Bessie the Returning Box Turtle

(No, that's not me, above. But note, below, where the blue gazebo is today. That's the same spot that's pictured here. In front of my late friend, Donnie, is my late German shepherd, Pebbles.

The year was 1983 and my garden was in its early beginnings. Back then I had to borrow a tractor and remove a fence in order to plow the garden each spring. Over time I have turned the entire half acre into raised beds.

Raised beds allow specific areas to be adjusted for specific plants and they are also easier to tend. I can sit on the side of the bed and weed and it only requires a small, easily moved tiller to prepare the beds each spring, allowing for adjustments of compost and soil amendments required for each crop.

That year, in 1983, my friend, Donny came to visit, saying he needed to work off some depression. He was approaching the age of forty and hadn’t accomplished all he thought he should by that time. He wanted some work to do on the farm to take his mind off his worries.

Donny was one of those people who liked the idea of gardening more than the actual work of it. He liked to read theories and tomes about the garden and had been reading about, “French intensive” gardening. He was excited about the idea of double-digging beds, in which you remove the old top soil and combine it with soil from deeper underground. You would first dig down about twelve inches, put that aside, then systematically dig the next twelve inches and put that aside, as well. Next you would put the first soil back in the bottom of the bed and add the second batch on top, mixing it all up as you go with compost and soil amendments.

That’s probably useful for people who live in areas where there is soil. We have almost no soil in the Ozarks. What we do have is clay and rock, covered with a thin layer of so-called topsoil of about one inch. The idea of double-digging anything in my garden seemed completely ridiculous, but Donny was intent and so I pointed him to a spot where I was planning to build a raised bed.

Donny, not being accustomed to actual physical labor, spent parts of two days, digging out the first twelve inches of soil for a bed of about two feet by seven feet. On the evening of the second day of digging, Donny said he had discovered some eggs in the soil and wondered what they might be. I recognized them as turtle eggs, so after Donny had finished his double-digging project, he put the eggs back under the last inch of soil. In a few weeks, there were six baby box turtles emerging out of the bed and scurrying rapidly away.

Over time that bed has evolved. The double-digging left a lot of clay and rocks, so I put another layer of better soil on top. I surrounded the bed with rocks and eventually made the bed about fifteen inches tall with stacked rock sides. I discovered that every year, a turtle was laying her eggs in that same spot of soil and in mid summer, I saw more baby turtle falling out of the tall bed.

It was a mystery to me how the mother turtle managed to climb the sides of the rock wall into the bed each year. I never did actually see her do it, but I’d find her nestled down in the bed under the mulch, laying eggs. Then in a few weeks, the little turtles would jump, climb or fall out and go on their way. I decided to build some stairs for the turtle we dubbed, “Bessie.”

This year again, for the twenty sixth year, Bessie appeared in the bed and nestled herself under the mulch. Box turtles are territorial and don’t range far beyond where they were born. It’s claimed that box turtles can live for twenty to forty years from people who have marked their backyard turtles.

Box turtles are on the decline nationwide. The loss of habitat, wide freeways and fast traffic has caused the numbers to decline rapidly. Turtles haven’t adapted well to the changes in modern life.

People often mistakenly think they are “saving” box turtles by picking them up on the road and taking them home. Because they are fiercely territorial, putting a turtle in an unfamiliar location may mean it will have to compete with other turtles in that area. Or it may not find enough food and will starve. The better thing to do is note the direction the turtle is headed, and carry it off the road and to the other side where it can go on it’s way naturally.
That's the Bessie bed, above with the fisherboy looking down into the goldfish pond. It doesn't look it, but the bed is 16 inches tall, stacked rock, so Bessie as she's getting older, really does need steps!

Each season we look forward to Bessie’s return and glad she uses the stairs in her older years. One evening recently, after observing Bessie in the “Donny” bed, I found her swimming in a little pool nearby. She had walked into, or fallen into the pool. The rock edges were preventing her from getting out and her leg was wrapped up in a piece of string that was attached to a little floating pool toy. Had I not found her, she would likely have drowned. I pulled her out of the water, removed the string that was caught on her leg and sent  her on her way. I thought I saw her turn her head to say thanks just before she disappeared under the foliage.