Has that cute little turtle in your aquarium grown far bigger than you ever expected? If so, maybe you are ready to build an outdoor pond. Building a pond can be as simple or as complicated as you choose. It all depends on the size of your yard, the amount of money you want to spend and the energy you want to expend. There are a few factors you need to keep in mind when planning your pond.
You will need to secure the pond area with a low fence or wall so that the turtles can't get out and get lost.
The pond area must also be secure from entry by tortoises that might drown if they get in. Depending on the size of your turtles you may need a covering of some kind to protect them from predators such as cats, crows or opossums. Where raccoons are known to prowl, the whole pond area must be caged.
You will need to provide a basking area, a place that turtles can climb onto to get out of the water. If you
expect them to nest, they will need also need a dirt area in which to dig their nests.
You will need some way to keep the water clean.
You will, of course, need something to hold the water.
Small pond made from a sunken cement mixing tub.
Photograph by Michael J. Connor
The simplest outdoor pond (and the most common first pond for many turtle keepers) is a child's rigid plastic
wading pool. You can set it on a flat surface (patio, lawn or ground), put in some rocks, bricks or a cinder block that extends above the water line for basking, add water and you're all set. For added security, a chicken wire covering will keep the turtles in and the neighborhood cats out. To keep it clean you can simply drain the pond and replace the water as needed, depending on the size and number of turtles.
Other above ground ponds that hobbyists use include specially constructed cement ponds, horse troughs, cement-mixing tubs, barrels, and even old bathtubs. With an outlet pipe placed through the bottom of the container and fitted with a spigot or valve these ponds can be drained easily. Of course, the above ground location means that the turtles are restricted to the inside of the container. However, such an arrangement may be ideal for turtle keepers who have limited space or who need to confine turtles such as hatchlings that could be at risk in more exposed locations.
When you are ready to get out your shovel and dig an "in-the-ground pond" you have three options. You can use a pre-formed container, a plastic pond liner, or you can mix and lay concrete.
To use a pre-formed container, you choose the container and dig a hole to accommodate its shape. Anything that holds water can become a pond. The child's plastic wading pool that you've been using as a pond above ground, might be your first choice. A plastic dish pan or a cat litter box will make a nice small pond. A plastic under-bed storage box will make a bigger pond. Cement-mixing boxes cast from tough plastic are available in several sizes and can be bought from your local do-it-yourself store. Fiberglass sheep or horse troughs make a fair-sized deep pond and are available at feed stores for under $100. California Art Products1 makes a variety of beautiful fiberglass fish ponds, with and without waterfalls and built-in plumbing, priced from $100 to $1,500. They make custom orders to your specifications, or you can choose from their stock items.
Peggy Nichols, the turtle lady of Long Beach, has ponds made of the fiberglass picnic umbrellas that McDonald's used to use for their outdoor tables. Her husband picked them up at a swap meet; she turned them upside down and dug them in.
If you do use a pre-formed container you may want to position it so that its rim is about 1-2 inches above the
ground. This ensures that when the pond is filled with water (or if it rains) any overflow will drain off and debris around the pond will not wash back into it. Large smooth rocks or bricks placed as a decorative border around the container make it easy for the turtles to climb back into the pond and may help reduce the amount of mud and debris they carry back with them. They also offer convenient and much used pond-side basking sites. If the container is steep sided you may need to provide a ramp of some sort to help your turtles haul out of the water. Failing this, pieces of hardware cloth or poultry netting carefully secured to the side of the container can provide a "ladder" to help the turtles in climbing out.
A plastic pond liner looks like a very thick sheet of plastic bag material and comes in rectangular sizes from 8' x 13' to 23' x 30'. They are sold in aquarium stores, garden supplies or specialty stores. Sunland Water Gardens2 recommends the Tetrapond liner (made by Tetra) which costs between $115 and $600. It comes with complete directions including how to calculate the size of the hole to dig, how to line the hole with newspaper, how to anchor and conceal the edges of the liner. In recent years pond liner kits have been available in warehouse stores, like Costco, for about $100, but they may not be as durable as the Tetrapond.
If you opt for a concrete pond you should look for waterproof concrete mix. Line the hole with newspapers and
chicken wire to reinforce the concrete. Follow the directions on the bag for mixing the concrete...and work fast!!! You may want to build up the rim of the pond with decorative rocks set into the concrete. Lava rocks are porous and easy for the turtles to climb onto for basking. Be sure to cure the concrete properly before adding turtles. A gravel
foundation under the concrete may be necessary if freezing frosts occur in your area, otherwise your pond may crack and leak the first winter!
You may want to add a pump and filter. Aquarium supply stores, garden shops and specialty stores like Sunland Water Gardens carry pond-size pumps and filters. However, remember that turtles cannot breathe under water. If they get sucked into a filter by a strong pump, they will drown. Also, fish pond filters which utilize open gravel trays through which the water is drawn will not work for a pond with turtles, since the turtles will dig into the gravel and stir things up.
A simple solution adopted by many turtle keepers is to invest in a good submersible pump or "sump" pump ($40 to $60 at Home Depot) that can be used to drain your pond as needed. Drained pond water is great for watering your plants, but may not be good for tortoises to drink, so use it outside your tortoise enclosure or yard.
Sliders bask by a sunken "fish" pond. Photograph by Michael J. Connor
The reward for your pond building efforts will come one day, shortly after your turtle has moved in. You will see it find a sunny basking spot, stretch out its legs, arch its neck and head up to the sun, and enjoy the outdoor air and unfiltered sunlight as turtles have done for millions of years.
1 California Art Products, 11111 Chandler Blvd. North Hollywood, California, (818) 762-4276.