Late spring in a New England vegetable garden is usually a time for the last asparagus, the crisp lettuce and arugula, the first pea shoots, and the first sprouting of warm-weather crops like peppers and zucchini. What you don't expect to see planted in your beds are snapping turtles. But that's just what turned up in mine twice this week.
I was talking in my garden with a friend when I noticed what looked like a large leather satchel tossed in the strawberry bed. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a 30-pound snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) — no doubt on leave from our nearby town pond — and capable of snapping off a finger with a beak curved as close and tight as my heavy-duty pruners. Over the next couple of days, reports of turtle sightings from friends and neighbors seemed to come in every few hours.
Apparently, the appearance of these uninvited garden guests was no fluke. It's been happening a lot lately as their natural habitats shrink.
It's nesting season, says Alexxia Bell of the Turtle Rescue League. Female snapping turtles leave their watery habitats behind once a year to lay eggs. "Basically, they like top loam, where a little sun will hit it. They'll dig on a bit of a hill, not a valley," she tells The Salt. In other words, from a turtle's point of view, a recently cultivated raised garden bed looks like a pretty ideal spot.
After finding a promising site, female snapping turtles scuffle the dirt with their hind legs and lay a clutch of 15 to 50 eggs. It's best, Bell says, to "let the turtle just do her thing. After a couple of hours she'll leave, and she won't come back till next year." Between laying the eggs and returning to the site for the next clutch, "she'll have nothing to do with her young."
In fact, the Turtle Rescue League encourages residents to create "turtle gardens" — what look like ordinary raised beds for flowers or vegetables, left unplanted for turtles to discover and use as nests.
Although it's best to leave the snapping turtle alone, if you must move it, first make sure no small children or pets are close by, as sudden and unpredictable movement can rile it, Bell says. They do have a mean bite.
Approach quickly but calmly from behind, and place one hand palm up under the turtle's belly — as in this video. Lift the tail near the base of the shell with the other hand, and don't go within two feet of the beak, she says. Snapping turtles have long and flexible necks, and can stretch their heads backward over their shells and sideways all the way to their back legs to get at you when they feel threatened.
Don't lift the turtle off the ground by the tail, as this can dislodge the turtle's vertebrae and sharply reduce its chance of survival in the wild, Bell says.
When I returned to the garden a couple of days after my turtle encounter to transplant some zucchini, I found a bonus under the dirt — eggs that looked like 30 or so miniature pingpong balls. I spooned them into my transplant pots and brought them inside.
I consulted with friends online, who were equally divided over whether the eggs should be disposed of, incubated or eaten.
Two suggested they be eaten either raw or barely cooked with a hole poked in the top and a bit of soy sauce or green chili drizzled in (the latter method having been sampled by a friend traveling in Nicaragua, where turtle eggs and meat are widely consumed). I considered slurping one down, but the memory of Mrs. Snapper's reproachful, prehistoric gaze eventually proved too much for me.
According to Bell, the eggs are very delicate, and the embryo within can be killed if turned or jarred. If you wait until the turtles hatch, they can be removed in a box to a lake or stream.
Some folks eat turtle stew and such — but if it's all a little too Alice In Wonderland for you, a more ecologically-minded alternative is to contact your local conservation society to arrange for pickup and proper incubation. In the end, that's what I did — in exchange for a promise that our family could be present when they begin to hatch.