Turtles are one of nature's truly unique wonders. They have been around on this planet since the time of dinosaurs, at least 220 million years! They have an extremely long lifespan, ranging between 80-150 years depending on species and habitat. Like many reptiles, their DNA is very stable and has changed very little over the millions of years of their existence.
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For water garden enthusiasts, turtles make wonderful additions to a backyard ecosystem pond. They are quiet, happy creatures that require little direct maintenance or care. Whether you will be introducing the turtles yourself or creating an inviting environment for them to find on their own, what's most important is making sure you have established an ideal habitat in which they can thrive.
There's 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.
There are three main groups of plants to consider: Floating, Submerged, and Marginal. Floating plants that grow well here in South Jersey are lilies, lotus, and water lettuce. Their wide leaves are excellent for providing shade, and they're very good at drawing free nutrients out of the water, naturally discouraging and starving algae. As a food source for turtles, water lettuce is the best choice among floating plants, although they may also nibble on your cherished lily or lotus blossoms. Keep this in mind; if you keep turtles and flowering aquatic plants in the same pond, those breathtaking flowers may become turtle food before you can enjoy them.
Submerged plants are ones that live beneath the surface. They are useful for their ability to cleanse the water and for the sustenance they provide, not only to turtles but to fish and invertebrates that might also form part of a turtle’s varied diet. Recommended choices to include in your NJ turtle pond are bog bean, sensitive plant, golden club, and water celery.
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 the rocks beneath their foliage. They also create a nice transition from the land to the water, and turtles enjoy snacking on insects that fall from the plants into the water.
Next on the list of turtle pond essentials is one or more basking logs. As cold-blooded creatures, turtles need warmth from the sun. Providing them with a safe place to exit the pond and warm their blood is crucial to their survival. The logs turtles like best are like islands surrounded by water, not bridging to the edge of the pond. This is where they feel safest while they are sunning themselves. A log that touches the edge of the pond allows predators such as raccoons and possums easy access to a sunbathing reptile. Rocks sticking out of the water will also work as a basking platform, but there are two big reasons they are inferior to logs in this regard: they have a tendency to become slimy and thus more difficult for a turtle to climb upon, and their hardness and rough texture makes them likely scratch the underside of a turtle’s shell. The best ponds will offer a turtle several options for places to sun itself. For the happiest turtles, consider where the sun hits your pond in the morning and be sure that area has a nice basking log or two. The best logs or rocks for a sunning turtle are dark in color, as they absorb the most heat and will be the warmest.
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 is 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 swim up for air. (This rule still 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 the cold temperatures and from predators. You can easily provide this by sinking a shallow plastic bin filled with sand and mud into your pond in the autumn. Be sure the bin is at least 2-3 times the width of their shell so the turtle can fit comfortably inside. When the water warms up, you can remove the bin and enjoy your pond in it’s natural state.
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 keep the 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, such 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 learn 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
If you live in South Jersey and have specific questions about your turtles or your pond, give us a call at 856-768-9404. Thanks!
Landvista Aquascapes provides Pond & Water Feature Design, Installation & Maintenance -Repair services for South New Jersey Homeowners