Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
May, 2009
Regional Report

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Priscilla dining on green beans, one of her favorite foods.

Priscilla, Queen of the Garden

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is the resident tortoise in the Oakland garden of my friends Peter and Javier. She cruises around the garden, spending the mornings sunning on the flagstones and the hot afternoons grazing among the Japanese anemones. I have always loved turtles and tortoises, although I have never kept one as a pet. Tortoises are land-dwelling reptiles while their close relatives, the turtles, prefer an aquatic environment. They both belong to the order of Testudinidae. Javier says that he thinks Priscilla is a Mediterranean Tortoise, but he is not sure if she is hemanni or horsfieldi, they need to count her toes to tell the difference.

Priscilla came to Javier and Peter from Wendy Tokuda. Wendy, a very professional anchorwoman on KPIX channel 5, believes in her heart that she is a farmer. Her garden is nothing but vegetables, vegetables and more vegetables, all grown in raised beds. Corn, squash, beans, peas, cabbage, melons, herbs -- anything you can eat is welcome in Wendy's East Bay garden. Priscilla was quite happy there, but as tortoises are vegetarians, there soon arose a problem -- Priscilla was eating Wendy's produce and Wendy was not happy. Tortoises are accomplished climbers and the raised beds posed no problem to the agile reptile. Priscilla was especially fond of yellow flowers including those of squash and melons. No flowers means no produce. Something had to be done...

Wendy asked around to see if she knew of anybody who had a suitable garden that could support a mature tortoise. Tortoises need a lot of space, keeping one in a tank is just plain cruel. The ideal garden had to be securely fenced, in a warm climate with plenty of good grazing. Peter Sheldon is an accomplished gardener whose East Bay garden fit the bill exactly.

The sunny day I visited, Priscilla was out and about, sunning herself on the flagstone path. Javier and I walked the neighborhood collecting dandelion flowers, her favorite food, from the neighboring lawns. We came back with a large handful and set them a few feet in front of Priscilla. You could almost see her eyes light up with anticipation! She lifted up and walked over to the pile of dandelion flowers and dug right in. It took her about 7 minutes to finish the entire pile, what a greedy gal! Javier then offered her some green beans, which she ate lengthwise with gusto. According to Javier, her favorite foods are dandelion flowers, green beans, rose petals, and calla lilies but unlike other tortoises, she doesn't care for strawberries.

When fall rolls around and the days get shorter, Javier and Peter leave the door to the basement open for her so she can spend the winter indoors. On cold days, she will sometimes plant herself by the dryer vent and hope that someone will do a load of laundry. Peter has set up a heat lamp in the basement which she will use occasionally. When winter rolls around in earnest she just digs herself down into the mud. When I visited, she was still wearing a light coating of mud that wouldn't brush off. Javier says that she hates water and doesn't like to be bathed, so he just uses a brush to remove the clumps and leaves her to her own grooming.

One of the raised beds in the garden contains a little vine I call German ivy. Javier says that it is one of Priscilla's favorite delicacies. Priscilla keeps it evenly trimmed to the precise height of a tortoise head.

Keeping a tortoise requires a commitment. They live a very long time -- Javier thinks Priscilla is about 40 years old, but that's just a guess. They should be protected from raccoons and foxes and curious dogs. They must have a warm place to sun themselves and plenty of fresh food available at all times. Although they get most of the water they need from the produce they eat, fresh water should be available to them at all times.

May 23 is World Turtle Day. There are tortoise clubs that hold meetings and provide information on their care. Visit for more information. And keep in mind, buying a turtle or tortoise under 4 inches is illegal.

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