It’s rare to find someone who doesn’t enjoy a pond in their backyard. You can spend hours relaxing by the water’s edge, as you enjoy the tranquility that a pond brings to a backyard. And while fish ponds are the most popular types of pond, they aren’t the only option for your property.
Perhaps one of the most interesting types of ponds that you can build, is a turtle pond. These ponds take a bit more work to set up, and are a bit more demanding when it comes to equipment, but offers unique and fascinating interactions with your pet turtles.
While I am more familiar with fish ponds, my recent project of setting up a turtle pond has taught me some important – and painful lessons. If you are going to build a turtle pond, then you need to do it right, and not just throw some turtles into what is essentially a fish pond.
One of the big differences between a turtle pond and fish pond, is that it needs to be large. Where you can get away with a small pond for fish, you will need at least 250 gallons (1136 litres) for a turtle pond, and you should really shoot for a pond that is at least 1000 gallons (4546 litres).
Turtle ponds also need varying depths, and it’s important to have portions of the pond that are only a few inches deep, while other areas need to have impressive depths. You will at least one area of the pond to be at least 3 feet (0.91 metres) deep, and you will want deeper areas if you live in a cold climate where they will have to hibernate.
And it’s not just about provided the right water for the turtles, since it’s just as important to provide an area where the turtles can leave the pondto bask or lay eggs. If your female turtle has no ground to lay eggs in, it may become seriously ill, and could end up needing a trip to the vet.
The location of a turtle pond will also play a role in how successful it is. Ideally, you will want an area of the pond to be shaded so that the turtles can retreat to this area during the hot hours of the day, and another area to have full sunlight, so that they can easily bask in the warm sunlight.
Oh, and did I mention that turtles are escape artists, and that nearly every animal in the wild aside from deer want to eat them (and I’m still not 100% sure about the deer)? Because of this, you need to specifically design the layout of the pond to keep the turtles in, and hungry animals out.
The easiest way to keep the turtles in, and land animals out, is to build a sheer wall around the pond. This can be done through lowering the pond water so that there is at least a one foot (0.30 metres) edge around most of the pond, or by building a small wall out of building materials.
Fences can be hit and miss with turtles, and some species amazingly enough, can actually climb fences. If you build a fence, stay away from mesh fences, since turtles claws can become entangled in them. Try to stick with wood or PVC cloth enclosures, which often look nicer anyways.
Predatory birds can be a little harder to keep out, and one of the best methods I have found to keep birds out is through stringing fishing line across the pond. I have erected a few poles around the pond, and have linked them across the pond with fishing line, which seems to keep the majority of large birds out – especially the ever ravenous herons.
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Feeding most species of turtles is not exactly what you would call difficult, since they all tend to have voracious appetites and are omnivores – consuming both plant and animal material. Most turtles will be more than happy consuming commercially prepared foods, but they will appreciate it if you can offer them some variety. I personally use Zoo Med Natural Aquatic Turtle Food, which is great food for larger turtles.
Young turtles prefer a more carnivorous diet, and they can be fed earthworms, crickets, waxworms, silkworms, snails and mealworms. They will also eat feeder fish, so these can be added to their turtle pond – though they tend to ignore larger fish.
They can also regularly be offered vegetables, and they will accept most green vegetables, including lettuce, kale and bok choi and even some common weeds like dandelions (make sure they have no pesticide on them). They can also be fed several other vegetables and fruits like carrots, squash and bananas.
You should always avoid foods like spinach though, as many turtles owners have reported complications and even calcium deficiency from spinach feedings. Other vegetables to avoid are those high in purine, which can cause gout in the turtle. These include most beans, mushrooms and peas.
Unfortunately, their appetite for plants isn’t limited to those growing on land, and they can devastate your carefully planted aquatic plants. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t include aquatic plants in their pond, but don’t be surprised if they damage them through feedings or just by their movements.
A turtle pond needs powerful filtration, and a turtle’s prodigious pooping ability puts even a goldfish to shame. With a normal fish pond, you want the filter to turn over the water every two hours or so, but with a turtle pond you want to halve that so it turns it over every hour. And if you feel the need, you can even increase the time, until it is turning over every half an hour.
Just remember that a pond is just like a fish tank – the filter needs weekly cleanings, and the water needs to be changed regularly. This is especially true in a turtle pond, where filters are known to become clogged extremely quickly. Once the filter is clogged, the water quality will plummet and you will have a problem on your hands. I have had great success with Laguna Pressure-Flo UVC Filters, which I find clog far less often than many of the other comparable brands.
Continuing with the theme of similarities to an aquarium, you will want to change about 15-20% of the water weekly, and any new water that you add should be treated to remove any chlorine or chloramine. Turtles are sensitive to ammonia and nitrites just like fish, so you want to be sure that you don’t cause a mini cycle by leaving the chlorine in the water, which will kill most of the beneficial bacteria on the filter.
You don’t have to waste the water that you remove from the pond each week, as it should be relatively high in nitrates, which makes it excellent to water plants with. I personally use mine to water many of the shrubs and plants on my property.
If you live in a northern climate, then you are going to have to deal with the difficult issue of hibernation. If you want to avoid the issue all together, simply take your turtles indoors and provide them with a heated environment until spring comes.
This can be done in a large aquarium, or in a mini pond inside (if you significant other doesn’t mind a turtle pond inside). I have even known some people to overwinter their turtles in animal stock tanks in their basement, which give the turtles a comfortable, if somewhat less than attractive home.
If you want them to overwinter outside, then you need to make sure that the pond is suitable for hibernation. The pond needs to be constructed so that it is built below the frost line, and it is imperative that at least 12-16 inches (30-40 cm) remain unfrozen even at the coldest temperatures during the winter.
This is also where the ponds size really comes into play, and a pond without adequate surface area for the number of turtles, will quickly see the turtles suffocating. It’s also important to have some sort of water movement during the winter months, or the detritus at the bottom of the pond will begin to break down and release toxic chemicals into the water.
You will also need to prepare your turtles for hibernation, and it shouldn’t really even be considered for young hatchlings or juveniles. Most of them will not survive the winter, so this should only be attempted with large, healthy adults that have been outside all summer.
Stop feeding the turtles when the temperatures fall into the 50°F (10°C) range, as they need to have a completely empty digestive tract during hibernation. Also, make sure that the turtles have a significant amount of pond detritus at the bottom, since they will need this to burrow into as the temperature drops.
After you have done all of this, you just need to make sure that the pond has some motion for the rest of the winter, and hope that your turtles are healthy enough to make it through the dark days of winter.