From a turtle nursery to a tomato garden

Published 3:53 pm Thursday, June 8, 2006

By Staff
One of the wife's latest projects at our new house was to dismantle the old fire pit situated between the house and the creek. This pit was here way before we built the house and just happened to be right in the middle of our future yard. She hauled away all the rocks that lined the pit and removed all the ashes and crud.
The other morning I noticed a rock had somehow magically made its way back to the pit. Then the rock moved slightly. Sure I wasn't hallucinating, I went to check it out. It was a big snapping turtle. I could see where she had tried mightily to dig a nest in the cleaned out fire pit, but she was out of luck there. Our soil is the hardest clay you ever saw, just like concrete. At my approach she bugged out for the creek and that was that, or so I thought. At this point some of you are saying, “Dummy, ya' shoulda' turned her into turtle soup. Tastes like chicken, ya' know.” I've tried turtle and it don't taste like chicken. If I want chicken I'll buy chicken.
Anyway, the next morning she was back, again having spent a fruitless night trying to dig through cement. She was obviously going to need a helping hand. Not that I'm a turtle geek, my sister-in-law has that base covered. She'll stop rush hour traffic to escort a turtle across. I was touched by this turtle's determination, though. We planned to fill in the fire pit anyway so why not do it now with nice soft, fluffy dirt? Problem was we had no such stuff. Our whole property is petrified clay. What we needed to take the curse off the clay was vermiculite, that light, flaky mineral they mix in potting soil to keep it fluffy. Into town we went. Making the rounds of the garden supply stores, greenhouses and nurseries we discovered vermiculite is even rarer than kryptonite. To gain instant wacko status try explaining to a sales clerk you need this stuff they've never even heard of to make into a turtle nest. Anyway, so much for that. We bought some sand and spent the rest of the afternoon meticulously breaking up clumps of clay and mixing in sand. By happy hour the fire pit was officially declared a turtle nursery-in-waiting.
Now this was going to have its inconveniences. It takes anywhere from 45 to 90 days for snapping turtle eggs to hatch. That meant no lawn there. Then there was the raccoon issue. You see, there's this mama raccoon that comes to the patio door every evening for a treat. Coons dearly love turtle omelets - tastes like chicken, you know. We discussed all manner of intricate cage and fencing designs. My son who had wandered by during the project told us about someone trying to protect a turtle nest by piling tires over it. The black tires absorbed heat and cooked the eggs. We finally decided on just throwing down some hardware screen and weighting it with rocks. I understand racoons and other predators find turtle nests by the odor of freshly laid eggs. This I believe, as our turtle had emitted some sort of liquid while trying to punch through the baked clay (maybe sweat from all that hard work?). Experts say the odor disappears in a week or so and the nest no longer needs protection. We figured to give it a couple weeks then take up the screening so as not to trap the baby turtles.
Next morning we were up at dawn. The dirt was all tore up from something digging, but there were no telltale turtle drag marks. We carefully sifted through the dirt and found nothing. I had topped off the nursery with the soil scented by the turtle the night before with the stupid notion it might help her find her way back. Closer examination revealed coon tracks. It had apparently detected the scent and gone digging for breakfast. This morning there were again only coon diggings. It appears all our labors were for naught. Maybe I'll plant some tomatoes in the nursery. They taste like chicken, you know. Carpe diem.