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Best Substrates for Box Turtles

The best substrate for a box turtle should retain moisture well, be easy to clean, and should not harm the turtle when ingested. There is a wide selection of beddings available to box turtle owners.

Some of these are harmful such as cedar shavings, some are unacceptable such as gravels, some are just okay such as newspapers and alfalfa pellets (these should also be used for a very limited amount of time as they mold easily), and some are great such as sterilized topsoil, sphagnum moss, and coco coir (also known as coconut fiber). 

When you decide to get substrate for your box turtle, I recommend getting the best.

We care about your boxie whether it be an eastern box turtle, ornate box turtle, or any other type of pet turtle for that matter, we have just the guide to bring you some good box turtle bedding.

You should only use newspaper and paper towels as short-term substitutes as they are easy to get. Also, you should never use unacceptable and harmful substrates.

Box Turtle Substrate Comparison Table

Table of Contents

1. Guidelines
1.1 Good Substrates
1.2 Substrates to Avoid
2. Top 5 Recommended Substrates for Box Turtles
2.1 Eco Earth / Coconut Fiber
2.2 Orchid Bark / Fir Bark
2.3 Coconut Husk Chip
2.4 Sterilized Top Soil
2.5 Sphagnum Moss
FAQ

1. Guide to Buying Substrate For Your Box Turtle Enclosure

cute little box turtle on white background
A c.ute little box turtle on white background

There isn’t much else to know when it comes to acquiring substrate for your box turtle’s enclosure. The substrate has to retain a good amount of moisture and shouldn’t be harmful to the turtle. 

Acceptable Substrates

Substrates I recommend include orchid bark, topsoil, coconut fiber, coconut husk, moss (peat moss and sphagnum moss), and leaf litter.

You can use paper if you need to care for a sick turtle in an indoor enclosure. The paper should be changed regularly so it doesn’t mold or become clumpy and mushy.

Overall, paper isn’t a good substrate for your turtle but it will do in a pinch.

Alfalfa pellets can also be used in a pinch. But similar to paper, it molds when wet.

Both paper and alfalfa pellets should only be used for a very short period of time and should be replaced with a suitable substrate.

Substrates to Avoid

It is very easy to tell if you should avoid a substrate. The substrate has to retain moisture. Most substrates can retain moisture and are good for your turtle.

However, there are a few substrates that can be harmful to your turtle. If you are unsure of which substrate to get, acquire one of those recommended in this article.

You should avoid substrates that do not retain moisture and substrates that are toxic/harmful to the turtle.

Here are some substrates you should avoid.

  • Calcium sand – This substrate doesn’t retain moisture well and as such isn’t a good substrate for the turtle
  • Cat litter – This causes gastrointestinal tract impaction when ingested by the turtle.
  • Cedar & Pine – Cedar and pine contain oils that are toxic to reptiles including box turtles
  • Gravel – The chelonian can end up swallowing the gravel. It is also coarse and can get up hurting the turtle. Lastly, keeping it clean is difficult as it can trap debris easily.
  • Paper – These include newspapers, paper towels, and other paper products. Paper doesn’t retain moisture well and gets moldy when wet.
  • Perlite & Vermiculite – Both of these expand when moist. If the turtle ingests it can expand within its gastrointestinal tract and cause serious problems.
  • Sand – Sand is abrasive and doesn’t retain water well.
  • Soil with additives and unsterilized soil – these may contain additives and microbes harmful to the turtle
  • Walnut shells – This causes gastrointestinal tract impaction when ingested by the turtle and is difficult to clean.
  • Corn cob material – This causes gastrointestinal tract impaction when ingested by the turtle and is difficult to clean.

Top Five Best Substrates to Use As Box Turtle Beddings

The substrates I recommend the most are Zoo Med Eco Earth, Zoo Med Reptile Bark Fir Bedding, Coconut Husk Chip, Garden Magic Top Soil, and Zoo Med New Zealand Sphagnum Moss. The best substrates should be easy to use, retain moisture, and be affordable.  

1. Eco Earth / Coconut Fiber

This is one of the more popular substrates used as bedding in reptile habitats. This substrate is great for box turtle enclosures/terrariums.

It also works for all manners of reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. Eco Earth is made of coconut fiber and is 100% natural. Eco Earth comes in two varieties.

The first is the loose form which is described here and the brick form. Both are excellent and work well.

The loose form can be used right away, all you need to do is pour it into the enclosure.  The brick form is compressed and needs to be broken down before use.

Pros

  • Easy to Use. You do not need to clean the substrate. You simply have to replace it every six months.
  • It is an all-natural green solution. 
  • It absorbs and removes bad odors.
  • Ecco Earth breaks down waste.
  • It retains moisture. 

How to Use

To use, simply pour the substrate into the terrarium or enclosure. The depth needs to be about twice that of the box turtle as they like to burrow. For example, if your turtle is 3 inches tall, the depth of the Eco Earth you pour into the enclosure should be about  5 to 6 inches. 

Box turtles love high humidity environments with humidity levels between 60% to 80%. Eco Earth retains moisture and ensures that the humidity level within the enclosure is at the right level. You may need to spray the substrate when needed.

To further improve the humidity levels within the enclosure you can even cover part of the top of your enclosure with an impermeable cover such as glass. This ensures that only a little amount of moisture escapes. 

As with any other substrate, spot cleaning is necessary. Spot cleaning involves removing fecal matter, uneaten foods, and any other unwanted material the moment you notice it. This should be done daily.

Eco Earth is great at eliminating foul odors, however, if a foul odor persists, replace all the Eco Earth within the enclosure.  Also, you should remove all Eco Earth in the enclosure every 6months and replace it with a fresh batch. 

2. Orchid Bark / Fir Bark

Orchid barks are substrates used to grow orchids. They are also known as fir barks. These are nontoxic, retain humidity very well, and are great for burrowing.

Pros

  • Easy to clean.
  • It is an all-natural green solution. This substrate is 100% fr bark
  • Zoo Med Reptile Bark Fir Bedding is long-lasting.
  • It doesn’t decompose easily.
  • It retains moisture very well. 

How to Use

These substrates can be mixed with topsoil or used alone. Simply pour the orchid bark into the enclosure.

The bedding’s depth should be twice the height of the turtle. If the turtle’s height is 4 inches, the bedding’s depth should be about 6 to 8 inches. 

Orchid bark substrate is great at retaining humidity and will help keep the enclosure’s humidity levels between 60 and 80 percent. You may have to mist the enclosure often to maintain the right humidity level depending on where you live and the humidity level of your locale. 

You have to spot clean the enclosure often and change the substrate within the enclosure often. I recommend changing orchid bark substrate every six months although some box turtle parents change orchid bark substrate once a year. 

3. Coconut Husk Chip

This is another coconut husk substrate. Instead of being a fine fiber, this substrate is made of much larger pieces.

Although coarse when dry, once you add some water and moisten them up, they are no longer coarse.

Interestingly, there are four forms of coconut husk chips available. These are ReptiChip which has pretty sizable chip sizes; RediChip which has smaller husk chips than the ReptiChip; Babichip which have smaller husk chips than the RediChip; and the MicroChip which has the smallest husk chips of all. 

As such if you feel that ReptiChip chip sizes are too large, you can choose any of the other forms mentioned.

Pros

  • Easy to Use. Because of their large size, they are easier to clean than loose substrates such as the Zoo Med Eco Earth.
  • It is an all-natural green solution. 
  • It’s excellent for the turtle’s respiratory health as it isn’t fine.
  • It absorbs and removes bad odors.
  • ReptiChip breaks down waste.
  • It retains moisture. 

How to Use

Similar to Eco  Earth, you just need to pour the substrate into the enclosure. The bedding’s depth needs to be about twice the height of the box turtle.

This should allow the turtle to burrow if it wants to. If your box turtle is about 4 inches tall, the substrate should be about 6 to 8 inches deep. 

Box turtles require humidity levels of between 60 to 80 percent to thrive. coconut husk chip bedding retains humidity excellently once it is moist. 

You can further retain moisture within the terrarium by covering part of the top of your enclosure with an impermeable cover such as glass. This ensures that only a little amount of moisture escapes. 

You need to spot clean daily. Because of the large size of the chips, cleaning is much easier. Spot cleaning involves removing fecal matter, uneaten foods, and any other unwanted material the moment you notice it.

Coconut husk chip bedding eliminates foul odors by absorbing the odors.

You may need to replace coconut husk chip bedding in the enclosure once the enclosure starts to give off a foul odor for several days. This happens with time.

Replace the substrate every 6 months even if the substrate doesn’t give off a foul odor.

4. Sterilized Top Soil

When using topsoil, it has to be sterilized and should not contain fertilizer or plant food as the turtle is likely to ingest some of the soil.

You can use topsoil from your backyard, however, that can contain seeds and parasites that can be harmful to your turtle. You can heat the soil to sterilize it. 

However, I recommend using store-bought sterilized topsoil with no additives.

Pros

  • Easy to Use.
  • It is an all-natural green solution. 
  • Topsoil breaks down waste as well.
  • It retains moisture well, although not as well as  Eco Earth and coconut husk chips.

How to Sterilize Topsoil Taken from Your Backyard

One of the easiest ways to get sterilized topsoil is to sterilize soil you collect from your backyard in a microwave oven. Moisten the soil first then microwave it at full power for a few minutes (45 seconds per pound of soil).

You can also bake the soul in an oven at a temperature of  180 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes.

This should kill all the microbes and seeds in the soil. 

How to Use

Pour the topsoil into the enclosure. It should be deep enough for the turtle to burrow.

I recommend a depth of about twice the height of the chelonian. Usually, a depth of 8 inches should be good enough. As you may already be aware, box turtles burrow often.  

Box turtles require humidity levels of between 60 to 80 percent to thrive. You can achieve this by mixing the topsoil with equal parts peat moss. You can also cover the topsoil with sphagnum moss. 

Covering part of the enclosure is a great way to limit the amount of moisture that escapes the soil. Some terrariums have tops that are partially covered with glass. That should do the trick. You can also cover part of the enclosure. 

Regardless of the substrate you use, you need to spot clean often. Spot cleaning includes removing all unwanted matter from the enclosure. This includes uneaten foods, debris, and fecal matter.

The substrate should be changed often. I recommend changing it every six months.

5. Sphagnum Moss

Sphagnum Moss is one of the best substrates you can use for the enclosure.

This material is super absorbent and retains water better than most other substrates out there. That makes it excellent for use in a box turtle enclosure which requires a high humidity level. 

Sphagnum moss refers to a genus of moss. These moss are harvested from bogs and wetlands. After being harvested they are dried. Sphagnum moss is fibrous and stringy. They also take a really long time to decompose. 

Sphagnum moss can be used with substrates that don’t retain enough moisture. 

The moss reviewed here is the Zoo Med New Zealand Sphagnum Moss. This has several advantages over other brands. Specifically, it isn’t dyed. It is 100% sphagnum moss. It contains zero additives.

Pros

  • Easy to Use.
  • It is an all-natural green solution. 
  • Zoo Med New Zealand Sphagnum Moss is long-lasting.
  • Zoo Med New Zealand Sphagnum Moss is antimicrobial and antifungal.
  • It doesn’t decompose.
  • It retains moisture very well. 

How to Use

Moss is best used when mixed with topsoil or coco coir. Mix it with equal parts of topsoil or potting mix. You can also pour it on the surface of your soil bedding.

Sphagnum Moss is really absorbent. Because it is very absorbent you should make sure that it doesn’t touch the water dish as it can absorb all the water within the dish and leave the turtle with no water to use. 

The bedding should be about 6 to 8 inches in depth. 

Spot clean the enclosure whenever necessary. Also change the bedding within the enclosure regularly, about once every 6 months.

Frequently Asked Questions

How often should I change the substrate in my enclosure?

I recommend changing the substrate within the enclosure every six months. It isn’t surprising for the commercially made substrate to be marketed as lasting for up to a year. While technically, these substrates can last up to a year, it is still best to change them every six months as they accumulate unwanted materials that are unhealthy to the turtle. They also decompose and break down with time.

What is the best affordable substrate for box turtles?

If you have a large enclosure, substrates can get expensive quickly. I recommend mixing equal parts topsoil and any substrate that retains moisture very well. Any regular non-sandy topsoil will work. The soil must not have additives or fertilizer as these can be harmful to the turtle. It is best to sterilize the soil. 

Which substrates can I mix together?

Mixing soil with moss or coconut fiber produces bedding that feels natural to the turtle. I recommend mixing soil with any other substrate. 

Conclusion

The right substrate is very important to the welfare of the boxie. The best substrates for box turtles are the ones that are nonharmful and retain moisture. These include coconut fiber or husk, orchid bark, topsoil, and moss. 

Some substrates to avoid are gravels, calcium sand, cat litter, cedar, pine, paper, perlite, vermiculite, sand, unsterilized soil and soil with additives, walnut shells, and corn cobs. 

Paper and alfalfa pellets can be used in a pinch but these are not long-term solutions as they mold easily in humid conditions. And box turtles love humid conditions.

Stick to the recommended substrates and your box turtle should thrive. 

If you have any questions, kindly leave a comment.

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Sheila

Wednesday 14th of September 2022

I noticed The Garden Magic Topsoil has a mixture of sand in it, isn't sand bad for them? Or is it such a minute amount that it’s ok?