Bessie, the Box Turtle Returns

This story begins with our late friend, Donnie Wylie, who arrived at the farm from his home in Memphis 27 years ago. Donnie often came here for inspiration, escape, healing. He had just turned 35 and decided his life was OVER. He hadn't accomplished any of the things he wanted to do in life. He had no significant other, no real job or profession (although he had inherited money so jobs weren't really relevant). Donnie came for a few days and said he needed physical labor and wanted a job assignment in the garden to overcome his depression.

(The photo of Donnie leaning on the fence post is taken from almost the same spot this photo of the blue gazebo was taken; it shows how the garden has changed over time).

Donnie had been reading about the joys and benefits of double-digging garden beds. Having grown up in east Arkansas where the soil is black, rich and deep, he wanted to try the digging method in our garden. Ozarks soil is not east Arkansas soil. We have rocks held together by clay. Dig 2 feet deep, as the garden wonks insist, and you get more clay and bigger rocks. (The method is meant to aerate the soil, bring up nutrients and turn compost back into the newly mixed soil). Double-digging here makes no more sense than emptying the ocean with a toothpick. But Donnie needed a job and that's the one he chose.

Several hours and a lot of sweat later with not a lot of progress, Donnie had turned what had been a garden bed into a trench with clay and rock piled on each side. "I couldn't get down the 24 inches the experts recommend," Donnie said. "I kept hitting rocks the size of volleyballs, so I just dug down about 16 inches." He kept working until he had a spot about 3 ft. across and 6 or 7 feet long. I surrounded the bed with rocks and we dubbed it, "Donnie's Glad Bed" because as he dug, his depression waned and the labor made him glad he didn't have to do that for a living.

In double-digging the bed, Donnie had disturbed a box turtle nest. He laid the eggs aside and before he replaced and mulched the soil, he replanted the eggs under some straw. That year I grew gladiolas in Donnie's Glad Bed.

Box turtles, or terrapins, are a bit like salmon in that they come back to the area where they were born. That same female turtle has been coming back to the garden every year and laying eggs, evidently sensing the spot where she was born.

Over time I've rebuilt the bed and made it higher. With Donnie's double-dug soil not very useful I enlarged the bed and added another 15 inches of soil on top, then built rock walls around it to hold it in place. The stone retaining wall has a wide, flat surface, perfect for sitting and weeding or harvesting. I grow fragrance plants there, several scented geraniums, lemon verbena, hoja, patchouli, green and gray santolina, eucalyptus, lemon and orange thymes.

I noticed a terrapin showing up in the late spring each year. The walls of the bed are half knee-high and I have no idea how the turtle would manage to get up the wall into the bed. It would be like you or me trying to scale a 10 story building without a ladder. But climb it she did and we named her Bessie. Every year she comes and later in the summer we find tiny, quarter-sized baby terrapins, falling over the sides of the bed and onto the gravel pathway below and quickly scurrying away.

I decided to rebuild the bed about 4 years ago, enlarging Donnie's Glad Bed a little bit and putting a small water pool in the middle. Thinking of Bessie, I built steps up one side of the bed (that's the steps and Bessie just at the top). This spring, while speaking to the LaPorte Master Gardeners in Otis, IN, I found an excellent ceramic turtle for the bed. (It's actually a serving dish, the top shell comes off, but it is perfect for this growing bed). It now lives in the bed as a reminder to watch out for turtle eggs when planting or weeding.

A little late this year, Bessie made her appearance again and went right to work, laying eggs. I saw her in 2 different beds and each time she dug in under the mulch and went to work. Terrapins are said to live 60 years or longer and I've not checked to see how old Bessie might be. We have 2 varieties of box turtles in Missouri. (If you click on the photo to see where Bessie is depositing her eggs as she's well under the bed's pine needle mulch. She's that little mound on the left side of the photo near the point of the blue arrow).

I was glad to see Bessie back again. She's been a constant season after season. I imagine her spending her life in the woods, eating bugs and worms, then once a year having the urge to go back to that spot where she was born. Box turtles are protected in every state simply because their habitat continues to diminish. Highway traffic takes a toll, well meaning people pick them up and take them home (they're strongly territorial and don't often adapt well to a new territory; a better option would be simply move them to the other side of the highway and let them go on with their lives). Housing developments, strip malls, dams on rivers, all takes away turtle habitat and they are on the decline nationwide.


Susan said...

What a great story, Jim....about Donnie and Bessie.When I was much younger, I brought a box turtle home from summer camp. My dad wasn't very happy with me and drove us all the way back to the very spot I picked her up. He told me " It would be like you going out to the mailbox and someone plucking you off the face of the earth on your walk there!" Made so much sense and I never moved one from it's place again!

comfrey cottages said...

what a wonderful story! bessie has a new fan here! you are right, this time of the year we see lots of turtles on the road, what with all the mommies on the move to their special spots. i always just move them to the side of the road they are headed. one day, i was delayed almost an hour on one of the river roads moving the multitudes of turtles on it!lol i hope donnie found some peace for his troubled soul before he passed jim. hugs and thanks for sharing!:)

KC_Compton said...

I love this story.

I have a special place in my heart for terrapins, having grown up in rural Oklahoma. I always brake for them on the highway, if I can without endangering my own life or that of another human. I scoot them across to the other side of the highway in the direction they were heading, since I figured they had an important destination in mind.

I accidentally hit one a couple of years ago and I felt absolutely horrible about it. Still do, but I do as much penance as I can and have saved several just this year.

I'm so happy you built stairs for her. I was worried ...

Jamie and Randy said...

I so glad you made a visit to our place. I've just spent the last hour and a half reading some of the back posts on you blog. I'm looking forward to following your entries from this point on.

You're right we don't have any herbs in our garden. (Which is odd since I was once so in to herbal remedies and supplements.) As far as cooking goes, we stay so busy three minutes in the microwave is about all the time we spend on a meal. Sad isn't it? I said we were going to start eating more nutritious food and I got away from it. --Randy

Lisa at Greenbow said...

What a heartwarming story. I love the turtle steps as I am sure Bessie does too.

Jamie and Randy said...

Hello Jim! And thank you for visiting our blog! Randy and I always appreciate new readers at our little niche in the garden world. What a touching post; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Isn't it just wonderful how a garden can lift one's spirit? I guess that's why gardening is often referred to as "dirt therapy", huh?


cy said...

wow - what an awesome story! your gardens have so many amazing stories hidden among them.

Anonymous said...

This makes me so happy. Thanks, Jim.
- Barry Y.

Patricia said...

Great stewardship of her nesting site. Something as simple as adding steps can insure a turtle has access to her nesting site.

You should see turtles for years to come!