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Sharon Hull, This Week in the Garden

As nearly everyone knows by now, gardening and garden pursuits have skyrocketed during the months since the pandemic began. Sheltering at home has meant extra hours to spend outdoors in our own safe spaces. Though many have put their efforts into growing vegetables or flowers, or have tackled long-postponed big landscaping projects, some people have chosen to put their time, energies and talents into quite creative and sometimes less ordinary endeavors.

The Echols family, with an already beautifully landscaped private sanctuary garden, chose to focus their attentions on…surprise!…an extensive new home for some pet tortoises.

A side view of tortoise enclosure and deck placement in garden. (Contributed — Sharon Hull)

Adam Echols, long an animal lover and keeper of exotic pets, acquired from a reputable breeder in New Jersey three baby Hermann’s Tortoises. Named Ruga, Gaia and Thena (unexpectedly all male) and native to Mediterranean areas of Southern Europe and the Middle East, this species is well-adapted to our Coastal California climate. They are considered excellent pets if the owner does their research, learns what they need and provides appropriate care and housing.

At first, the youngsters were kept in a climate-controlled and protected enclosure until they matured enough to thrive in an outdoor environment. Now 3 years old, the tortoises lived in smaller temporary quarters until the present enclosure was built. Adam Echols and the entire family (Carole, Lloyd and Ebrima Badjie) worked together to design and build a large and beautiful tortoise habitat that perfectly blends with the existing landscape of the backyard of their Santa Cruz home.

Adam thoroughly researched the requirements for a safe and comfortable home for these animals: size needed, appropriate materials (all non-toxic), soil and drainage needs, sun/shade requirements, appropriate plantings, type of water supply, needed shelter and climate control details. Carole and Lloyd decided just how much of their backyard could be given to the enclosure and they also decided on some of the aesthetic issues so that it all complemented and “fit” with the existing landscape. Lloyd also provided some of the technical aspects like designing the power supply for lighting, heat and fountain pump, and Ebrima added his muscles and energy to the project and assisted Adam with the heavy work. It was truly a family effort.

The result is a handsome enclosure, measuring 22.5 feet long by 5 fee wide, that nestles into the area just off the raised deck behind the home. The 16 inch high enclosure “fence” is lined with slate-colored, wavy polycarbonate sheeting which is safe for contact by the tortoises, and the exterior is faced with natural stone and capped with smooth stones that provide a comfortable place to sit. The animals need a well-drained environment so the native poorly-draining clay soil was dug out to a depth of 10 inches and replaced with sand with organic matter added. A low naturalistic fountain made of flat slabs of stone above a buried basin provides recirculating and aerated water that is always accessible to the animals; it also adds its sparkle and the music of moving water to the charm of the place. A little “beach” covers the area beside the fountain, made from softly rounded small stones; the outer edges of the beach have larger stones placed about in a naturalistic design. Set into the ground, level with the soil surface, are large flat stones like those that form the fountain: they provide spaces for the tortoises to rest or soak up the sunshine. Interesting pieces of driftwood are placed throughout with one large piece providing shelter from the sun. Plantings are all non-toxic to tortoises and consist of decorative grasses, herbs (including Spanish lavender) and some low-growing flowering shrubs. Several deciduous hibiscus are included because they are a favorite tortoise food. (Extra hibiscus plants are being grown in pots outside of the enclosure; they are rotated with those in the enclosure so that as the plants get chewed on, they can be replaced with fresh plants.) At one end is a tiny greenhouse with a ceramic heater to provide warmth and shelter during chilly periods; another structure in a Mediterranean style is in the planning stages and will be placed in the other end.

Tortoise enclosure below the deck. (Contributed — Sharon Hull)

The existing enclosure was completed on Memorial Day and the tortoises released in their new home. Now, after everything has settled in during the summer and the plants become established, the tortoises are healthy and thriving. If it is possible to determine if a tortoise is happy, these three appear to be, definitely enjoying the freedom to roam and interact in their roomy home. The Echols family is also enjoying the addition to their garden which can be readily viewed from comfortable seating on the deck. They will tell you that tortoise-watching is a very calming yet entertaining way to spend some quiet time in a private shelter-in-place sanctuary garden.

If you want to know more about Hermann’s Tortoises, visit https://tortoiseforum.org/ and https://lafeber.com/vet/basic-information-sheet-hermanns-tortoise/.

Garden tips are provided courtesy of horticulturist Sharon Hull of the San Lorenzo Garden Center. Contact her at 831-423-0223.

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