Once you have the right turtle tank or pond, with the right lighting, heating, filtration equipment, and a basking area, you have a relatively functional red-eared slider enclosure. But let’s be honest — if you leave it at that, it will look terribly plain and possibly even ugly. More importantly, minimalistic setups like this are horribly boring for your pet and do nothing to keep them entertained or help them feel secure.
Enclosure decorations play a very important role in a reptile’s mental and physical wellbeing by mimicking their natural environment and providing things for them to smell, explore, climb, hide under, and otherwise interact with. This is called environmental enrichment, and it’s one of the ways great zoos keep their animals happy and healthy.
Here are some accessory items that work well for both making your red-eared slider tank more functional as well as more attractive:
Let’s face it: the reflective bottom of your glass turtle tank isn’t very attractive, and neither is the bare bottom of a plastic stock tank. If anything, it can actually make your enclosure look worse, because any wastes that are hanging out in the water are going to be that much more visible every time you look in the tank. This can be useful, especially if your turtle is in quarantine, but other than that, it’s just an eyesore.
Aside from enhancing your tank’s aesthetic, adding a substrate can also provide an opportunity for your turtle to exercise natural behaviors like rooting for food and burying itself. The challenge here is choosing a substrate that won’t cause problems if ingested, and won’t make the water too cloudy. Here are some of the best substrates to use with a red-eared slider:
- Carib Sea Eco Complete Planted Aquarium Substrate — Volcanic soil with beneficial bacteria to help facilitate healthy cycling. Contains nutrients for live plants, but will make the water a bit cloudy whenever the turtle decides to root around.
- UP Aqua Sand — Claims to have superior longevity, helps maintain pH between 6.5-7.0. Nourishes live plants.
- CaribSea Super Naturals Freshwater Sand — Pre-washed, fine sand that helps facilitate healthy cycling, discourages algae.
- Exo Terra Riverbed Sand — Pre-washed, fine, 100% natural sand in a lovely natural brown color.
- Play sand — Good budget option, but needs to be rinsed by hand until the water runs clear *before* adding to the turtle’s tank. Not suitable for planting live plants.
Providing at least 2” of substrate at the bottom of the tank should be enough to create a nice look and satisfy your turtle if it decides that it wants to dig around.
There are some downsides to using substrate that you should consider:
- Gravel and pebbles are known to get occasionally ingested by turtles, which can require surgery to get removed. I speculate that this may be a vice developed by bored turtles in undersized or barren tanks with not enough to stimulate them. Regardless, it’s best to avoid using these altogether, regardless of how pretty you may think they are.
- Due to the fact that a canister filter’s intake is usually positioned near the bottom of the pond, fine-particle substrates will get kicked up by your turtle and may get stuck in your filter.
- Using fine-particle substrates may make your pond cloudier than going without. Of course this isn’t much of a problem if you are using a pond, but it can be annoying if you are using an aquarium. Using Seachem’s Clarity can help minimize cloudiness, but be sure to use it according to the manufacturer’s directions.
Wood makes a great, natural addition as turtle tank décor, and particularly large pieces can double as a basking platform. Mopani wood is particularly good for turtle tanks because it’s mold-resistant and heavy enough to sink to the bottom. Cork bark also works well, but it floats and will turn your water brown. Avoid any type or conifer/pine or grapevine.
If you want to use found wood and it isn’t pine, sterilize it first by baking for 2 hours at 200°F (95°C) or by pouring boiling water over it.
Rocks are another lovely natural addition to your turtle tank. As I mentioned in the Basking Platforms portion of this guide, they can be used to create natural-looking basking surfaces that absorb heat from your basking lamp very well to create warmth from above as well as below.
However, there are some precautions to keep in mind when using rocks for décor. Avoid using rocks with sharp edges, as these can damage your turtle’s shell. If you’re stacking them, use stones that are as large and heavy as possible, as this discourages shifting and collapse. Anchor them to the bottom of the tank (not placed on top of substrate), and if you want extra security, glue them together with 100% silicone sealant or waterproof grout.
If collecting your own rocks or buying them secondhand, it’s a good idea to give them a good scrub with a bit of Dawn original dish soap and water before adding to your tank. If at all possible, use boiling water as a disinfectant. It’s also a good idea to test the rocks by pouring a bit of vinegar on them. If they fizz, that means that this type of rock will alter the pH of your water and probably shouldn’t be used unless that’s what you want to do.
DO NOT BAKE ROCKS to sterilize them — they may have air pockets inside which would cause them to explode, seriously damaging your oven!
Like other reptiles, red-eared sliders appreciate having a place where they can hide and feel secure. In fact, they have been recorded to avoid areas of deep, open water (source). This can be resolved with a dense “forest” of plants in their pond or tank, or you can do it with a large hollow object. Just make sure that the turtle can safely go inside, turn around, and come back out. The pot should also have no glazes or finishes — terra cotta flower pots can make great hides.
Plants can go a long way as turtle tank décor. They can also be very functional! Live plants provide hiding places, filter harmful nitrates and ammonia out of the water, and may help reduce algae and bad bacteria. In other words: they can do a lot of your water quality.
The downside is that live plants tend to get dug up, eaten, and/or shredded by bored or hungry turtles. Keeping your turtle occupied with lots of swimming space and enrichment activities can help prevent destructive behavior. It can help to keep the plants in pots rather than loose in the substrate, and to secure them in place with large river stones around the base. However, expect to replace your plants regularly, as your turtle will likely still use them for food and entertainment despite your best efforts.
Here is a quick list of some popular (and safe) plants you can use in your red-eared slider’s setup.
- Amazon Sword (Echinodorus)
- Anubias barteri
- Arrowhead (Sagittaria)
- Crystalwort (Ricca fluitans)
- Duckweed (Lemnoideae)
- Eelgrass (Vallisneria)
- Fanwort (Cabomba)
- Frogbit (Limnobium laevigatum)
- Hairgrass (Eleocharis)
- Hornwort (Ceratophyllum)
- Java Fern (Microsorum pteropus)
- Java Moss (Vesicularia dubyana)
- Moneywort (Bacopa monnieri)
- Moss balls
- Parrot’s Feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum)
- Pondweed (Potamogeton)
- Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)
- Red Ludwigia (Ludwigia repens)
- Water Fern (Azolla, Salvinia)
- Water Hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyos)
- Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes)
- Waterweed (Anacharis)
Avoid the following plants, as they are TOXIC to red-eared sliders!
- Arrow Arum (Hygrophila balsamica)
- Bamboo (Bambusoideae)
- Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia)
- Elephant Ears (Colocasia)
- Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana)
You will need more light in your red-eared slider’s enclosure to keep the plants alive. This can be done with a 6400K T5 HO fluorescent plant bulb or set of white daylight LEDs. You can find a list of my favorite full-spectrum plant lights on the Lighting page of this guide.
Chances are good that you will have to replace the plants in your red-eared slider’s tank regularly, so there’s not much of a point to going through the effort of planting them in the substrate. Instead, just keep them in their pots. If you have trouble with floating, weigh them down with large, smooth river rocks placed at the plant’s base.
Are artificial plants safe?
I advise against them. Considering that red-eared sliders readily eat aquatic plants in the wild, it’s possible that your turtle may mistake them for food and attempt to ingest them, which can cause serious digestive problems. So it’s best not to use artificial plants at all with red-eared sliders and other pond sliders.
Red-Eared Slider Turtle Tank Décor Ideas
Keep reading about red-eared slider care:
- Introduction to Red-Eared Sliders
- Trachemys scripta Subspecies
- Shopping List: Supplies You Will Need
- How to Select and Buy a Pet Red-Eared Slider
- Enclosure Size & Roommates
- Lighting & UVB Requirements
- Heating Requirements
- Creating a Basking Platform
- Water Management
- Environmental Enrichment: Decorating the Enclosure
- Feeding Your Red-Eared Slider
- Handling Tips & Behavioral Notes
- General Health Guide
- Additional Resources