Aquatic Turtles in Your Backyard Pond

There are many different types of ponds, but the design and material of the basic backyard pond is particularly important when you want to raise native species of aquatic turtles outdoors. Most backyard ponds are either a liner type pond or a plastic shell type pond. Cement ponds used to be the ‘norm’, but even so, should not be habitat for turtles. The aquatic turtles can scratch and gouge their shells, and those gouges can become infected with deadly bacteria, killing the turtles or, at the very least, causing deformation of limbs and organs.

If you choose to design your turtle pond using a liner, be sure to select a thicker, food-grade pond liner, made of EPDM (Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer), a type of rubber. EPDM is abrasion-resistant and conforms easily to shapes and depths you design. If you live in colder climates, you will need a somewhat deeper pond than someone who lives in the tropics. You need to ensure your aquatic critters at least a foot of unfrozen water, so choose wisely, for the best results.

With a pre-formed shell type liner, you can select from a wide variety of shapes and sizes. As with the liner-type ponds, be sure to allow for unfrozen depths in the middle of winter. Personally, I far prefer liner-style ponds, and all three of the ponds I have built are liner-type. One pond, with fish, turtles, frogs (very loud frogs!) and a massive variety of insects, and bird guests, such as a Great Blue Heron and a flock of ducks, is just 12 feet by 17 feet, with a small waterfall at one end for aeration. I made a small, flattened mound (about 2 ft by 3 ft) in the center of the pond, and after laying the liner, placed several stacked flat rocks for the turtles to sunbathe and warm themselves.

As for pond size requirements, you will need a larger pond, around 1,000 to 3,000 gallons, if you want to have a mixture of critters and plants. Fish, frogs and turtles all need a place to get ‘away from it all’ and away from each other. For turtles alone, a 500-gallon pond will do nicely, providing you have some deep spots that will not freeze in winter.

So, chose your pond type, install as per the directions, and then you are ready to prepare your new aquatic habitat!

Turtles need a few things from you, to grow healthy and happy through the years:

Land Runs and Sunning Space – Aquatic turtles need space to get out of the water and the one to five feet surrounding the pond is ideal, but with minimal area around the pond, you can also make small ‘beaches’ for your turtles. The turtle beaches can either be at the edge of the pond, or they can be a free floating or anchored island. Logs work well for sunbathing space, and you can anchor them by placing one end inside a construction block, the kind we used to use for bookshelves. A clump or two of grass on their island is great, but beware, turtles eat a lot, and you may have to replace the grass often. Another terrific and very stable island is one you make of flat shale or slabs of rock. You can purchase these inexpensively at any rock landscaping supply. Stagger the rock slabs slightly, to make turtle ‘steps’, because while turtles are great climbers, they shouldn’t have to work too hard for a lazy day sunbathing, and, on the off chance your turtles mate and reproduce, baby turtles have much smaller legs and their climbing ability hasn’t yet developed.

Fencing or Protection from Wandering Off – Aquatic turtles are fantastic climbers, and they are inveterate wanderers! If they can wander off, they will! Most aquatic turtles also have a propensity for digging under and around barriers, even underwater. I prevented the critters from escaping their habitat by surrounding the pond with a ring of vinyl coated hardware cloth, purchased at a farm supply as rabbit fencing. I buried 12 inches into the dirt, folded the top 6 inches inwards toward the pond center (creating a climb barrier, such as those on prison fencing), and then planted bog and marginal plants thickly around the perimeter of the entire fence, as a natural disguise. The fence height aboveground was just 24 inches, but it served its purpose well.

Another method of enclosure is actually not an enclosure at all! Build your turtle pond with sheer walls. Don’t build any beaches at all, so be sure to have one or several nice artificial islands. Keep the water level at a minimum of 8 inches under the edge of the pond, and be sure you have no floating pond elements that the very smart and very tricky turtles could nudge to the wall and climb out on and escape. It seemed to me, at the time, that it was much simpler to build the fence enclosure.

Hiding places and more – Turtles can be shy critters, so provide your turtles with adequate, even extensive hiding places. Thick vegetation, hollow logs, even terracotta flowerpots turned on their sides and held down in shallow water by stones all work well.

Some native species will mate and reproduce even in captivity. Provide lush, nesting areas, either on the natural beaches, or, a safer idea is to build nesting areas on your anchored islands. Even a cat litter pan filled with dirt and leaves may, one day, hold a clutch of eggs, waiting to hatch.

Hibernation Habitats – Turtles are cold-blooded creatures, and as such, cannot regulate their own body temperatures, the way that birds and mammals do, so it is up to you to provide them safe haven from the harshness of winter. An 8-inch deep tray of clay and sand mix is good hibernation habitat, and so is a cat litter pan filled with loam, clay, sand and dirt. Place the hibernation habitat on the bottom of the pond, and when your turtles need to hibernate, they will figure it out.

Filtration and Water Quality – A fountain is adequate aeration for a turtle pond, but your turtles with do better with a bubbleator type aeration device. This creates a lot of oxygen filled bubbles deeper in the pond, which permeate the water as they move to the surface.

A filtration system is a must with turtles! A simple filter system can be purchased at most any water gardening shop, both online and brick and mortar stores. If you have planted your turtle pond with a variety of native plants, and an adequate number of plants, filtration will partially be accomplished by the plants themselves. But, for healthy and long-lived turtles, purchase a high volume filter, one that filters the entire volume at least once per hour.

My turtle ponds entertained me, my family, and our neighbors, for years, with just a little planning, care, and maintenance. It was a natural wonder to just sit quietly by the pond, listening to the drone of the dragonflies, the chirping of the many birds drawn to the ponds, the click-clicking of the turtle families ‘talking’ to each otherâÂ?¦ gosh, I need to go sit by the pond, bye!

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