Designing and Building Ponds for Turtles

Published on April 27, 2019

pond turtles
Jake, my Vizsla pup likes visiting the turtles.

I grew up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s near Chicago, catching just about anything that would swim, crawl or hop. When I caught something, I would bring it home and put it in one of several tanks in my parents’ townhome. When I ran out of tanks, I found a baby pool that somebody was throwing out, and my best buddy and I decided to ride it home on my banana seat bicycle. I peddled with my buddy holding the pool as he sat on the handlebars. I had several turtles and bullfrogs at this point, and the pool made a perfect home for them! We would catch large goldfish out of a cemetery pond and feed them to my turtles.

When constructing a pond meant for turtles, here are some things to consider. Turtles don’t need or like big waterfalls or fast-moving water.

Looking back now, my mom was a saint for putting up with this. When I ran out of room in my basement, I dug a hole on private property and lined it with garbage bags. I guess this was my first pond. I was 14. Needless to say, that failed miserably!Today, my company, Gem Ponds Inc., established in 1999, installs backyard ponds and water features throughout Chicagoland. We are a Certified Aquascape Contractor and have installed hundreds of ponds in Illinois. Clients from time to time ask me about putting turtles in their ponds. Here are some things I have learned from keeping turtles as pets over the last 40 years. You must know these things before introducing turtles to your pond or your client’s pond.
Turtles will require more work and care then just keeping goldfish and koi. Turtles are always looking for something better and will tend to roam and leave the beautiful pond you just built. The best way to keep turtles in and away from predators is to keep them in a raised structure. I built my current turtle pond out of brick. It has walls with overhanging ledges that prevent them from escaping. Yes, you can try in-ground setups, and I have had clients with moderate success on keeping them for a while, but the turtles always find a way out and wander off.

All turtle ponds should have plenty of areas for them to bask in the sunshine. I currently have 16 turtles. They range from 3 to 20 years in age, and on any given sunny day, they are all out in the sun. I provide several logs and driftwood for them to climb on. I also have a beach area with sand and perennial plantings where they can lay and hide eggs.

pond tours turtles
The turtle pond is always a big hit on pond tours!

If you have both male and female turtles, they will eventually breed. As a general rule, male turtles have longer nails and tails then females. I have areas near the water for the females to dig and lay eggs. I provide a mixture of sand and soil. I have hatched and raised several generations of turtles in my current pond. Some of the best varieties of turtles to keep in the pond are painted, red-eared and yellow-bellied sliders. These varieties are common and tend to overwinter just fine in my outdoor pond.

Turtle Pond Construction

When constructing a pond meant for turtles, here are some things to consider. Turtles don’t need or like big waterfalls or fast-moving water. When in nature, you mostly find them in calm, shallow water with decent vegetation cover. I try to mimic this by having a bog filter for my main filtration. It generates about 2,000 gph and has enough flow to gently move the water. It also has a large surface area to digest all the waste generated by the turtles. I have a large bubbling rock on the backside of my design, which is a great focal point and adds some circulation back to the wet well, where the pump is stored.

I would not recommend using skimmers in the design. Turtles are curious creatures and will get in the skimmer and find the pump. The outcome will not be pretty. Always use wet wells for your in-pond pump placement! I am a rock and gravel guy in all the ponds I build; I want them to look totally natural. I have large outcroppings for basking and a gravel bottom. Thanks to the turtles, a fair amount of sand has settled on the bottom as well. The water is crystal clear all the time. The average depth of the pond is 12 to 24 inches.

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Turtles and aquatic plantings do not tend to mix well. Turtles will eat and shred any waterlilies you plant. Marginal plants will tend to get crushed and trampled as well. I use Aquamats in my turtle pond. They’re great places for the turtles to hide and climb on and are practically indestructible. Unfortunately, they have been discontinued. At some point, I might experiment with large mop heads that could serve the same purpose.

pond turtle
Meet Tex, a Super Texan Diamond Terrapin.

What to Feed Them

Turtles love duckweed for their vegetative appetite. I have several tanks that I hold marginal plants to sell. These tanks always get plagued by duckweed. I harvest the duckweed and cover the surface of my turtle pond with it. Within days, all the duckweed is gone. A well-rounded turtle diet also includes a mix of koi pellets that I feed to my fish, mealworms, earthworms and shrimp. Their favorite guilty pleasure is Koi Krunchies by Aquascape. Hand-feeding the turtles these little treats is always fun; they will even reach up to you for their treat.

Healthy turtles are always hungry! I feed my turtles once or twice a day. I keep several large goldfish in with my turtles. They help clean up any scraps the turtles leave behind. The turtles don’t bother them; they live in harmony.


pond turtles
Tex naps indoors while his friends rough it outside for the winter.

Around the end of October, I start preparing the pond for winter. I disconnect the pump to the bog filter. To keep a hole open in the ice, I add an aerator and heater to the pond. This is the same process you would undergo to winterize any backyard pond. Once the water temperatures are below 50 degrees, the turtles slow down and get into hibernation mode. I stop feeding at this time. I do see them occasionally come up to bask.Generally, all the turtles can stay outside. They will burrow into the pond bottom. Turtles have the unique ability to absorb oxygen through their skin and their cloaca. They can survive the coldest months under the ice.

I leave all my male turtles and a few females outside for the winter, but I bring my favorite female turtles inside. I have a large, heated tank with lighting in my garage. All the males stay out because they tend to become more aggressive and try to mate with the females. This has caused damage to the eyes and necks of some females in the past. I like keeping my female turtles fat and happy. The guys have to rough it.

goldfish food pond turtles
Having a few goldfish in the pond helps clean up food scraps.

In April, I do a complete drain and rinse of the outside pond. Power washing is not needed. In early May, I reintroduce the female turtles to the outside pond and slowly start to feed them.

The baby pool I started with years ago has now become the Taj Mahal for my turtles today!

Japanese Koi Kodama

3 thoughts on “Designing and Building Ponds for Turtles”

  1. Thanks for the great info! We’ve tried having turtles in our pond with little luck. If we decide to try again we understand now the need to do so above ground & with brick. Vicki & Bert. ps…. we’d love to come see your turtle pond over the summer!

    1. Hi Scott,
      My pond is 24-30′ at the deepest section. I add an aerator and heater to keep a hole open in the Ice. In south Carolina, I don’t know if you experience much freezing? It is important to do so in the Midwest.

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