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Cleaning Out the Bugs at a Real Snail's Pace

August 28, 1994

After reading Donna Englander's "Green Thumb article ("Fighting Never-End Battle of the Bugs," July 31), I feel I must reveal the ultimate and politically correct way to banish snails and bugs from a garden forever without using poisons or chemicals or rolled-up wet newspapers or plastic collars or any other clever devices recommended in gardening tips. For my small, snail-infested, pill bug-ridden English cottage garden, I have the same aversion to using poisons that could harm the environment that Englander mentioned.

The magical cure for all this misery in my garden are my two friends, Rapunzel and Wolfgang, North American Box Turtles. No snail bait or poison spray--just two environmentally correct, low-maintenance turtles.

One year after I put them into my garden, they are finally accepting food from me after stripping their environment clean of tasty bugs, but leaving the plants untouched and healthy. For a full year I put out fresh water every day and thrilled to the sound of crunching and munching as Wolfgang ate the snails shell and all, and Rapunzel more delicately went the escargot route, daintily removing the slugs from the shell before dining. Even the ants are scarce--delicious hors d'oeuvres that the turtles pick up on the ends of their orange tongues.

Today Rapunzel and Wolfgang eat mostly frozen mixed vegetables, nectarine slices and carrots. They are still vigilant, however, making a daily tour under the foliage for any possible bug morsels. I defy anyone to find even one bug bite our of any leaf of any plant--what a wonderful effort-free garden. Now, if I could just teach those turtles to pull weeds.

If you're interested in trying this method, here are some important facts about captive turtles:

--Your turtle may go into shock when you first purchase him or her. This is common, and they usually will get an upper respiratory infection that must be treated with antibiotic shots at the vet. Both of my turtles started out with colds, but got better in two weeks.

--Turtles are expert escape artists. Deep wall footings will keep them in, or bury fencing below the ground to keep them from digging out. They can also climb low walls and fences.

--Give your snails a few weeks to be free of pesticides before placing the turtles in your garden.

--Provide shade and a place to hid and burrow. They also love the sprinklers.

--Large dogs may try to eat the turtles, but cats and small animals don't seem to bother them.

--Be aware that healthy box turtles will live 30 to 40 years.

--Buy a good turtle book such as "The General Care and Maintenance of Box Turtles" by Philippe de Vosjoli.

ELAINE BURNS, Dana Point

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