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Monthly Archives: July 2015

Care and housing of Red Footed Tortoises in the tropics.

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Juno’s first hike, at Ham’s Bluff Lighthouse.

Though still mourning the loss of our beloved Edwin, this week we welcomed a new member into the family. 7-year-old Juno was in desperate need of a home as her elderly owner recently had to relocate for health reasons, and she’s such a sweet dog that I just couldn’t say “no”! She’s already had her first hike, first outing to Polly’s (coffee for me, lots of attention for her), and first trip to the beach, where she drank a worrying amount of sea-water, but otherwise had a great time. She’s a great dog and I’m so glad that I took the chance to meet her – even though I wasn’t planning to adopt again so soon.

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Tortii 1 (1 of 3, 1 month old), Bertha (1 year old), and Mrs Edwards-Plaskett (2-3 years old).

Back to tortoises now. We’ve been keeping a group of adult Red-Footed Tortoises for about 8 years now, and have had a number of successful hatchings over the years. Most of the hatchlings have been given to friends to raise, but I currently have one from last summer and three from this summer. Currently we have tortoises ranging from 1 month to 10+ years old. Red-footed Tortoises are found in the wild on St Croix, but are commonly lost to cars, dogs, cats, mongoose, birds, and rats, particularly during the first year (when they are still “bite-size”). They are mostly found in the “rainforest” area of the island, and occasionally the North Shore. At hatching they are about 2″ long, with shells that harden in the first week. They can grow up to 2′ long, and have been know to live for over 50 years! The eggs are laid in a shallow hole in soft ground, with an average clutch of 3-5 2″ round white eggs. Eggs can take 3-6 months to hatch, with a variance of several months within a single clutch.

DSC_8382I often get questions about what to do when someone finds a tortoise. If it’s a good-sized adult, with no injuries, help it across the road (since that’s where you usually see them) and go on with your day. If you’re lucky enough to find a young hatchling, or if you find an injured adolescent or adult, you may decide to take it home with you until it is grown or fully rehabilitated.

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Tortoises will climb! Make sure your pen has high enough walls.

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A suitable habitat for young hatchlings.

Housing requirements for adult red-footed tortoises are simple: a securely fenced or bricked-in enclosure at least 12″ high with appropriate drainage and a low roofed section or pile of small branches, coconut bracts, and large leaves in which to “burrow”. A floor of 4-6″ of dirt is preferable, so that adult females may easily dig appropriate “nests” in which to lay their eggs. Tortoises under about 5″ long will be at risk from dogs, birds, mongoose, and rats, so should be kept indoors or in a raised enclosure with both a floor and a wire roof (I favor a pen with half a solid roof and half a chicken-mesh roof, so that they may sun themselves, or seek the cooler shaded portion). A standard “under-bed” plastic crate is fine for 1-3 hatchlings for the first few months if kept indoors. I like to add leaf-litter (ant-free!), soil, and a few flat stones so that they have an “environment” – this will need to be replaced every couple of weeks as it starts to smell. Adults will eat their own waste, so they require little cleaning if kept in a large enough enclosure.

Feeding requirements are much the same throughout a tortoise’s life cycle. They require a large amount of edible vegetation for optimal digestion, with a small amount of supplemental protein in the form of dry cat, dog, or livestock feed. They will also eat most non-meat kitchen scraps, particularly as adults. Vegetation can include household scraps, lettuce, spinach, kale, wandering jew, nonii leaves, kudzu, garden weeds, fallen or spoiling fruit, and hibiscus leaves. Hibiscus flowers are a favorite, just be sure that your plants have not been treated with any pesticides. Additional protein should not be fed more than twice weekly, as it can promote over-growth of the shell. Vegetation should be fed every day, with any excess being removed frequently so as to not attract insects and potential predators. Over time you’ll figure out how much your tortoises need each day – more in summer when they are most active. As with anything, a varied diet where they get to pick and choose will be the most natural and healthy.
DSC_8401Water. At all stages of life, red-footed tortoises need access to a shallow dish of fresh, clean water, large enough to soak in, but shallow enough that they cannot drown, and can get in and out easily. For hatchlings, I like to use an 8″ clay plant pot saucer with a generous handful of washed gravel in the bottom. This gets about 1/4″ of water over the gravel, so that they may safely soak and drink. The gravel provides traction and makes it shallow enough for them to climb over the edge. For adolescents and adults, a larger plastic plant saucer or other shallow tray works fine – they can safely have 1/2-1″ of water.
DSC00575An actively mating group of red-footed tortoises will generally consist of at least 1 adult female and 2 adult males. With fewer than 2 males mating in less likely as they are highly competitive! I generally try to keep at least 4 adults as a “herd” in order to have a good chance of at least one clutch per year, and less fighting between the males. Adult males will try to roll each other over, so make sure no one is stuck on his back at feeding time! Hatchlings will sometimes fall over by accident, and generally can’t right themselves. Adult males have a “waist” or narrower middle to their shell, allowing themselves to (usually) turn back over. Generally an adult female will lay 1-2 clutches per year, and may dig a number of holes before actually laying. We’ve had most of our hatchings in mid-summer. Mongoose frequently dig up and eat the eggs, so I’ve started to relocate nests that I find into a 5 gallon plant pot with loose, stony soil, covered with a metal bucket, and left in the same location as the nest was. Females will not monitor the nests after they are laid and covered.
10933703_1124370494244787_2126726615688937244_nHatching. It takes 2-3 days for a tortoise to break free from its egg. Do not disturb or try to speed up this process, though you may add a piece of damp papertowel to its environment to keep the humidity high. After exiting the egg, it takes several days for the remaining yolk sac to be absorbed into the abdomen – do not handle the hatchling during this time as a ruptured yolk sac can be fatal. It will take about a week for the hatchling’s shell to harden and the underside to close up where the yolk sac was. The “egg tooth” on the hatchling’s upper jaw will remain apparent for 1-2 months. For a complete photo essay on the hatching process, see my previous post “A Grand Entrance“.

DSC_8406Tortoises as pets. Keep in mind that these tortoises can live nearly as long as you! While they are adorable as hatchlings, they do become quite large and quite boring. So either be prepared to care for a tortoise for a very very long time, or try to make it’s habitat as natural as possible as it grows, so that your tortoise will have the skills to survive when you release it as an adult. This means feeding it local flora, letting it “burrow”, encouraging “foraging” (don’t always feed it in the same place), and giving it as large an enclosure as possible. Please remember that red-footed tortoises are the only local tortoise – do not release other species or any other non-local exotic pets!

If you have any other questions related to the care and keeping of red-footed tortoises, please comment below!

Our Nidulari special this week is a wood-fired Artisan Herb Boule for $10, limited supply so please order ahead. Hope to see you at the farmstead this Wednesday  2:30-6:30pm!

A sad ending.

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This week, I write with a heavy heart. Edwin, my dear, joyous, rambunctious “puppy” passed away earlier this week, minutes after being hit by a car on Mahogany Road. He was one of the most outgoing, loving dogs I’ve ever had the chance to know, and it seems so unfair that his life should have ended so soon – just 8 months after being rescued from the St Croix Animal Welfare Center. In his memory, please, drive a little slower, and be aware that there are often animals (and people) in the road just around the corner. Our roads are narrow with very poor visibility, and there’s nowhere that you need to get to those 2 minutes sooner at the cost of a life. I will be the first to say, he should not have been loose in the road. However, fence escapes do happen, leashes break, collars slip off – everyone who has ever had a pet or farm animal knows that these are inevitable situations; situations in which you are forced to rely on all those around you to do no harm. So drive more carefully, and give your dog an extra hug today.

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May you be hunting mongoose forever more, Sir Edwin.

I do not have it in me to write the post that I was going to publish this week: a brief guide to the housing, care, and hatching of Red Footed Tortoises, specific to our climate – so keep an eye out for that post next week.

For this Wednesday’s baking, the special will be Artisan Focaccia topped with locally grown rosemary, sea salt, and olive oil for $10. There will also be Artisan Wood-Fired Bread in White, Oat, and Mixed Grain for $7. For delivery to Cruzan Gardens, please be sure to pre-order by 5pm Tuesday evening.

Should you have an excess of mangoes – green or ripe – please contact me: it has been a lean season thus far and I’m still hoping to make a few more batches of mango chutney to get everyone through to next year. I will gladly trade chutney or bread for mangoes. Thanks!

Rain, rye, and roosters.

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DSC_8388Mandy’s shiny new tin roof has seemingly caused WIFI signal loss (see, tinfoil hats really do work!)…and thereby blog post loss! So here I am, not fallen off the end of the earth after all, but merely sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of the garden trying to stay connected. And ordering 50 chicks! Not all for me – Cynthia at Cruzan Gardens is joining me in poultry expansion, so together we are getting 25 pullets for the coming laying season and 25 males for the pot. I’ll be keeping 10 of each, to supply a larger egg market in the coming season and to have some healthy, home-raised meat this fall. Fond as I am of my Ameraucanas, this time I’ve opted for Buff Orpingtons, as a practical dual-purpose bird with high production of large brown eggs, and a table weight of around 6-7lbs – significantly heavier than an Ameraucana at maturity. They should be arriving late next week, so brace yourselves for cute chick photos!

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Moist earth after rain
bugs stirring, lizards feeding
there is life, again.


We had a little rain yesterday, at last. It was an all-to-brief respite from our months of drought, but appreciated nonetheless as it did settle the dust a little and the clouds provided a chance to water the garden deeply with less evaporation than usual. Between the heat, drought, and summer bugs I am struggling to get seedlings to take, even the heat-loving sweet potato, okra, beans, marigolds, and bokchoy. The water hyacinths continue to abound, so at least the chickens have their supply of greens – without which they make such a fuss about neglect, squawking at me whenever I come near, demanding their due in return for eggs.

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Rye “shampoo”.

Our lack of rain has made me particularly aware of what (chemicals, unwanted substances) may be washing down my drains – straight into the garden. Usually everything from the shower and kitchen sink (grey water) would be diluted by rainwater, “flushing” away any substances that might otherwise build up. I fear that we’re now in that “otherwise” situation. Dish soap and regular soap, I cannot do without…however, I started thinking about what I could change. I already use essential oils or all natural bug repellents…natural soaps…but I have been getting through at least a bottle a month each of shampoo and conditioner – you don’t even want to know what’s in those. I’ve tried baking soda (as shampoo) before, and it just didn’t cut it. So, I looked up alternative products (ran across way too many granola-girl “no-poo” articles, blog posts, and you-tube clips, people who haven’t “washed” their hair in 10 years…) and eventually came across the idea of a rye-based “shampoo”. Now, I love flour, I’m a baker – but flour in my hair? Eww. Nonetheless, I had a couple of cups of rye flour left so I figured I’d give it a try. Amazing! This time of year, working outdoors a lot, I’m always caught in a dilemma of dirty hair versus dry, breaking hair from washing it every day. With this, I can use it every day, feel clean, and not do any damage! Plus no noxious chemicals down the drain. The magical recipe? 1 cup of rye flour, 1 cup of white vinegar (you could use ACV), and a few drops of essential oil (to not smell of vinegar). Mix in a jar, scoop out as needed. I’ve yet to find anyone else mixing with vinegar, but I have hard water (well water), and knew that rye flour mixed with water would grow mouldy in a few days in our climate. The first day it was a mess – hard to apply, hard to rinse out. Thereafter, it’s been great, having reduced to a creamy, smooth consistency that applies easily, doesn’t tangle my hair, and rinses out in seconds. Before you go trying this and getting your hair all matted up with flour I must disclose: I have short, straight hair. I’ve no idea how this would work for people with long, curly, or crissy hair – but it might be worth trying (sometime when you’re not in a huge hurry and will have time to rinse properly). For myself, I’m glad to buy one less thing at the store, and to have a few less plastic bottles to throw out each month – not to mention having no pollutant hair products going down the drain.

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Another way to reduce packaging and save (rather a lot of) money: homemade oat and almond milk. Delicious, and leaves you in complete control of how much sugar it contains. More on that another week, including a “how-to”.

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Tortii 1, 2, and 3, all happy and healthy.

With that, I leave you for the week! Don’t forget to stop by the Nidulari farmstand on Mahogany Road this Wednesday between 2:30 and 6:30pm for your fresh weekly bread, eggs, jams, and more. If you didn’t get your fill of mangoes at Mango Melee, try our green mango chutney! If you’d prefer to pick some of our products up at Cruzan Gardens on Wednesday, be sure to place your order online, thank you!