String of Turtles Complete Care Guide - What no-one tells you (and how not to kill them)
Peperomia Prostrata aka String of Turtles. Count me in. I'm officially and totally obsessed with these little cuties. But how do you go from a cute teeny-weeny cutting, to lush overflowing, trailing, insta-worthy plant?
The good news first. They ARE easy care. Once you know what to do (and what NOT to do). Especially once they are established (or if you start with a more mature, bigger plant). In fact, this is not the plant you want to be a helicopter-plant-parent over. However, there are a few big NO NO's to be aware of also...
A little house-keeping before we jump in...
#1 Every environment is different. This is what works for me combined with advice I've received from other hobbyists and growers. Take this as a starting point and adjust to suit what makes your turtles thrive in your environment. You do you.
#2 Be aware of their wee leaves! These guys are not huggers. Definitely not fans of being touched too much. More delicate than their tough turtle-shell leaves appear. I find their leaves fall off annoyingly easily. Although my new obsession is silicon (which strengthens roots, stems and leaves), so I am trying Pro-TeKt at the moment (I'll update you on how it goes), plus feeding a food with calcium in it does wonders too.
Find your Turtle's happy place, then largely leave them be. Once those leaves start trailing over the edge - moving is best avoided. Upside is if you want a really bushy Turtles, losing a few strands (and of course keeping them to propagate), is not a bad thing.
#3 TLDR (the 'too long didn't read' version)
SOIL: Free draining, fine, soil-less substrate.
HUMIDITY: Very high preferred.
WATER: Lightly moist (never wet).
LIGHT: Bright indirect light (no direct sun).
FOOD: Little and often.
= Very happy turtles!
Cheat: Grow Pods are the bomb for easy happy Turtles cuttings, baby plants and turtles who refuse to grow.
(section about SOT in Grow Pods below too)
Right. Here we go...
Free draining is key for turtle success to avoid the dreaded leaf rot. Pumice, perlite, fine bark, you get the idea... Don't get hung up on exact substrate mix though. What and how much doesn't matter as much as it being a free-draining, finer substrate. Go for a finer, grittier grade of whatever you decide instead of something too chunky, as their fine roots do better with a finer substrate.
I've tried different mixes. My current favourite is the Bioleaf fine succulent mix. (its a complete mix too so you don't have to fuss with adding things). Or go DIY and throw a bit of everything all in the mix together if you like.
I've seen a few people add a layer of pumice to the top to keep those shallow roots extra dry and leaves elevated off any wet substrate, but I personally tend to avoid layering. Instead I'd mix it all in well to keep water draining right through, instead of stopping between layers (yes, water does that - layering can actually increase water retention).
I wouldn't however go for sphagnum moss myself. Yes, I have seen it recommended a lot, but mainly for non-rooted leaf cuttings. You can pop a cut end in sphagnum moss or pin it down laying on the surface until it roots, but I've heard too many horror stories of them rotting on spag moss (keep in mind the substrate may not be to blame though - it's hard to know with so many factors), but personally I'd give it a miss, or at least move your babies to a different substrate as soon as those roots have formed and you see some initial new growth.
Whatever you try, free-draining is a must, as these chaps HATE being water-logged. More about water coming up, below light and temperature.
Light & temperature
Turtles do best in medium to bright indirect light, and definitely no direct sun on babies. They have a clear almost jelly-like layer on the leaf. Sun can quickly cook their delicate leaves really fast. Best avoided! Once established, turtles are more sun-tolerant but I'd still stick to weaker sun (like morning sun or winter sun) than harsh midday summer sun for the adults.
Turtles like the same temperature range we are comfy in. About 18 to 26 degrees is their happy place. Cooler than some other succulents (turtles are actually semi-succulent) so watch those hot temperatures in summer to avoid scorching and heat stress. Get yourself one of those mini plant thermometers to help.
As far as water goes, keep it light. Don't overdo the H2O. If your place is humid - or you've got your turtles in a Grow Pod or dome, or even a snap-lock bag - water or mist minimally. I'd wait for the sides of the dome to have no droplets before misting again. A dome of some sort is superb for baby turtles, for cuttings, and for turtles who refuse to grow.
When my littlies are still in their Grow Pod, I mist daily, but it depends on your conditions. For my turtles out of a dome, I water, not mist. Water when the surface is completely dry, down to about 5cm. You get a feel for it pretty fast based on the weight of the pot but rather than stick fingers in and risk leaf loss, use one of those little mini water meters, like the Crew Soil Sensor or Mushroom brands. For mature turtles, I avoid getting their leaves wet, or just morning water so leaves dry out before night.
Think lightly damp, never wet. If you only mist and don't water at all, then mist more often as they'll lose that water faster. I personally wouldn't mist by itself once they get a bit of size on them, as the roots uptake nutrients better than the leaves, and misting alone risks the substrate getting too dry.
Beware over-watering. They HATE wet feet. Overwatering can quickly turn your string of turtles into a mushy turtle soup if you're not careful. Water well when it's time.
Many bottom water turtles to avoid the leaves getting wet. I top water my turtles once they get some size on them because the roots are so shallow (and mine are in comparatively tall pots - shallow is better). I want those nutrients to reach the roots. A shallow pot is a better choice for these chaps though (and looks fantastic when they start trailing over the edge).
For top watering: I give mine about half the size of the pot in water, with a little fertiliser mixed in. I water well and water in the morning so leaves dry off before night. If yours are in a shallower pot and you bottom water, just don't leave them to soak for too long, just enough for the soil surface to be damp.
For bottom watering: Pop your pot of turtles in a container, fill your outer container about half way up the pot with water. Set your alarm for about 10 to 15 minutes (you want the surface of the soil to be damp). Remove and drain well.
Whatever pot yours are in, a drainage hole is a must in my books. Don't risk a container without a drainage hole. It's simply too easy to overwater.
These chaps LOVE humidity. Think 60% to 90%. You can stuff up a lot and still win with high humidity. Absolutely the go for turtles.
If you have one, a Grow Pod is a very popular for rooting and initial very fast growth for baby Turtles, otherwise a glass dome over the pot, a Grow House with vents, or just a snap-lock bag will do in a pinch. Some just put glad wrap over the pot (I haven't tried that myself).
If you have the budget, buying a prop box, terrarium or fish tank with a grow light for above, and a heat pad for below, is a winner too. If that's overboard for you, you don't have room, or it's just crazy out of budget, do consider one of those clever little Grow Pods instead since they have a grow light, dome and fan all in one. With the rest of the conditions all good, a simple glass dome over a pot or a plastic snap-lock bag get great results too.
The beauty of a Grow Pod is it keeps the air flow up too (there's a tiny fan in the base that keeps air circulating inside), so if you go for a bag or dome, make sure to let them air out every day. Airflow helps avoid leaf rot.
Turtles are found growing epiphytically in the wild so they can make superb terrarium plants. Epiphytes are plants that grow on the surface of other plants and get their nutrients from the air, rain and debris.
In summer, mature turtles can hang out in normal indoor plant conditions in most spots in NZ. I find my more mature chaps don't grow as fast, but still seem happy enough without any special bits and bobs. I do keep a humidifier on hand just in case humidity drops below 60% (I have a cordless H2O humidifier and mini hygrometer). In winter I go back to a heat pad with humidifier.
Grow Pod settings for String of Turtles
I added this section in after I'd written this guide because so many people have asked me this exact question - since I do sell those pods - and I see it come up so often on groups and forums.
I've tried different combos but my current fave is the dim light setting, on manual, for 12 to 18 hours of light in one stretch. I have also had success using the full light setting on auto (that's 12 hours on, 12 hours off), but had one cutting recently - which started a little less variegated anyway - and the full light setting seemed to make him lighten up and lose his brown shell markings, so now I go for the dim light on manual (he came right pretty fast after that in his new leaves).
I just turn the Grow Pod on in the morning and off when I go to bed. The fan automatically cycles 40 mins on, 40 mins off on Grow Pods, so no concerns about airflow or rot.
I'm not super exact about the hours of light each day, plus I try not to helicopter parent my Turtles and let the Grow Pod do the nurturing. I mist about daily when they're babies in the pod, just when I notice the water droplets on the dome have evaporated.
Despite being relatively slow growers (at first anyway, then I find they take off once settled in and have a little growth underway), fertiliser does make a difference (I've tried with and without). I find mine gave me bigger leaves, faster growth and better variegation since I've started to feed them. But if you do feed - as it's not a must - keep it light!
For baby turtles and cuttings, there's also CCS by GT. It's a complete fertiliser - also with calcium - but formulated to boost root growth in young plants and cuttings to get them established.
Calcium's also important as it's not a mobile nutrient, so plants can't shift it to new growth when there's a deficiency. Not enough calcium when a leaf forms, means a deficiency for the life of that leaf. If a food is developed for hydro, you can use it for misting too (both GT and Dyna-Gro can be use for foliar misting).
I haven't found turtles to be heavy feeders, but being in a very free-draining, mainly inorganic soil mix, they still need to be fed as good turtle substrate won't retain a lot of nutrients.
I feed my turtles half-strength, every time I water. For Dyna-Gro I used 1ml per 3 litres (that food is super concentrated). For GT I use 5mls per 1 litre.
Turtles do have fine, delicate roots, so it's also worth either finding a food without urea, to reduce the risk of root burn, or to top water well so excess nutrients get flushed out.
Super easy. They might not be the speediest, but they root well from a simple stem cutting. Cut off a healthy stem with a few leaves on it so you have a viable node or two along the stem. Personally I'd keep to at least 4 or 5 leaves, but I have seen people have success with just 2 leaves (I haven't tried so few leaves myself to comment, but wouldn't recommend it myself).
They can root in that same fine soil mix their mumma plant is in, or in water, or you could try sphagnum moss (I prefer to root cuttings in a fine, free draining soil mix and pop it in a Grow Pod). CCS is a fertiliser made for cuttings that includes calcium and is free of urea.
I find they root well if pinned down gently, so the stem's in contact with the substrate (I use paper clips but you can use those green plant twist ties shaped into a little 'U' to make a plant pin too).
Take my word for this - grab a spoon! Be gentle. Those leaves are delicate. For little turtles, I scoop them out with a big spoon and gently place them in their new pot. Job done. For bigger turtles, I flip them leaf-side down, on to my palm, and gently flip them back on to the new substrate. The flip method is faster and less fiddly, but you may lose a few leaves. A post-repot water with CCS will help roots recover.
I am turtle obsessed and may get over my addiction soon, but in the meantime if you're new to turtles or having any worries, I hope this guide helped. My first String of Turtles cost about $150 and I almost killed them. I'm so please the price has come down and they're more readily available. Please do give it a share if this helped you. I love the idea that my trials and tribulations will help others.
PS: I'll be adding lots of String of Turtles photos soon so this guide looks a bit nicer. Your photos are welcome too (credit will of course be given).