The University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Nassau County Extension office now has a Gopher Tortoise Garden! A recipient of the Gopher Tortoise Council’s Donna H. Heinrich Environmental Education Grant, the Gopher Tortoise Garden became a reality, but not without some trials and tribulations of attempting to navigate extension education programming during a pandemic.
The Gopher Tortoise Garden is a dynamic community space with a gopher tortoise enclosure and showcases Florida native plants. Residents and landowners can passively educate themselves about gopher tortoise regulations, ecology, biology, and native gardening to improve their land for wildlife species.
In January, volunteers and a local turtle rescue, S.C.U.T.E.S., assisted with the habitat’s design and building. While digging the post holes and trenches for the enclosure walls, we quickly realized the soil was very high in clay, meaning the area was prone to holding water. A gopher tortoise’s natural habitat is typically dry, well-draining sand. To fix this setback, Nassau County facilities offered sand previously used for beach protection during hurricanes. They transported six tons of sand to replicate environmental conditions and remedy the issue of wet conditions. The sand allowed for better drainage and gave upland plants a better chance of survival. Gopher tortoises eat a variety of upland plants and we wanted to make sure there would be abundant native forage.
After the gopher tortoise enclosure was complete, a grant from the Native Plant Society Ixia Chapter allowed the purchase of seventy gopher tortoise-friendly native plants. Master Gardeners spent a day planting upland native plant species inside the enclosure and plants that can handle wet feet in the surrounding area at the UF/IFAS Nassau County Extension office. After plant installation, Master Gardeners continue to weed and maintain the site. The office closed to the public in March; therefore, we are still waiting to add a waif gopher tortoise. The office just reopened in November and UF/IFAS Extension will apply to Florida Fish and Wildlife’s Conservation Commission’s Waif Gopher Tortoise Program.
Due to COVID-19, virtual Zoom workshops replaced the hands-on workshops that were planned for “a day in the life of a gopher tortoise,” gopher tortoise regulations, native plant gardening, land management, and upland habitat. Participants gained knowledge about gopher tortoises’ biology and ecology and learned about regulations and rules relating to gopher tortoise protection in Florida. We also covered best management practices for the conservation of upland habitats. Lastly, local property owners learned about native gardening and landscaping for wildlife.
Anyone in the community can call our office to make an appointment and visit the newly established Gopher Tortoise Garden. Fact sheets and a map guide them through the area, and each native plant is labeled for visitors to determine what might work best for their soil and environmental conditions. The future for the Gopher Tortoise Garden is to expand the native plant footprint and eventually host in-person gopher tortoise and native plant gardening workshops.