Ever had the pleasure of seeing a wild turtle casually wander into your garden or pond? Turtle sightings are considered very lucky, as they are symbolic of hope and tranquility. Some cultures believe that seeing a turtle is a sign that you need to slow down, find your footing, and embrace your connection to the earth. Realistically, if a turtle walks into your yard, it usually just means that it has regarded your space as a safe and welcoming habitat, or it has spotted some appetizing greens!
Beyond the thrill of watching a turtle enjoy the features of your garden, there are benefits that it can provide as well. Their slow-grazing activity can help you keep grass growth in check. They also eat insects and pests, such as slugs, that may otherwise attack your plants. In addition, they can be used as indicators of healthy water systems. The visual treat and the inspiration to find inner peace are simply bonus benefits!
Attracting turtles to your garden is fairly simple, and should be even easier if you have a pond or are in close proximity to bodies of water. To fully grasp which features would most effectively draw a turtle’s attention, it would be helpful to first familiarize yourself with their characteristics, their natural habitat in the wild, and some of their favorite plants to eat.
Land Turtles in the Wild
Keep in mind that turtles are ectotherms, unable to regulate their own body temperature. In the wild, they will naturally look for spots that will prevent them from overheating or becoming too cold. To stay cool, they look for shady areas or may burrow underground. Many common turtles will bask on logs and rocks if the temperature is perfect (78 – 82˚F/26 – 28˚C).
They will almost always be found close to a body of freshwater and in fields, meadows, and woodlands that contain their favorite things to feed on. These include plants that produce berries, low-growing leafy vegetables, and fleshy mushrooms.
Which Turtles Will You Attract?
Turtle species that are often found living in gardens and ponds are sometimes referred to as terrapins or tortoises. These include the painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), common box turtle (Terrapene carolina), and the common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), to name a few. The prominence of these species, found throughout the wetland and forest regions of North America, may have influenced the way Native Americans viewed the continent, which they traditionally referred to as ‘Turtle Island’.
These turtles are typically small, though the common snapping turtle can reach a length of 14 inches (36 cm). Box and slider turtles normally don’t exceed 6 inches (15 cm) in length. These common species tend to have markings and stripes that set them apart from one another, along with carapaces that have varied patterns. They are mostly omnivorous, have slow metabolic rates, and are generally docile in water, but their propensity for daytime activity can differ. The musk turtle, for example, prefers to be active at night, during which they are often spotted foraging in shallow pond water. Box turtles, in contrast, keep themselves busy during the day.
How to Attract Turtles (Natural Tips & Tricks)
1) Create Features That Will Attract Turtles
To attract turtles, you can easily create sections of your garden or pond that mimic their habitat in the wild. It is important to remember that these creatures are ectothermic, and will require structures that can help them maintain body temperature. When situating these features, remember that they should all be interconnected in some way so that visiting turtles can easily navigate to and fro. If your garden doesn’t have a pond, it should at least have a ground-level water feature, such as a manmade stream, bog garden, or a small creek.
Create small coves near the edges of your water features so that turtles can find a sheltered spot to cool off during the day. To create a cove micro-environment, use a shovel to dig out a hollow with soft moist soil. Gather stones and rocks of varying sizes, and carefully pile these around and on top of the hollow, so that a section is cast in shadow. You may also use bricks to create a cave. Just make sure that the pile is stable and will not easily topple into itself due to rain or a strong gust of wind.
Surround the cove with lush vegetation, particularly ones that you don’t mind propagating for the turtle to eat. Ideal plants would include those with succulent and nutritious leaves (specific plants are mentioned below). Without cool shaded spots, a turtle will easily get sunburned and quickly deteriorate. You can create more shady areas around your garden by using leaf litter, decaying wood, and small logs.
Rake your leaves to a corner of your garden, preferably one with many low-growing plants, such as ferns and black cohosh. The piles of leaves provide a protected environment for your turtle to burrow into, especially for nights that are particularly chilly. Turtles are even known for creating tunnel systems under piles of leaf litter, where they can hunt for small insects. Expect your resident turtles to pop in and out of these leaf piles, especially when temperatures are turtle-friendly. The adjacent plants should ideally be a source of food for them, or at least attract insects or snails that they can eat. Depending on their size, turtles can vigorously eat beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, mealworms, and other soft-bodied insects!
Lastly, make sure you have a few sunny spots in your garden, with loose sandy soil, for mating and egg-laying. Inevitably, a wild turtle may wander off to look for a mate, but if it is satisfied with the conditions you have provided, it is likely to return.
2) Grow Plants to Attract Turtles
Land turtles love fleshy food and can eat a wide variety of plants and their fruits. They can usually be relied on to know which plants they can safely consume, but you may want to remove any toxic plants just in case.
Turtles tend to gravitate towards leafy herbs and vegetables, such as arugula, lettuce, fennel, wild carrot, sage, basil, and rosemary. They also like to eat common weeds like alfalfa, honeysuckle, evening primrose, persimmon, daisy, and bittercress. You may want to keep watch over your slow-growing succulents and fence them off if you do not wish them to be consumed. These include begonias, kalanchoe, sedums, stonecrops (which also look great as ground cover around a pond), aloes, and yuccas. Additionally, turtles will like any berries that we like to eat as well. If you grow berries for your personal consumption, it may be wise to fence them off too.
3) Make Your Pond Turtle-Friendly
To keep your pond turtle-friendly, create structures along the edges that will allow it to move in and out of your pond. You can use stones and pebbles for this, or you can design your pond to have an increasingly shallow water depth towards the edge. Remember that turtles often like to bask after a cool swim! Place small piles of rocks and logs that protrude through the water in the center of the pond. When temperatures are favorable, expect your turtles to peacefully prop themselves on the surfaces of these. You’ll find that they can keep still enough to look like delicately painted sculptures!
Will Turtles Eat My Fish and Aquatic Plants?
After seeing more turtles begin to visit your pond or garden, you may worry about the effect they have on your pond communities. Though turtles may sometimes eat aquatic plants and small fish, having one or two of them won’t considerably affect your pond community. They may, on occasion, consume fish food and fish eggs, nibble on the leaves and roots of aquatic plants, or even eat small fish (in the case of baby snapping turtles). When well-fed, however, they should not have an aggressive hunting instinct. Remember that there are other pond creatures that they may prefer over fish, such as worms, tadpoles, insect larvae, and small frogs.
Do keep in mind that this would largely depend on the species of turtles you have in your pond, so it may be wise to try to identify them and conduct further research. Snapping turtles and musk turtles, for example, have a higher tendency to eat pond fish when compared to red-eared sliders and painted turtles. At which point should you be wary? If you have an abundance of turtles in your pond and have noticed a drop in fish and aquatic plant populations, it may be time to take action! This can sometimes mean safely removing them from your pond or simply blocking off areas. In the worst case, if you have a mature snapping turtle that terrorizes your fish, you may have to contact a professional who can remove it for you.
Things to Avoid
If you would like to ensure that your resident turtles thrive in your pond or garden for years to come, it would be best to avoid using harmful gardening chemicals, such as herbicides and pesticides. Try to stick to a plant treatment regimen that is fully organic or non-toxic. Avoid adding large amounts of mineral additives and nutrients to your pond, as this may affect oxygen levels and water quality. Finally, regularly clean your pond of waste and maintain a stable water profile to keep your fish and turtles happy!