Backyard Turtles
Tour Five
The Bog-in-a-Box Turtle Pen

     If you have been reading our other tours, you will know where the inspiration for this turtle pen comes from. It is a combination of two of our successful methods for building turtle pens. The first method is the screen covered box featured in Tour Nine: Summer Box for Juvenile Box Turtles Outdoors on the Raising Baby Turtles page. The second method is the bog garden pen with a rubber liner featured in Tour Two: The Bog Garden Turtle Pen on the Backyard Turtles page. While the creation of this pen seemed straight forward, there was an expected evolution that took place. The outcome of that evolution is good. We will explain as we go along.

     The placement of this pen was chosen to be conveniently located in close proximity to our other turtle pens and our house and where it gets both sun and shade. Water gardens do well in full sun; bog gardens do better with some shade at various times of the day. The site also needed to be fairly level. We squeezed it in between some physical constraints that ultimately determined how large it could be.

     The box was constructed from 2" x 10" pressure treated lumber set on top of the ground with one cross member in the middle at the top. The box measures 96" long by 26" wide. Two lids were constructed from 2" x 2" pressure treated lumber and covered with one half inch vinyl covered hardware cloth. The lids are basically the same construction as the lid for the summer box in Tour 9.

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     The hole for the bog was dug after the box was in place so that the box sets on undisturbed soil. This way we did not have to worry about the box settling over time. The hole was dug so that the depth of the water and mud would be about eight inches deep. The rubber liner was nailed to the inside walls of the box with galvanized roofing nails. The top edge of the rubber liner was than covered with strips of wood nailed on with galvanized nails. The strips of wood were cut from untreated 2" thick lumber and roughly half rounded with a rasp. The strips of wood prevent tiny turtles from getting behind the liner. 

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     After the wood strips were installed they were painted brown to tone down their appearance. Weep holes were drilled through the box just above the wood strips to prevent the box from overflowing during heavy rains. Then the liner was filled with good rich garden compost.

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     The fun began when we added water for the first time creating permanent mud. Prior to this we had collected sphagnum moss, woodland moss, pondweed, ferns, and violets. We also had available bull tongue and sweet flag growing in other bogs. So we went quickly from filling it with water to creating our realistic woodland bog. 

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     With the bog planted and the lids installed, it was time to add turtles. Our first residents were two western painted turtles each one year old. They were already domesticated which they forgot temporarily when they were placed in the bog. For the first week they behaved like wild turtles evading us whenever we approached. Then they remembered who cared for them and returned to being friendly outgoing domesticated pet turtles again. A few salamanders and tadpoles were also placed in the bog.

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The evolution begins:
     We used our garden compost for the bog because our poor shale based soil has no organic material in it. Bogs develop organically rich black muck soil from years of decomposing leaves and plants. Our compost continued to decompose in the bog. For the first summer the mud was filled with bubbles from the decomposition that rose to the surface with any disturbance. You can see some of the bubbles in pic 14 and pic 15 above.

     There was little noticeable change in the plants the first summer except the bull tongue grew very well. The bull tongue plants placed in the box were small plants that quickly became too large for the box. However, bull tongue is a favorite food of our water turtles and is picked almost daily. The small amount of pondweed also grew well.

     The next residences of the bog were four just hatched eastern painted turtles. They immediately disappeared and were seldom seen the rest of the summer. They were put up for adoption on our Adoptions page. When a new owner was identified, catching them was a problem. We had to leave the lids open and run up watching for movement. One by one three of the four were caught. The fourth baby over wintered in the box which was not planned. There was no taking pictures of these babies in the bog.

     Four baby box turtles were given the opportunity to visit the bog. At first they just sat there together and did little. Then they scattered and it took three days to round them up. I guess we can say they had an enjoyable visit.

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     In the fall the lids were left open to collect tree leaves. The tadpoles and salamanders had transformed and most of them left to box. Only the elusive painted turtle remained in the bog. Nothing would be done to the box in preparation for winter.

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The following Spring:
     In the first spring, an expected algae bloom made the water green. Then the bull tongue plants sprouted in the box well before similar plants emerged in nearby bog gardens. The sweet flag emerged from winter unscathed. The pondweed began filling all available space in the water. The mosses, violets, and ferns were not seen again. It was less a bog and more a small pond. The water cleared as the plants began growing and remains clear.

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     We were very pleased to see the baby painted turtle emerge healthy and just as elusive as before. It began growing despite the fact that food was seldom provided. We never saw it eat turtle food so we were hesitant to place much food in the bog for fear of fouling the unfiltered water. It not only grew, it thrived and grew fast. Here are some pictures of it in a different location; it would never sit to be photographed in the bog. In the pictures it is just one year old. Shortly after it was photographed it was adopted into a new home. 

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Bog, pond, or lunch box:
     So what has this water container in a box become. It is many things. For our water turtles it has become a lunch box where we grow bull tongue and pondweed. Bull tongue leaves and flower stalks must be picked almost daily. They put up new leaves continuously when not allowed to flower. It also puts up flower stalks almost daily. If left grow the flower stalks are much too big for the screened lids. If allowed to flower, it will also stop producing new leaves. We remove the flower stalks. The tiny flowers are quickly followed with masses of green seed heads. Picture 39 shows bull tongue in seed growing in another bog.

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     The pondweed grows fast but not fast enough to be picked daily. Some can be picked a few times a week. Our turtles would consume much more of it. Being very convenient to pick bull tongue and pondweed, this box is a lunch box for our water turtles.

     When the box was set up as a bog, we did not do anything to adjust the ph of the water since we knew it would need to age for about a year. The water remains in the neutral zone. To be more of a bog than a pond, we would need to make it even more organic and lower the ph. More shade would also be needed. Plants like the ferns and violets are easily replanted each year if wanted.

     An interesting aspect of the water covered mud is the temperature variation within it. On a bright clear sunny summer day, we measured the temperature of the water at the surface at 88 degrees F while the temperature at the bottom of the mud just six inches below was 69 degrees F. We would not see this variation in water six inches deep. This allows the turtles to regulate their internal temperatures over a wide range in a very limited space.

     So after one year of use, we can say that our bog-in-a-box makes a great turtle pen for small water turtles, especially baby turtles. It needs no filtration.  W, our spotted turtle, also thinks it is a great place to visit and stay awhile.

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     If you have water turtles living in an aquarium and you do not have much space outside for a pond in a pen, you might consider building a bog-in-a-box for them. It can be in full sun or mostly shade. The plants you grow will depend on the location. The water and mud can be much deeper and the sides can be higher. If you do not like mud, you can use sand or gravel. When adult turtles are using it, the lids must be closed to prevent the turtles from climbing out. You can use a hasp and lock for more security than our screen door hooks which we only hook if we are holding a larger turtle in it.

     If you do build a box for adult turtles, keep in mind that they will cause much more wear and tear on the plants. They will also foul the water if much food is placed in the bog. The bog plants should provide them with much of their diet while in the box. They will also enjoy burying themselves in the mud and plants.

     As we bring this tour to a close, we placed five newly hatched painted turtles in the box. They did not disappear as fast as the first ones did. In time they will also be put up for adoption.

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Years later:

     After a few years of use we contaminated our box with duckweed, a very invasive tiny floating plant that quickly covers the surface of the water. The duckweed gets tangled in the pondweed and bog plants. For several seasons we tried to scoop out all the duckweed with a sieve but we could never get all of it and it quickly multiplied. In winter some of it would settle to the bottom and reemerge in spring. We knew the only way to eliminate it altogether was to empty the box and start over.

     So late in 2011 we emptied the box down to the bare rubber liner and left it bake in the sun until it was completely dry. The bull tongue plants were washed clean of the duckweed and placed in a tub of mud to over winter. The box was allowed to refill with rain water and over winter with just the water in it to see if any duckweed would reappear in spring.

     There was no duckweed in the box or the bull tongue plants in spring so the bull tongue was planted in mud filled pots with pebbles placed on top of the mud. Some sweet flag was also potted and placed in the box. We did not refill the box with soil so it will become an unfiltered pond rather than a bog. Again we watched to make sure no duckweed reappeared. Six baby painted turtles were also placed in the box while they await new owners.

     The water was murky as expected without submerged plants to consume the nutrients to prevent algae. As several types of pondweed were gathered from the wild, they were washed and inspected for pondweed before placing them in the box. They will grow and fill the box permitting us to feed pondweed to our water turtles in our concrete lined turtle pond. We also found some very small lily pads and planted them in a pot and placed them in the box. All plants purchased or gathered can carry duckweed so it is important to rinse and inspect all new plants carefully. The baby painted turtles would not pose for pictures so we will have to add pictures of them later if we can catch them willing to cooperate.

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     Many turtles have used this box over the years some just to be held temporarily or to allow them to eat their fill of pondweed. Some of the larger turtles were really hard on the bog plants but they quickly regrew after the turtles were removed. Any turtle can be elusive and hard to catch in this small space but it is also part of the fun. We remain completetly satisfied with this small water habitat we have created and we have never had a turtle complain about spending time in it.

     We hope you have enjoyed this tour and are inspired to experiment with your own bog-in-a-box.

 Revised 5/25/2012

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