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Turtle forest planted at St. Anne teaches protection, memorialize late first grade teacher

The low-bush blueberry, pink turtlehead and blue-eyed grass being planted on campus at St. Anne’s School of Annapolis didn’t rise past the hips of first graders or the knees of their parents, who were working Thursday to create a turtle-friendly garden near the woods bordering an athletic field.

But from the perspective of a tiny box turtle, the new garden is filled with towering plants that the tiny reptiles can eat from, shelter under and lay eggs around. It is a forest for them to forage from.

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First grade teacher Kelly Lane said that last year first graders picked a turtle to be their grade’s mascot, which led to the students and teachers learning about the ways turtles are in danger because of habitat degradation and pesticide use. She said the school has now adopted the mission of educating students about protecting turtles.

The garden will also serve as a memorial for St. Anne’s first grade teacher Christy D’Camera, who died in September. Lane said she was a peaceful, nature-loving individual with a zen spirit.

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“It’s a way for anyone that wants to to come here and think of her, or to be like her,” Lane said.

The turtle forage forest has been built near a rain garden on the school grounds, and Lane said the area will continue to expand for environmental learning and preservation. As part of the lessons on turtles, students have penned persuasive essays to local leaders calling for more turtle protection.

“So that we also understand that, even at 6, we have a voice with legislation locally,” Lane said.

She said teaching the students to speak up for themselves and others at a young age is important, because when they are older they won’t be afraid to speak. She said the garden and lesson on advocacy will continue well past 2021.

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“The first graders now will be starting something that will continue long past them graduating,” she said.

Jeffrey Popp from the Terrapin Institute has worked with Lane to plan and plant the garden on campus, which is designed in the shape of a turtle, with four legs, a head and a tail. Two rocks make up the eyes, and a row of stepping stones mimics the scutes, hardened geometric pieces of keratin, which are a part of a turtle’s shell.

Different parts of the turtle garden will meet different needs for the animals.

Popp said the head and tail will be filled with sand, creating an area with loose soil for turtles to nest and lay eggs in. Turtles will be able to eat the fruit produced by the blueberry bush, and the pink turtlehead will attract caterpillars for the turtles to munch on.

Instead of using hardwood mulch around the plants, Popp said they are using pine needles, another habitat feature. Turtles can hide from the hot summer sun, or hibernate for the winter in the pine needles.

“That’s something the box turtles love to burrow underneath,” he said.

The hope is that turtles will climb up a small hill to the garden from the wetlands and woods near the site. Popp said box turtles are the most likely visitors. Popp said all the plants being added are native, with various benefits for the natural environment.

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