Desert tortoises are herbivores, meaning plant eaters, and when in captivity will munch their way through almost any greenery they encounter. So it is essential that the garden, and their living space, be filled with safe, healthy plants. Avoid any potentially toxic plants when planning a captive desert tortoise habitat.
Captive desert tortoises will eat the stems, leaves and flowers of many garden plants. A few safe, blooming options include hibiscus, Chinese lantern, geranium, evening primrose and globemallow. Fresh flowers and plants provide desert tortoises with protein, fiber, water and are low in fat. Flowering vines such as morning glory and trailing four o'clock also can be included in the tortoise diet. Dandelions are a favorite of tortoises, contain a high amount of needed protein and fiber and also are low in fat. Grow dandelions in a container to avoid the possible seed spread throughout the yard, or start a small patch within their enclosure, allowing the tortoise easy access. Many flowers edible for humans are also favored by tortoises; plant pansies, violets and nasturtiums to provide tasty snacks.
Other Good Plants
Grass is an important part of the tortoise's diet and provides much-needed fiber. Grow a 6-foot-square patch of grass within their abode that they can graze on as needed. Ornamental and native grasses like "Cherokee Sedge," "Tufted Hairgrass" and "Starrush Whitetop" also are good for tortoise homes and are higher in fiber than many plants and flowers. Ferns such as "Common Ladyfern," "Royal Fern" and "Cinnamon Fern" will be thoroughly enjoyed. Many freshly grown kitchen herbs produce flowers and are safe for tortoises. Consider planting thyme, sage, fennel and rosemary within their enclosure. Tortoises enjoy the leafy greens that grow on many fresh vegetables including carrot, collard, mustard and turnip greens, all of which provide high amounts of protein and extra water. Captive tortoises also have been known to snack on the odd fresh garden snail.
A number of plants are toxic to desert tortoises and can cause everything from minor skin irritations to death if ingested. Do not allow tortoises to eat chinaberry berries, tobacco family plants like nicotiana, oleander, mushrooms or toadstools. These are all toxic to tortoises and the effects can vary from minor irritations to severe organ damage. Avoid chrysanthemums completely, as some are toxic and some are not.
Never use pesticides, herbicides or any chemical in a tortoise garden. Do not use pellet fertilizers in an area were tortoises graze and do not use snail bait in the tortoise habitat, as it is a known toxin.
The desert tortoise, listed as a threatened species, lives in sandy desert conditions when in the wild and has a life span of up to 80 years. Most active during the day, the tortoise likes to burrow underground to steer clear of high desert daytime temperatures and can live without water for almost an entire year. Tortoise sounds include a mix of hissing and grunting, and when threatened, tortoises can retract their legs, head and tail into their hard upper shell. Whether tortoise babies are male or female is determined by Mother Nature. Once the female lays her eggs in a self-dug shallow pit, the eggs are abandoned, and will hatch as male if temperatures are cool and female when temperatures rise above 88 degrees Fahrenheit.