Box Turtles in the Garden—Close Encounters of the Reptilian Kind

Eastern Box Turtle

Eastern box turtle (photo by Sonja Keohane)

I should have known from the start that I was in for a close encounter of the reptilian kind. From my first spring on Shelter Island, a sleepy little place sandwiched between the north and south forks of eastern Long Island, homemade Box Turtle X'ing signs sprouted mysteriously along roadsides as soon as the shadbush began to bloom. Over the next decade I'd occasionally see one of the peaceful little beasts chomping on a plump mushroom while plodding deliberately across my moss lawn. I even collected their boxlike shells from my woods, each one a unique pattern of yellow to orange splotches, blotches, streaks, and dabs on a dark background. Back then, box turtles seemed cute, but they weren't as beguiling as the monarchs, swallowtails, and other butterflies I spent so much time and money luring to my garden.

Then, one morning early last summer, a box turtle lumbered stoically through my butterfly meadow, trudged across my mangy back lawn, made his way to the middle of my patio, then stopped dead in his tracks. He extended his long reptilian neck and proceeded to look dolefully from side to side. After what seemed like ages, he continued across the patio to a white pine along the edge of the woods and disappeared in the pine needle duff.

Suddenly it dawned on me. He was looking for my muck garden! A few weeks earlier, to make more room for sunbathing and barbecues, I'd expanded my patio, in the process demolishing the tiny bog I'd created between the house and patio to attract still more butterflies with moisture-loving wildflowers.

Since that day, in hopes of making amends, I've made it my business to find out what box turtles like to eat, where they like to siesta on a hot summer day, and how these creatures, among the longest-lived vertebrates, make it through the winter. I've done my penance in the library, reading scientific tomes on box turtle fecal contents and other engrossing subjects. In the process, I've learned not only that we gardeners can help ease the plight of the placid, plodding reptiles, which are gradually disappearing from landscapes across eastern North America, but also that box turtles have a lot to offer us in return—beyond the usual bromides about the virtues of patience and perseverance.

Sticky Heels

So many people have had an encounter with an eastern box turtle that it's often known as the common box turtle. Meeting up with one almost always leaves a good impression. They're appealing animals with their brightly patterned, lumpy shells, stumpy legs, short little tails, and animated facial features. They're easy to catch and hold and, unlike so many other reptiles, they rarely bite. Their lovable slow, lumbering gait led the Delaware Indians to call them "sticky heels." Their ability to close up tightly in their shells is pretty nifty too.

Four box turtle species are native to North America. The eastern box turtle, Florida box turtle, Gulf Coast box turtle, and three-toed box turtle are all subspecies of Terrapene carolina. The ornate box turtle, Terrapene ornata, is primarily a turtle of the prairies and the Southwest; the spotted box turtle, Terrapene nelsoni, lives in the Sonoran Desert; and the Coahuilan box turtle, Terrapene coahuila, is native to a single valley in Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert. The only truly aquatic species is the Coahuilan box turtle; the others are terrestrial but enjoy a refreshing dip in a pond every once in a while.

Eastern box turtles are found throughout much of eastern North America. Their version of turtle heaven includes not only shady woods with a thick layer of leaf litter and downed branches to hang out in but also ample sources of water and sunny areas for basking.

Box turtles dig out of their excavated overwintering sites in April and are active until October. In spring and summer they forage, gain weight and grow, bump (literally) into mates, and lay eggs. They spend the night concealed in a "form," a shallow depression in soil or leaf litter. They love leaf litter and not only sleep and hibernate in the stuff but also tunnel through it, blazing trails along the forest floor.

Herpetologists seem to have a thing about carving their initials in box turtle shells. One lucky creature from Rhode Island with the dates 1844 and 1860 and two sets of initials scored into its plastron, or lower shell, was thought to have been at least 138 years old. Although eggs and hatchlings often get picked off by raccoons and foxes, any box turtle that survives the juvenile stages has a good shot at living as long as a human—assuming it doesn't get creamed by a car while crossing a road or mangled by a mower. More on that in a minute.

Scientists who have closely examined the digestive-tract contents of eastern box turtles claim they come about as close as it gets to the classic definition of an omnivore—they'll eat just about anything that crosses their path. Two researchers from Southern Illinois University found the most important box turtle food groups to be (by volume) unidentified plant material (34.2%) and seeds (17.4%), as well as—gardeners take note—insects (19.6%) and snails and slugs (10.6%). (Another scientist discovered that snails and slugs comprised 52% of the diet of ten eastern box turtles in Kentucky. That's my kind of critter!) At certain times of year, mushrooms are a tasty Terrapene treat.

All this leads me to conclude that my friendly box turtle came to my muck garden often to dine on juicy slugs, maybe even to cool his sticky heels on sultry summer days. And he truly must have been perplexed (in a reptilian sort of way) by the fact that one of his favorite hangouts had disappeared—scientists believe box turtles have good memories for choice feeding and resting spots. At least one group of researchers found entire turtle congregations returning regularly to feast at favored fruiting plants.

Although much is known about seed dispersal by birds and mammals, little is known about saurochory, the dispersal of seeds by reptiles. But C. Kenneth Dodd Jr., who has written the book about North American box turtles, maintains that "eastern box turtles are also important agents of seed dispersal," moving seeds throughout the forest. What's more, studies have demonstrated that passage through a box turtle's gut increases germination rates for some seeds, including mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), black cherry (Prunus serotina), summer grape (Vitis aestivalis), pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), and jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). Black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), mulberries (Morus species), blackberries (Rubus species), American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), and frost grape (Vitis vulpina) are other favorite fleshy fruits.

Gardening for Box Turtles

Like other wild animals, box turtles increasingly find themselves marooned in a sea of suburbs. Populations in fragmented habitats may be composed mostly of seniors or nonreproducing adults on a long, slow slide toward extinction; if there aren't enough turtles in the immediate vicinity, they may not meet frequently enough to mate. Habitat loss and fragmentation aren't the only threats. Although they're protected by state and international regulations, box turtles are often stolen from the wild for sale in the pet trade. Road kills and mower mortality reduce their numbers even more.

Fortunately, we gardeners can play a role in nurturing these plucky reptiles—and get rid of some slugs as part of the bargain. Here are a few actions to consider:

  • Invite box turtles into your garden by planting their favorite fruits (see above). In sunny areas, encourage dense clusters of brambles, and let the ripened berries fall. Choose species that fruit at different times during the season. (But be aware that these beasts have a well-known penchant for raiding vegetable gardens, especially for cantaloupes and tomatoes, so erect a little box turtle barrier.)
  • Leave large, continuous areas of natural leaf litter mulch beneath the trees on your property, where the animals can remain camouflaged and forage for prey. Build brush piles over soft, loose soil by layering branches and leaf litter, where they can spend the night or overwinter.
  • Any moist place, whether swamp, damp forest depression, or simple water garden, will help turtles survive the hottest parts of the day.
  • Provide a large, and preferably isolated, clearing. Box turtles use such areas for traveling, mating, and basking. They also lay their eggs in sunny spots.
  • Site all turtle habitat as far as possible from deadly roadways.
  • Read your mower manual: Before mowing, walk the area in search of flying objects. Turtles are potential flying objects. Mow on a dry day, at midday, when turtles are less likely to be out and about. Better yet, mow in winter when they're tucked in safely underground.

Janet Marinelli is the former director of publishing at BBG. Her book, Plant, published by Dorling Kindersley, showcases 2,000 species worldwide that are threatened in the wild but alive in cultivation.


Comments

June 18, 2010
Delores jackson

I just rescued two box turtles. One from my lawnmower and the other from the middle of the road.  I have a small flower garden around my pool in the back yard.  It is filled with hostas, Lilies, iris, roses and azaleas. One has already burrowed in.  I hope they will survive there.  It is a fenced enclosure so they are somewhat isolated. Your article gave me ideas about food to put for them, although there are plenty of rooms and the like in the flower bed. I just hope they don’t get into the pool and drown.  Thanks, Dee


June 28, 2010
Patricia

I would add that a turtle should never be moved from its home territory. Box turtles have site fidelity and suffer a high mortality rate when they have been moved to a new location.

Move them in the direction they are headed across the road.

Also, turtles are poor swimmers and will drown in pools. Please keep your pools fenced in to protect turtles and other animals from accidental drownings.

Plan your garden to welcome a local turtle in. Never remove one from its home in the wild.


November 22, 2010
Amanda Lineberry

About a month or two ago my mothers boyfriend found a baby box turtle. I fell in love with it right away. I was wondering what I should be feeding it. It’s still alive in the terrarium I have it in. It has been choosing fresh foods and canned box turtle food over the worms and crickets I put in it as well for protein. Do the bugs have to be alive? Where can I buy live foods that have been farm raised?


February 2, 2011
KC Coffman

Dear Amanda,

Baby (and older) turtles love food that wiggles. You can find worms and bugs outside, where chemicals are not used, and mealworms at pet stores and bait shops. Ours prefer night crawlers to red worms. But it is much more important that the turtle get UV, ultraviolet light. Without UV and calcium it will get sick, slowly become deformed, eventually die. By the time you can see the problem it may be too late. Get Reptisun10 (or another proven brand) right away. Sunbaths work fine, but can be hard to arrange during the winter, and the little guy needs his UV every day, every week.

Best wishes, KC


August 11, 2011
Terry O'Connell

I have a large turtle garden with about 8 box turtles that came from a rescue and were non releasable.  I have a permit/license to own and collect. I just want to say that this is a wonderful article. No box turtle should be taken from the wild. If you do own one he should be living outside in a large garden that mimics the environment that he would be living if he were in the wild.


October 31, 2011
Felicia Ferrigno

My son found a cold still turtle hatchling on our driveway. Not knowing what to do with it, naturally we brought it inside to warm it and began to look all over the internet We are not sure what species it is, but after its not eating for several days, and a trip to the pet store, we came home with the coconut husk medium and the turtle immediately burrowed into it. After 3 days of what we thought was hibernation, today he woke up and started ambling a bit around the terrarium. i gave him fresh water and let him soak, turned on the UVB and heat lamp and now he’s just looking around, and ambling a little. Do we release him outside, or what? Willing to care for him, but don’t want to disrupt his life if he could survive on his own.


March 22, 2012
steve

I LIKE TURTLES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


March 28, 2012
Kim Belcher

My daughter found a box turtle in the road whose right leg was almost completely severed off about half way down. She cut the remainder off and cauterized it, and kept her indoors throughout the winter. “Lefty Lucy” is healed completely and I want to set up a safe habitat outside. I have a cherry tree in the area where i was going to put her, but don’t know if the fruit or its leaves will harm her? Please advise. Thank you.


April 3, 2012
Bridget Walker

I have a resident turtle in my rose garden. He just showed up one year and has never left. I was wondering what kind of mulch to use that would not harm the turtle? I used peacan shells, but now they have all but vanished. I cannot get hold of any now so what do you recommend?


May 13, 2012
Vicki Polansky

Today I found a little (3-inch) box turtle in my vegetable garden, half hidden under the hairy vetch that has grown up the fence. My question is this: I want to clear out the vetch and other weeds so I can plant my tomatoes, but don’t want to deprive the turtle of his habitat. The turtle must have a way to get under the fence—he wasn’t there last summer—and there’s a wild area about three feet away… And in a few weeks the tomatoes and flowers will be getting big, and I mulch with straw… How much harm will I cause the turtle by clearing out the weeds?


June 10, 2012
Jon Cotters

In the spring of 2011, an 8” orange male and a 6” black and yellow female began calling my fenced 6,000 square-foot backyard home. There are grass, hardwood mulch flower beds, and thick piles of leaves for them to visit. I feed them a small amount of tomatoes, strawberries, apples, bananas, or vegs when I see them. They have a 12” shallow pan of fresh water. I am thinking of providing a ramp to the raised veg garden (cherry tomato, squash, cucumber, and peppers). I spray the roses and garden with manicob. Is the garden access a good idea? What else should I be doing? When I put them together last year the female was very aggressive toward the male and they seemed to keep their distance, but I caught them mating two weeks ago. Any info to improve this “wild” habitat would be most welcome.


June 17, 2012
Teresa

My sister found a turtle in her yard and for safety, brought it to my yard. The turtle seems to like it here, but our labrador had showed too much interest in it. It disappeared for 2 weeks, until yesterday. The dog again wanted to gnaw on it. Will the dog kill it?  Should I give it away? I have it in a large bucket till I can figure out what to do about this situation. Help please!


June 19, 2012
BBG Staff

Your dog is following his instincts and could very easily kill the turtle or terrapin. Try to find another shelter for it near water and vegetation—and far away from curious canines!


July 10, 2012
Fran

We discovered a beautiful, healthy-looking box turtle in our yard several weeks ago. It measures approximately 6 inches in diameter and seems to be quite at home in our yard. It has established its living quarters under our wooden patio and has two exit areas. We have lived in this house for two years, and have seen it only twice in the past two weeks. We do not have a water source in the yard, but the area under our patio would be quite damp and we think would provide a steady supply of bugs and slugs for food. However, we are concerned that there is not a pond nearby and have not tried to feed it as we don’t want to interfere with Mother Nature. Do you have any suggestions? We certainly want our little friend to flourish and stay healthy but have no expertise in this area. Please provide suggestions. Should we contact a local wildlife agency?


July 19, 2012
Tyler DiLeo

My dad found a box turtle in the middle of the road on route 33, NJ. Her leg was torn off and tissue was falling out of it, so my mom brought it to a vet, but they wouldn’t take it. She told me to go in by myself and they wouldn’t be able to turn down a heartbroken little boy. Then they took her.


August 5, 2012
Kelly

I just found a 6- or 7-inch terrapin in my raised tomato bed. I thought a deer had been eating the tomatoes! I’d like to release it elsewhere (I like my tomatoes too!), but we have a dog who would love to chomp on it. A friend seems keen to raise it but I’d rather see it back in the wild. It is beautiful with little yellow m’s on its shell. Good places where it would be safe?


August 7, 2012
BBG Staff

Hi, Kelly:
If your box turtle got into your raised tomato bed on its own (in other words, if it wasn’t placed there by a human), it should be moved to a woodlot or meadow as nearby as possible out of harm’s way. If you think if was someone’s pet released into “the wild” of your garden, call your local animal rescue service for advice. If it’s not native to your immediate area or was raised as a pet, it might be safer for both it and the local box turtle population to keep it in captivity.


March 30, 2013
Kathryn

We are planting a garden and we want to put our box turtle in his own enclosure. What plants can we plant in our garden that would not be toxic to our turtle?

 


April 5, 2013
BBG Staff

Box turtles are omnivorous and prefer animal protein as well as plant material in their diets, so consider growing plants that attract slugs and snails, favorite prey of “boxies.” For example, in a shady area of your turtle garden, you might plant a few hostas, which are also favored forage for box turtles. In addition to C. Kenneth Dodd Jr.‘s book North American Box Turtles (University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), for more care tips, check out The Box Turtle Manual (Phllippe de Vosjoli, Advanced Vivarium Systems, 2004), and Box Turtles (Tess Cook, TFH Publications, 2008). Tess Cook also has a great website: Box Turtle Care and Conservation.


June 29, 2013
Becky

Recently I went to the front yard to water my plants. I went to a flower bed where I planted coleus, and a turtle was laying eggs. I let her be. Late afternoon, I went back and of course the eggs were buried and so the coleus bed looked as though nothing happened. My question is, will I unintentionally harm the eggs if I continue watering my coleus plants? I live in central Texas and so the plants need water especially right now with temperatures going up into the triple digits already, but I don’t want to harm the eggs either.


July 16, 2013
BBG Library Staff

Box turtles seek out moist, well-drained soil in which to lay their eggs, so you seem to have the right conditions in your garden for a box turtle dig out a nest. However, the amount of soil moisture needed for the young turtles to develop inside the eggs may differ from the amount that your plants need. A state biologist in your locality should be able to provide you with that information. Fortunately, the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife website lists the name and contact information for a state biologist in each county at www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

You may also want to check with the biologist about ways to protect the nest from being raided or damaged, since box turtle eggs are subject to predation by various animals. Best of luck with your turtle nest!


August 11, 2013
kathy

My dog keeps finding box turtles in our fenced and wooded yard, which backs up to a greenway of woods and small creek. The turtles are always in the same two places, hidden and snuggled among vines and leaf mulch. I move them out past our fence, but weeks later there is another one. (I actually marked on the shell of one with a marker so I could tell if it was the same one returning.) How are these turtles entering my fenced yard? And why are they in the same two places? I like them but I’m afraid my dogs may hurt them.


October 3, 2013
Dorothea

Last summer, my neighbor found a turtle and put her inside my fenced-in garden area. That was OK in the summer as I had plenty of water and vegetables and the turtle was local, but now winter is coming and I will be shutting off the water. I found a male turtle yesterday walking in my other gardens. I have a dog, so being loose has its disadvantages. Should I let them both inside the fencing? It is a very big area, but I do not want them to not be able to fend for themselves as they do now. Thank you.


June 20, 2014
Brittney Blakley

We recently inherited two adult ornate box turtles and have a vegetable garden for them to live in. I’m concerned about the potential salmonella that turtles can have. They love munching on our romaine lettuce, green beans, the tops of carrots, etc. Is it safe for us to continue to eat these vegetables with just washing them?


July 19, 2014
Gracie

I “rescued” what I believe to be a Gulf Coast box turtle along a freeway and placed it in my backyard. It has a couple of burrows in the yard. I was not actively feeding the turtle but have taken to putting out a few tomatoes, various fruits and berries, just dropped in the garden for her to forage, and the occasional dog kibble. She is eating, but I am wondering if keeping her there is doing her harm, especially if she is needs to breed? Should I just leave her be? Also, is there an easy, visual way to sex the turtle?



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