Diggin' In: Turtle season means gardening season 

June 16, 2014

You know it’s spring in Wendy Croswell’s garden when more than flowers begin to bloom.

It’s truly gardening season when, and only when six eastern box turtles – three males called Murtle, Flash and Fred and three females known as Ms. T, Tutu and Louie — wake from their winter sleep in her southeastern Virginia garden.

"About nine years ago, Murtle showed up — I just thought he was so cool," she says.

"I had seen one that had been run over in the street and thought how sad that we are taking over their habitat. Since my yard is a wildlife habitat — how prefect to host turtles. Ms.T followed a year or so later — she was almost run over by a golf cart. I think she had eggs because the next spring I kept digging up babies."

The turtles emerge covered in soil and bits of mud, looking a little sleepy and out of sorts. Croswell captures their every movement and mood with her cameras, a Canon Rebel or Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS24, posting daily antics on her Facebook page @Wendy Waterman Croswell. There are always tales of humor and wit, in Croswell’s unique way, to go with each turtle entry.

"When out last year, as I do most mornings, scanning the garden and yard for turtle activity, I saw the strangest thing – Ms. T tipped up on her end," she says.

"I had to look twice because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I then ran for the camera because I knew no one else would believe it either. Murtle was close by. She normally just closes up her shell when he’s around, so I don’t know. I have never found him in this position since."

It seems some of those positions amount to turtle love, as evidence by the dozens of baby turtles Croswell now feeds meal worms to until they learn to forage on their own.

Croswell makes no extra effort to keep the turtles in her yard because they seem to naturally want to hang out there. The yard is fenced but they can easily dig under if they want.

"They have it good," she says.


"I bought mealworms when Baby T was little, dug up worms and grubs, which are nasty. So funny how they fight over worms — seems like they would rather grab it outta the other one’s mouth.

"They love fresh fruits and veggies but will eat table scraps, too. I have seen two of them at a pile of dog poop, eating. I don’t kiss them!"

Each turtle in its own way shows off its own personality. The girls seem to hiss, more, according to Croswell.

"I found Murtle on Ms. T and thought he was beating her up, only to discover he was a male and trying to breed. I made him mad and he hissed at me," she says.

"Ms. T likes Flash more than Murtle. The boys tolerate each other – I don’t try to feed them together."


Her garden is mostly a shady spot so the turtles love hanging out there among the coolness on hot summer days. Her favorite garden plants include sweet-smelling white ginger, peonies, lily-of-the-valley and hostas. Hummingbirds flock to her Black and Blue salvia and "peanut butter tree," which is often called the butterfly tree for its ability to attract dozens of black swallowtails. Named Clerodendrum trichotomum, the tree features leaves that smell like peanut butter when rubbed and fragrant flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies, followed by black-blue berries that songbirds like.

On occasion, Croswell has sought the advice of turtle experts at the Virginia Living Museum – — in Newport News, Va., where Travis Land is herpetology curator.

There can be a variety of turtles that you will see pass through yards throughout the year, but the eastern box turtle, or Terrapene Carolina, is the only one species that lives permanently on land, according to Travis. These turtles can be highly variable in color — from dark browns, to mixes of bright reds and yellows. However, every individual of this species will always have that iconic, highly-domed shell.

"They become very active after rainstorms, and will eat a wide variety of food in the wild since they are omnivorous," he says.

"Many people have reported seeing box turtles around their gardens taking advantage of any food that has fallen on the ground. Since these turtles usually will stay within a relatively small territory during their life, it’s very common to see the same box turtle year after year."

The other species of turtles that people may see passing through their yard are a few different species of aquatic turtles. Nearly all of these will most likely be females seeking an area to lay their eggs. It is highly advised to let them continue the way they are heading, as they have a very specific area in mind that they are trying to get to. These turtles are known to travel significant distances from the water in order to find the site they lay their eggs year after year. These species include:

Eastern river cooter (Pseudemys concinna concinna)

Northern redbellied cooter (Pseudemys rubriventris)

Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

"The snapping turtle is one that I would advise people to leave alone if at all possible," he says.

"They can be very aggressive when confronted or cornered out of the water, and have a very long neck (up to three-quarters the length of the shell) that they can use to bite things with tremendous force. They will turn to face their aggressor, so leaving them alone is usually the best course of action."

To attract and protect turtles in your yard, do not use fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals in your yard or gardens because the turtles eat the bugs and fruit that will have those products on them, according to Travis.

Lawn mowers often cause a lot of box turtle injuries because homeowners mow tall grass and don’t see them.

"Turtles distribute seeds from the fruit they eat, and they are a joy to see in the wild," he says.

"From experience, though, turtles don’t make good pets – they are very messy and live a long time."




Box turtles prefer lots of leaf litter and low-growing vegetation. A small pile leaves or wax myrtle branches will serve as a good hiding spot. Box turtles are mainly attracted to food items by their color, so bright red strawberries and tomatoes are generally favored. A dense patch of strawberry plants perfectly combines cover and food.

Some native plants that box turtles will also eat include mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), and jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), mulberries (Morus species), blackberries (Rubus species) and American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

Plenty of non-releasable turtles are available through rescues (

Do not move a box turtle to another habitat. They have a small home range and excellent homing abilities. They will attempt to cross a six-lane highway to return to their original home.

Visit Virginia Herpetological Society where you can get help identifying turtles at its Facebook page at

—Source: Kory Steele of Newport News, president of Virginia Herpetological Society at


(Kathy Van Mullekom is the garden/home columnist for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. Follow her on Facebook@Kathy Hogan Van Mullekom, on Twitter @diggindirt and at Pinterest@digginin. Her blog can be read at Email her at on Twitter @diggindirt and at Pinterest@digginin. Her blog can be read at Email her at and at Pinterest@digginin. Her blog can be read at Email her at Her blog can be read at Email her at




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