Photos of Our Outdoor Russian Tortoise Enclosure and Garden II

Oxalis

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Over the winter, we moved to a new house with a much larger yard. Now that spring is arriving, we are building Steve's new outdoor garden enclosure. Steve will have way more space for all the essentials: a variety of tasty, edible plants; plenty of places to hide; and lots of rocks and pavers to climb and bask on. I'm also planning to purchase a bench so I can relax with him. We may also include some sort of water feature or underground hide, but I'm not sure yet (feel free to post some ideas if you like).

We broke ground on Steve's new outdoor enclosure/garden on May 5. Using a post hole digger, we dug 8 holes 42 inches deep where we'll be placing treated pine 4" × 4" posts. The posts will be secured in Quikrete Fast-Setting Concrete. We are planning to bury cinder blocks underground to line the walls, and on top of those, treated pine 1" × 8" boards will serve as some sight-barrier walls. We're not entirely sure yet which boards to use for the top beams, but the enclosure should end up measuring around 8 feet tall. We'll either purchase a wooden screen door or build one to enter and exit the enclosure. The area of the enclosure will be about 484 square feet (22' × 22').

With our property in more of a rural area, we'll need to guard Steve against raptors, coyotes, and other predators, as well as trying to keep deer, rabbits, and other herbivores from stealing the tortoise food. So we plan to cover the whole roof and walls of the enclosure with chain link fencing, as well as a layer of chicken wire maybe over the bottom few feet of the walls. Alternatively, we can cover the walls and roof with a good quality wire weld mesh. Any advice on wire mesh is welcome.

Steve's first outdoor garden enclosure was 96 square feet, which means this new garden is five times larger. Once we start working on the enclosure walls, I can start digging up and removing the sod. I have some pansy and calendula seedlings ready to be planted. There's plenty of dandelion, violets, and plantain here to transplant into the new enclosure. I dug up some aster, evening primrose, sedum, phlox, hibiscus, and hawkweed (and maybe more) from the old enclosure to replant here. As usual, I plan to purchase a lot more plants, especially species native to Michigan. Just as I did with our first tortoise enclosure, I'll be posting photos here as we build it and establish the garden. Enjoy!

Here's the area where the enclosure will go. There are some fence posts in the ground to temporarily mark the corners. The yard already had the fountain (we'll probably get rid of it) and the raised garden bed on the right (we're growing raspberries there). We have some apple or crabapple trees in the background (we've inherited an old orchard).

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Looking down one of the post holes. Dark and scary!

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Some of the rocks I pulled out of the dirt we dug up. These will go back in the enclosure for Steve to climb on.

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My baby mulberry, ready to go in the ground when it warms up.

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Yvonne G

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I love making new enclosures! Wondered where you had gotten off to. Glad you've come back and are sharing your new project with us.

I wouldn't worry about burying chicken wire. It has been my experience that if the tortoise can't see daylight under the fence, he won't try digging out. When I moved here and built my Russian yard, I took the time and energy to cut chicken wire into 8' lengths by 8" widths, then I bent the strips into an 'L' shape lengthwise. I stapled one edge to the bottom board of the fence, dug a trench between fence posts, placing the wire down into the trench with the bottom of the 'L' out into the yard, then buried it. The wire eventually rusted out in about a year and I never ever saw any of the Russians trying to dig out around that wire. It was a big waste of energy, money and time. Just make sure there's no daylight showing between the bottom of the fence and the ground, because if the tortoise can see out, he's going to dig in that spot.

The next Russian yard I made I built the fence on cement stepping stones (masonry caps):

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The tortoise doesn't look at the cement at the fence line and say, "Hm-m-m. I guess I'll have to back up and dig out here away from the fence in order to get under the cement." No, he still goes right up to the fence and seeing there's no place to dig, leaves it alone. This cement lip serves a dual purpose. In the morning when the sun shines on the cement it's a great place for the tortoises to grab those first rays and warm up their bodies:

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Blackdog1714

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These are available at Lowes and are ussually on the end caps over in the lumber section. I just set on side into the concrete and level. Once set screw or your 4x4 to the base and the posts will last way longer. Also if the fence gets damaged you don't have to redig holes just attach new posts. Again I just use one side so when you buy a pair you get two uses.
USP 6-in x 6-in Painted Wood to Steel Base


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Oxalis

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The next Russian yard I made I built the fence on cement stepping stones (masonry caps):

This cement lip serves a dual purpose. In the morning when the sun shines on the cement it's a great place for the tortoises to grab those first rays and warm up their bodies:
Thanks, Yvonne! I noticed that too with the enclosure at our old house. Steve was not very interested in burrowing as long as he had plenty of places to hide (he's also not the best burrower). We also had wooden fences on top of buried pavers for enclosure walls, and it worked very well indeed. The cinder blocks under wooden fencing here should work well too, provided they can discourage curious groundhogs, gophers, and other critters.

Today, it's sunny and warmer, a perfect day for concrete!
 

Yvonne G

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These are available at Lowes and are ussually on the end caps over in the lumber section. I just set on side into the concrete and level. Once set screw or your 4x4 to the base and the posts will last way longer. Also if the fence gets damaged you don't have to redig holes just attach new posts. Again I just use one side so when you buy a pair you get two uses.
USP 6-in x 6-in Painted Wood to Steel Base


View attachment 294130
I'm trying to get the picture. You pour a cement border, then push this 'stake' down into the wet cement. ONce the cement is set up you just position a 4x4 on top of the cement and screw it to the 'stake'? So the 4x4 isn't down into the ground at all?
 

Oxalis

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It's finally time for an update again. Just after we started our build in mid-May, we received an excessive amount of rain that lead to flooding throughout Michigan. Almost immediately after that, the heat wave struck. The humidity that came along with it made it extremely difficult to work (especially with my asthma). I turned over the majority of foundation work (cinder blocks and concrete) to my husband. June was just a terrible month in terms of working outside. Nonetheless, while we were trying to keep cool this summer, we spent a good chunk of time just brainstorming our next move for the enclosure. We did decide that if we do add a water feature, it will be easier to go with a small pond (filled with rocks so it's shallow) and a water pump than a stream running through the enclosure. Any advice or input on adding a small pond liner is welcome. :)

I have a bunch of pictures showing our progress that I've been meaning to post, so I'll try to organize them chronologically.

These are available at Lowes and are ussually on the end caps over in the lumber section. I just set on side into the concrete and level. Once set screw or your 4x4 to the base and the posts will last way longer. Also if the fence gets damaged you don't have to redig holes just attach new posts. Again I just use one side so when you buy a pair you get two uses.
USP 6-in x 6-in Painted Wood to Steel Base


View attachment 294130
Thanks for the suggestion, @Blackdog1714. It sounds like these stakes are better suited to an enclosure in a warmer climate. With Michigan winters (and fluctuating temps), we wanted our 4' × 4' posts under the frost line and secured in concrete. With treated wood, the posts should last for quite a long time. The 4' × 4's are also able to hold up the weight of the beams as well as the welded wire we'll be attaching to the "ceiling."
 

Blackdog1714

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It's finally time for an update again. Just after we started our build in mid-May, we received an excessive amount of rain that lead to flooding throughout Michigan. Almost immediately after that, the heat wave struck. The humidity that came along with it made it extremely difficult to work (especially with my asthma). I turned over the majority of foundation work (cinder blocks and concrete) to my husband. June was just a terrible month in terms of working outside. Nonetheless, while we were trying to keep cool this summer, we spent a good chunk of time just brainstorming our next move for the enclosure. We did decide that if we do add a water feature, it will be easier to go with a small pond (filled with rocks so it's shallow) and a water pump than a stream running through the enclosure. Any advice or input on adding a small pond liner is welcome. :)

I have a bunch of pictures showing our progress that I've been meaning to post, so I'll try to organize them chronologically.


Thanks for the suggestion, @Blackdog1714. It sounds like these stakes are better suited to an enclosure in a warmer climate. With Michigan winters (and fluctuating temps), we wanted our 4' × 4' posts under the frost line and secured in concrete. With treated wood, the posts should last for quite a long time. The 4' × 4's are also able to hold up the weight of the beams as well as the welded wire we'll be attaching to the "ceiling."
I use them set in concrete so that way the concrete can extend below the frost line. Oddly enough RVA is much shallower than the deep North! It would allow you to change out posts as the rot in the magnificent weather you get! I don’t miss living in Ohio.
 

Oxalis

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We started our insanely massive tortoise enclosure by securing our wooden 4' × 4' posts into our pre-dug post holes with concrete.

First, we poured a small amount of gravel and concrete mix into the bottom of the post hole. This way, the bottom of the wooden post doesn't touch the dirt, keeping underground water away from the post and helping to prevent the post from rotting. Then we placed the post in the hole. Next, we measured the posts to ensure they were level. Once level, we lightly nailed 2' × 4's to the post to hold them in place against the ground (these are the diagonal supports in the photos). Then, we joined two leveled posts by clamping a long wooden board horizontally between the two. In this matter, we were able to support and pour concrete for two posts at a time. After the concrete set, we were able to remove our supports and clamps. We then moved in a circle around the enclosure, securing the next post to a completed one. The Quikrete Fast-Setting Concrete took around 20–40 minutes to set completely, depending on the temperature, humidity, etc. (according to the package). We did as much work as we felt we could handle in the heat.

Since I don't have much experience with concrete work, I took a few different photos of the enclosure to help or inspire other members in their quest for the ultimate enclosure. Below is a photo of our posts, secured with clamps and 2' × 4's for support while the concrete dried.

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Our first post! We tried to establish it as a cornerstone by carving "May 2020" in the concrete.

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Once we got all the exterior posts up, it started to look like Stonehenge...

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Here's our attempted cornerstone, but it ended up getting covered with another layer of concrete.

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Here are the last two exterior posts setting.

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Since each post hole was dug by hand, they required a slightly different amount of concrete. For example, digging out the hole for the middle post removed a lot more rocks from the ground than the other holes, so this hole ended up wider and required a bit more concrete. Get ready to tinker!
 

Blackdog1714

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We started our insanely massive tortoise enclosure by securing our wooden 4' × 4' posts into our pre-dug post holes with concrete.

First, we poured a small amount of gravel and concrete mix into the bottom of the post hole. This way, the bottom of the wooden post doesn't touch the dirt, keeping underground water away from the post and helping to prevent the post from rotting. Then we placed the post in the hole. Next, we measured the posts to ensure they were level. Once level, we lightly nailed 2' × 4's to the post to hold them in place against the ground (these are the diagonal supports in the photos). Then, we joined two leveled posts by clamping a long wooden board horizontally between the two. In this matter, we were able to support and pour concrete for two posts at a time. After the concrete dried, we were able to remove our supports and clamps. We then moved in a circle around the enclosure, securing the next post to a completed one. The Quikrete Fast-Setting Concrete took around 20–40 minutes to set completely, depending on the temperature, humidity, etc. (according to the package). We did as much work as we felt we could handle in the heat.

Since I don't have much experience with concrete work, I took a few different photos of the enclosure to help or inspire other members in their quest for the ultimate enclosure. Below is a photo of our posts, secured with clamps and 2' × 4's for support while the concrete dried.

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Our first post! We tried to establish it as a cornerstone by carving "May 2020" in the concrete.

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Once we got all the exterior posts up, it started to look like Stonehenge...

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Here's our attempted cornerstone, but it ended up getting covered with another layer of concrete.

View attachment 302505

Here are the last two exterior posts setting.

View attachment 302506

Since each post hole was dug by hand, they required a slightly different amount of concrete. For example, digging out the hole for the middle post removed a lot more rocks from the ground than the other holes, so this hole ended up wider and required a bit more concrete. Get ready to tinker!
I didn’t know you were building a barn!😆 looking good that is a ton of work!
 

Oxalis

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I use them set in concrete so that way the concrete can extend below the frost line. Oddly enough RVA is much shallower than the deep North! It would allow you to change out posts as the rot in the magnificent weather you get! I don’t miss living in Ohio.
I see. Very cool! How often were you replacing your wooden posts? Did you use treated wood? Our treated wood posts should last around 20 years, give or take. These winters do present a challenge for us tortoise keepers...
 

Blackdog1714

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In the dirty south with the odd clay soil it is about 15 without to much side to side motion. In the good dry soil areas it’s 20 plus. My front yard fence is steel so that may last a bit longer.
 

Oxalis

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We completed the posts in mid-May. By the end of May, we had finished assembling our beams, which connected the tops of our posts. This will support a "ceiling" of welded wire (which we decided on instead of our original idea of using chain link fencing). Our welded wire is 14-gauge, 2" × 4", and galvanized, but we'll get to that later. We attached the beams to the posts using joist hangers, made of galvanized metal, for the size of our beams, which are 2' × 6'. The beams should also be treated pine (as usual), so they last longer in the elements.

While hubby hammered nails into the hangers, I continued digging the trenches that would become our foundation. You may also notice that we added an additional post to serve as a door frame on the northern wall of the enclosure.

I measured the height of the posts from the ground, and it's a bit over 100 inches. So we'll be on our ladders a lot when we do the ceiling. Why such a tall enclosure, you ask? The height of the structure will allow our plants inside plenty of vertical growing space, and it will allow us humans to move about unrestricted in the garden, to weed, move tortoise furniture around, etc.

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Here's a closeup of the joist hangers on a post. I'm quite pleased with these; the structure was noticeably stronger once we had a few beams up. :) These were kind of new to me too since we skipped joist hangers on the old enclosure and just attached the beams shabbily. I'm much more satisfied with this design!

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Below is a preview of what Steve will be able to look up and see, sans welded wire. With all the beams up, we've got ourselves quite the playground!

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As we get the construction together, I've started thinking about some design aspects for the enclosure. I have plenty of space to separate plants this time around (and hopefully won't crowd out my monkey flower). Steve has all his old furniture, like his hides and a water dish. I also have my old "Tortoise X-ing" sign. One of the awesome finds in our yard is a bunch of paver blocks! The previous owners left an unfinished patio, from which I've been stealing pavers for Steve's enclosure. Some are about 1.5' × 2', maybe. These will be very helpful in keeping the plants away from the doorway. I'll also be setting a concrete bench I purchased on pavers. I may also put a brick path inside the garden. Steve will have lots of places for basking! One neat decoration I found in our orchard was deer antlers! I'm thinking of attaching them above the doorway. That'll give the enclosure that hunting lodge feel... An animal started chewing on one of the antlers, so I put them in our fence gate to get them off the ground.

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So in between our time outside, I've been planning the garden part of this project. I have a list of plants I would like to add next summer, if not this season. As I did with our last enclosure, I'll make sure to list all the plants I add to the garden. I'm brainstorming how to space out those plants so everyone's happy. Luckily most of Steve's plants prefer full sun. For sorting all of our plants, Excel has been a very good indoor friend. Here's a friend who stopped by our enclosure this past afternoon:

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The other photo I included is of the post hole digger, in case anyone is curious as to what the tool looks like. Tomorrow, I can post a photo of our sod remover tool, which just arrived in the mail. In the next post, I'll describe our crazy foundation—the walls of the enclosure—for which we used cinder blocks, gravel, and more concrete. SUPER secure!
 

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Happytort27

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Wow! What a great and intricate construction! Any more updates?
 

Oxalis

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Wow! What a great and intricate construction! Any more updates?
Updates! Yes, so with a new house in a new place, and having just started a new job, there's plenty of non-tortoise-related goings-on around here! There's also plenty to do in terms of remodeling, organizing, home improvements, garden planning, etc. It's been a very busy first year in our new home.

Yesterday, Steve's enclosure received its first snow of the winter (yes, I know it's technically not winter yet). It was a very wet snow that didn't stick around much so it wasn't very picture worthy. This season, we got as far as putting up most of the welded wire around the walls. We will then cover the "roof" with welded wire and we do still have to build a door into the enclosure. Right now, a piece of welded wire is covering the doorway. After that, we will be attaching a layer of chicken wire over the welded wire, but probably only around the bottom border of the walls. I know this sounds ridiculous, but we thought it might help keep out rabbits and maybe discourage a few others. Squirrels will obviously be able to climb all the way up the walls, but rabbits could still hop in through the welded wire. We did find maybe one mole or something the burrowed through the garden underground, but I don't think he stuck around. So the chicken wire will be an extra preventative measure that will hopefully keep out a few more noisy herbivores. Nonetheless, the welded wire will also last longer than the chicken wire, so it is a more permanent element for the structure. We mostly took a break at this point because there's still a lot to do inside our house, it's getting colder outdoors, and there's been less sun to work in during the afternoons/evenings. The welded wire is also very heavy and it's going to take a lot of patience to get placed on the roof and then hammered in. We also stopped to reconsider how much chicken wire we might want to use as well as what kind of door design to use. For a project of this scale, I wanted to take the time to find the best possible solution for each step of the way, then proceed with the most effective solution to ensure that the enclosure is strong and long lasting. So I'm happy to take a break if we can build a better enclosure in the end.

Other than securing the walls and roof, our next steps (for the spring) will be mainly gardening: adding more plants, weeding, and designing some of the garden layout. I have some pavers to serve as a sort of walkway for me (and basking rocks for Steve). I'll probably need to put in more rocks and find some creative solutions for keeping weeds out. We may also do some touchup concrete work on the walls when the weather is more favorable. There's also a triangular shade tarp that we purchased to add more shade in the summer, so we'll be putting eye hook screws in the posts to hang this up. I did manage to remove most of the grass inside the enclosure and at least get my tortoise plants in the ground this season. So I'm definitely planning on Steve having a real awesome summer outdoors next year. I am working on a post about getting the walls in (with photos) and will try to get that up soon. Meanwhile, if anyone has any specific questions on building materials/methods, let me know.
 
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Oxalis

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Here are a couple winter photos of the outdoor enclosure. A crazy squirrel in our yard has been tempted to steal our burlap and twine that we used to cover our hibiscus shrub for the winter. Because we planted the hibiscus a bit later in the season than I would have liked, my husband thought some burlap would help protect the shrub from some frost and winter sunburn. We'll see how it looks in the spring. 🤞 To try to discourage the squirrel, we put down four T-posts and covered the shrub with galvanized 19-gauge ½-inch hardware cloth. I was surprised that we needed two 24"×10" rolls to cover the plant. The sheets of hardware cloth are joined by zip ties. When it warms up in the spring, we'll remove the burlap and hardware cloth, and hopefully the hibiscus will have a strong growing season.

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Here's Steve summer home, closed for the winter. 😴 We have a lot of work ahead of us for the spring!

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Oxalis

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I'm still here and getting ready for another crazy gardening season!

This month, we've been working to get all of the welded wire on the structure, and I'm happy to report that all of the welded wire is up! Next, we'll put in more fence staples to secure the wire on the bottom of the wood walls and then add a layer of chicken wire around the bottom of the walls (hopefully this keeps out rabbits, who tried to eat everything over the winter). Then I'll be weaving together the sheets of wire to secure the walls and roof. I'll be picking up new plants this Thursday, so there will be a ton of weeding, planting, and paver placing! 😅

Some of the plants that survived the winter include aster, primrose, echinacea, and hopefully hibiscus. The dandelion and plantain seeds made their own way in, as usual. I've started a few seeds indoors and I'm hoping to put more down outside as it warms up. Amazingly, I think my calendula also survived! o_O
 

Oxalis

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This past week, our order of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers came in, so we've been busy planting all over our yard. I was ecstatic to find a native elm tree (Ulmus americana) at the nursery too, which I planted just outside the tortoise enclosure since it can grow pretty tall (60 to 80 feet). I only hope it thrives for a good, long while before succumbing to the dreaded Dutch elm disease. Experts are working on more resistant cultivars, but I'm not sure if they're worth investing in yet.

The other wildflower plugs we got for Steve's enclosure so far:

2 Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)
4 Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum)
3 Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis)
3 Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
4 Sand Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
3 Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)
2 Wild Bergamot / Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)
3 Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve)
1 New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

I bought a few of each to help them get established. Steve doesn't really care for the monarda, so I'll probably use most of it for tea. It's still to early to tell if any of the hibiscus is coming back, so I got a few more of the native variety just in case. The sedum and hens and chicks (Sempervivum sp.) are growing well, as is some mallow (Malva sp.). We have the layer of chicken wire up around the bottom of the walls. I think that's about all that's new with the garden. I'll be spending the next little while pulling more weeds, putting down some more pavers, and planting some seeds. Since I bought so many seeds this year, I'll make sure to include only the ones that actually go in the ground. 😅 Lastly, I'll get around to taking a picture of all the updates (once I get a few more weeds removed, of course).
 
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