept nice and humid, and the food you offer is healthy, you can allow them to eat their fill - if the food is all gone by mid-day, it's totally fine to give them a second helping.
(a few examples of edible weeds)
I have never fed any factory-made foods (mazuri or Zoomed grassland or other), simply because it's not necessary here, and because I don’t trust the formulation. I prefer to cook from scratch for my human kids, so it made more sense to go the natural route for the babies as well. If you do feed mazuri, I won't judge – please do your research!
I do not feed ANY fruit, and only very occasionally (1x per month) feed a vegetable such as a bit of pumpkin, winter squash, or a bit of carrot, for the vitamin A in it. Fruit is too high in sugar, and not only can become addicting, but it can also harm a tortoise’s gut. It also creates a favorable environment in the gut for parasites (worms and flagellates) to thrive. If I want to give my tortoises a ‘treat’ I give them a flower, or an especially juicy sedum leaf, or a slice of opuntia cactus.

I sprinkle TNT (Carolina Pet Supply) 3x per week, and calcium powder 2x per week. I also have cuttlefish bone (which is available in the bird aisle of the pet store) in there, to which I have seen them help themselves. The babies also have a home-made calcium block available in their enclosure, which they like (instructions:

Baby tortoises have less body mass, and as a result, are more prone to dehydration. Even if babies frequently self-soak in their water dishes, it is recommended to soak them every day when they are very small, and every other day once they are a few months old. Tortoises need water to maintain good hydration and for proper organ function.

A soaking container should have tall enough sides that your tortoise can’t climb out. The water should be lukewarm and shallow, just about up to the seam where the top shell (carapace) meets the bottom shell (plastron).
Some people put a washrag into the soaking container, to provide a little more footing to the tortoise. A soak should last about 20 minutes – you may need to change the water if it gets too soiled, or too chilly.

We soak our baby tortoises during breakfast. This is fun for the kids (‘breakfast buddies’!), and it also makes it easy for us to keep an eye on them to ensure they don’t flip over and/or drown.

Tortoises will often poop during their soak. They will also often release urates – which are a white creamy (or lightly granular) substance. Both are perfectly normal.

Several people have asked me what my daily routine is with the tortoises, since it does take a little bit of time to care of tortoises properly. I have found that associating tortoise care with our regular daily activities makes it easy to find a good routine.
In the morning the lights turn on by themselves, controlled by a timer. After getting dressed, I get the babies and their soiled water dishes out of their enclosure. I place the tortoises in their soaking containers, and I clean the water dishes. The baby tortoises soak while we eat breakfast. After about 20 minutes (during which I’ve also fixed school lunch for kids, and made sure they brushed their teeth etc), I put the babies back into their enclosure. I give them a nice big pile of weeds (sprinkled with TNT), and mist the enclosures thoroughly with warm water. Then we go about normal morning activities.
Mid-morning my youngest and I usually go outside on a walk or into our yard to pick weeds for the next day. When we get home, I mist the babies again, wash and pack up the weeds, and continue with our day. Sometime in the afternoon I check on the babies, mist them, and if they have eaten all their food, I give them a second pile of weeds. Before starting dinner, I usually mist them one more time, and the lights turn out around 7pm.
I weigh them about once every 2 weeks. The pill bugs take care of most of the clean-up in the enclosures. As needed I replace sphagnum moss, rearrange tortoise furniture (if e.g. they outgrow things, or they climb on things dangerously), add new plants, etc.

A note: Our tortoises are used to normal family activities around them. Their enclosures are in our living room, and the kids play around them, are loud, and watch them. They sit on our dining table for their morning soak, with little faces peeking down at them. However, I minimize how much we actually touch and handle the tortoises. I believe that observing them in a natural habitat is more beneficial than constantly actively interacting or playing with them. As I check on them throughout the day, I might place one of them that I’ve noticed has been sitting on the cool end for a long time into the hot humid hide. But for the most part, I just let them do their own tortoise thing. Please don’t handle your baby too often – this can cause stress, which can lead to them eating less, which can slow down their development.

Tortoises, especially Russian tortoises, are very territorial, and can become violent towards others of their kind. Sometimes bullying is more subtle, but just as deadly. I do not recommend keeping more than one tortoise in an enclosure once they are older than two years. I definitely do not recommend keeping a baby tortoise together with an adult tortoise!

When they are babies, you can sometimes get away with keeping multiples in an enclosure that is large enough. However, please keep a constant watchful eye on them, to make sure both are thriving!
For more reading on the hazards of keeping 2 tortoises together, please refer to my blog post:
If you have the resources to provide individual set-ups that are large enough, and you have the time to care for multiple tortoises… obviously there is no reason not to have more than one tortoise… just don’t house them together as adults!

Disclaimer: This care sheet has been compiled based on information I have gained from more experienced breeders/tortoise keepers, such as Melissa, and Tom, Gary, Tim, and others (THANK YOU!). There are excellent care sheets available e.g. on the Tortoise Forum ( I have written this care sheet because I know some of you want more detail, and so that you will have something printable in hand, with detailed pictures.

Resources for further reading:
Melissa’s Russian tortoise care sheet, posted on the Russian Owners Facebook group (you may have to join the group to view it):
Please feel free to join the Facebook group “Russian Tortoise Owners”
Joe Heinen’s page on RTs:
The Tortoise Forum:
Shelled Warriors:
The Tortoise Table (info on plants):
The Tortoise Trust (good info on hibernating etc.):
Carolina Pet Supply: (to order TNT and seed mixes from)

Please never hesitate to ask questions!