Why I Don’t Like Turtles in My Ponds

This pond was once a very pretty water garden. Now it is home to Cindy's new hobby red-eared slider turtles. Water lilies and turtles do not mix well, but she just loves the turtles. So, she has several tub gardens for her water lilies. Photo by Cindy Graham, Editor, POND Trade Magazine.
This pond was once a very pretty water garden. Now it is home to Cindy’s new hobby red-eared slider turtles. Water lilies and turtles do not mix well, but she just loves the turtles. So, she has several tub gardens for her water lilies. Photo by Cindy Graham, Editor, POND Trade Magazine.

Having cared for numerous ponds in San Diego County over the past 31 years, I have come to have an opinion about many things related to pond set-up and maintenance. One of those concerns involves which animals and plants we should try to keep in our ponds. I even wrote an article about it in these pages several months ago. Obviously, Manatees and Anacondas are out, as are some smaller creatures, such as children or cats, but one sort of creature always comes to mind when I am asked about what not to include in a water garden. It is the turtle. Specifically, in my experience, the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). Crayfish run a close second, but turtles are the bane of water gardeners everywhere.

The reason for the disdain with which I regard these creatures is simple. It is their predilection for sampling aquatic plants as food. I know that they are only grazing, as they are supposed to do, but sometimes it seems as if there might even be a little bit of sport in it, too. The damage that can be wrought by one or two turtles in a pond full of water lilies, Nymphaeas, is amazing. The evidence is plain to see as you approach the pond, with detached Nymphaea leaves, or small fragments of oxygenators floating around, or clogging the skimmer, or plants upturned, dug into, and otherwise molested.

It is so bad that in some cases I have refused to work on lucrative ponds because the owner insisted on keeping turtles in the pond. One fellow wanted me to bring a new set of lilies to his pond each week to replace the ones that his turtles had eaten over the course of the preceding week. I told him that that would be far too depressing to deal with, and I quit. His pond was ugly and dangerous anyway.

There are other species of turtles that people in other parts of the country have to deal with, with varying degrees of frustration. I am sure that their complaints will be the same, and will include other horrors associated with having them in their ponds that will make my complaints seem trivial, but when your livelihood depends upon how nice the pond looks, it is nice to not have something tearing your plants apart in your absence. In areas wherein those other species of turtles are endemic, I say more power to the turtle. The sacrifice of a few fish or plants from time to time to support a native species is a good trade-off in many instances.

Each pond owner must make that decision for himself. But, the Red-eared Slider is an introduced species here in San Diego, and so should not be encouraged, in my opinion. It is from the American south, and has been introduced successfully into many areas through the pet trade. They are cute and are very easy to care for in a sufficiently large aquarium. Eventually, though, they outgrow these first containers and are either dumped outside or put into a backyard pond, from which they easily escape to join the already burgeoning population of feral, and now native born, turtles in our area.

I have seen the odd Soft-shell turtle in ponds, and once I found a snapping turtle in a pond whose brand new, and startled, owner was just as glad that I had found it, and not her. The previous owner of the house had failed to mention the nearly 10˝ diameter snapping turtle in that pond out back. But, even so, these are very rare events here in San Diego.

The predominant species in the pet trade is Trachemys (slider family), and because it is hardy and tough, it has done very well here. They can be found wandering all over neighborhoods, and might suddenly appear in a pond in which they had never been. Of course, they might just as suddenly go away, but rarely do. While they are in the pond, they bite through every plant stem that they encounter, especially Nymphaea and Aponogeton petioles. And the irritating part is that they don’t even eat the leaf that they have just severed. I think that they just eat the piece that fit in their mouths when they bite, so the entire leaf or flower is bitten off so that the turtle could eat an inch or so of stem tissue.

It is not that I dislike turtles. I just don’t want them in my ponds. If they are in the pond of a competitor of mine, that is fine, as long as it is far enough away from my ponds that no harm can come to me because, again, I don’t want them in my ponds.

It is easy enough to set up an area that is designated for turtles, and I have offered this suggestion to more than a few people who had it in their minds that they were going to have turtles. The intelligent ones take me up on the suggestion, and can then have both a lovely water garden and a lively turtle collection, just not in the same place.

3 Responses to Why I Don’t Like Turtles in My Ponds

  1. Glennys May 22, 2017 at 12:59 PM #

    We have a wild pond in NY Hudson Valley and now have 3 turtles which arrived 1-2 years ago on their own. They’re indeed clipping off the leaves of our water lilies, which are by now almost decimated.

    You say “its easy enough to set up an area designated for turtles” — but how? They slip into the water whenever we get anywhere near. Even if we got a net and succeeded in catching them, how would we prevent them from returning to the water lilies?

    • Lora Lee Gelles May 23, 2017 at 1:17 PM #

      From author David Curtright:
      It would seem to me that creating an area in which water-loving turtles might live would be simple enough. I might dig a trench following the circumference of my area, It should be deeper than the turtles can ever dig. Set some sort of permanent fencing into the ditch, extending it above the ground sufficiently high to enclose and to protect the turtles. Inside, there should be a pond that is easy to empty, and which is set up so that the turtles can easily move into and out of the water. The area should be large enough that the turtles are walking around on each other or on their own mess, but small enough to be easy to work with in terms of catching, cleaning, feeding, and monitoring the turtles. There should be areas of sunshine and shade, and the areas should be well-ventilated. I’ve never done this, but I have seen it done with good result.

  2. Linc Marie Benkert August 14, 2018 at 8:28 PM #

    Hi. I live in Florida and repaired and refurbished a three level waterfall with one small and two large water garden pools in front of our house. The waterfalls are gentled and flow through the roots of an arrowhead plant, etc., and runs from 7.a.m. until 7 p.m. with the submerged light required to control “over-algae”, and replaces the amount of freshwater that has evaporated.

    As of today, I HATE SNAPPING TURTLES. One found our home and was sunning itself AFTER EATING ALL BUT 7 OF OUR GOLDFISH. THE TURTLE WAS THE SIZE OF A HUBCAP.

    The pools are enjoyed by the neighbors waking and children ask if they can feed the fish. Have no idea what I’m going to tell the 3-year-olds now who walk down every Sunday to visit the fish.

    There is no room to build a trench for turtles, and the zoning department would not permit it as an attractive nuisance. (Just like a swimming pool in Florida where we are required to birdcage and fence.)

    Does anyone have a reasonable alternative other than using a rifle…which was an actual suggestion on internet site?

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