There are a few critical elements that go into making the perfect turtle pond. The first and perhaps most important one is plants. Turtles are omnivores, and plants make up an essential part of their diet. In addition to being food for turtles, plants provide a place for them to hide, to nest, and they provide the shade that turtles need to regulate their body temperature.
Marginal plants are those that thrive in moist or soggy soil at the edges of a pond. They are excellent cover for shy turtles and frogs that like to hide between rocks beneath their foliage. They also create a nice transition from the land to the water, and turtles enjoy snacking on insects that fall off their stems and into the water.
If you are hoping to attract wild turtles, consider the size and depth of your pond. Turtles like to swim freely and explore, and they prefer a pond that at minimum 2.5‘ deep. This depth serves a dual-purpose: it gives them the room to hide beyond the reach of land predators like fox and coyote, and it allows them to winter over in the pond where the water is not at risk of freezing solid. If you have a pond with turtles and live here in NJ, it is recommended you use a floating pond heater to guarantee you maintain a hole in the ice so the turtles can up for air. (This rule also applies if you only have fish, without a hole in the ice fish can suffocate in a small pond) Another necessity for turtles in the winter is a nice bed of mud or sand for them to bury in, this helps insulate them from both cold temperatures and from predators. You can easily provide this by sinking a shallow plastic bin at least 2-3 times the width of their shell filled with sand and mud into your pond in the autumn. As the water warms up you can remove it and enjoy your pond in it’s natural state during the warmer months.
The perfect turtle pond will also have some shallow sloped sides for ease of entering and exiting the water. Think of it like a boating ramp, but for turtles. A mix of small, medium and large rocks in the pond provides a good variety of areas with little nooks and coves to attract an assortment of critters. Turtles like it best where they feel safe, so creating some nice coves along the banks where they can nestle down and wait for tasty insects to come by will increase your chances of attracting a resident turtle to your pond.
The last consideration is fencing. If you already have turtles, fencing in your pond will prevent most predators from getting in and turtles from escaping. If your pond is not fenced in, there is greater chance wild turtles will find your pond, but know that they may only be temporary residents. Turtles love to wander and explore, and it is encouraged that you don’t overly restrict their natural freedom when it’s not necessary as in the case of a rescued and rehabilitating turtle.
By following this advice you will maximize your chances of attracting turtles to your pond and keeping them so happy they don’t feel the need to leave. Even with the happiest turtles in the most ideal turtle ponds, without a mate they may still need to leave and answer their biological instincts. With the proper preparations and a bit of luck, they are most likely to return and share more time with you in your backyard pond!
To read about the different species of turtles found in New Jersey, this link will take you to a nice field guide with descriptions and photos: www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/ensp/pdf/turtles.pdf