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desert gardening basics
July, 2011, Page 45
Photos by Richard Maack
The curving gabion wall of this tortoise habitat beckons visitors into the backyard of Sandy and Perry Becker’s Scottsdale home.
Sandy and Perry Becker construct the ultimate desert-tortoise habitat
As an architect who designs homes for people, Perry Becker pays close attention to surrounding views. When he and wife Sandy decided to build a habitat for their adopted Sonoran Desert tortoise, Perry also contemplated the view.
“Sandy and I want to watch the tortoise from indoors,” explains Perry. Today, the couple can look directly into his burrow entrance from their patio door and see him as he comes and goes. Of course, that direct line of sight works both ways. The Beckers joke that Tony Tortellini, as they named their adoptee, also observes them as they come and go from their “burrow.”
The couple adopted the tortoise from the Phoenix Herpetological Society. Before adoption, the Beckers dug and built Tony’s burrow and enclosure over a period of several months, using guidelines provided by the society and the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Because desert tortoises cannot regulate their body temperature, a properly constructed burrow keeps them cool in brutally hot summers and warm during months of winter hibernation. It also is essential that a burrow’s entrance be elevated to prevent the inward flow of rainwater, as damp quarters can lead to illness.
Tony, the couple’s adopted desert tortoise, enjoys a walk in the grass.
To form a protective enclosure around the burrow, Perry designed a curving gabion wall—a large wire “basket” filled with rocks. This type of wall typically is used to prevent soil erosion in large-scale projects, explains the architect.
A gabion wall offers numerous benefits for the couple’s backyard tortoise habitat. “Rocks lend a natural style that fits with the rest of our desert landscaping,” Perry states. Also, the tortoise can’t see through the wall, which reduces the likelihood of stressful attempts to leave the enclosure.
A gentle curve in the wall guides the eye to other elements in the landscape, including a bocce ball court and metal sculpture. The wall doesn’t need paint or other upkeep, and its flat top and smooth rocks provide seating when the Beckers entertain and during their visits with Tony. Additionally, it was something the two could build themselves. “I like to work on projects, but I recognize my skill set,” comments Perry with a smile. “I knew Sandy and I could construct a gabion wall ourselves.”
Perry and Sandy Becker have grown fond of their newcomer, who will grow to about 15 inches long.
“When we are home, we let Tony out of his tortoise habitat to walk around our enclosed backyard,” says Sandy. “He has favorite places he heads for, like a shady spot beneath a bursage shrub.” Landscape plants that Tony likes to munch on include globe mallow flowers and foliage, which are his favorites, as well as flowers from brittlebush, desert marigold, hibiscus, Mexican evening primrose and yellow bells.
Access to grass is an adoption requirement, and Tony grazes on a small patch of Bermuda grass in a corner of his enclosure, near his water dish. One of Tony’s quirks the couple hasn’t figured out: He never eats the grass adjacent to the Beckers’ patio, although it is the same variety and maintained the same way as his patch of grass.
The Phoenix Herpetological Society provides a list of plants that desert tortoises eat. “However, we compare notes with other people who have adopted, and their tortoises have likes and dislikes, just as humans do,” comments Sandy. “We feed Tony a diet that is basically what he would eat in nature.” Providing the wrong diet, such as vegetables with high-water content or food with too much protein, can result in deformed shells.
With their tortoise abode built and their adoption application accepted, the Beckers visited the Phoenix Herpetological Society to pick out a tortoise, but Perry claims that Tony picked them. “He bobbed his head up and down at Sandy and was very active and social with her.”
Tony settled into his new home and began refurbishing it to his liking. “I had lined the inside of his burrow with rocks, thinking it would create natural ambience, but Tony has thrown those rocks out of his hole,” Perry says. “It’s amazing how strong he is, using his gular to push rocks around,” adds Sandy. The gular horn is located at the front of the under-shell, and males also use it to overturn other males during competition for females. Tortoises are excellent diggers, and Tony continues to delve deeper into his burrow, the Beckers say.
Left: Upon emerging from winter hibernation, Tony rehydrates in his water dish, drinking for up to 15 minutes. Right: Tony dines on his favorite food—globe mallow foliage—in front of his burrow entrance. Desert tortoises are well-adapted to eating and digesting dry vegetation.
Although tortoises exhibit “personality,” they are not pets that can be handled frequently. Even so, the couple enjoys interacting with Tony and believes a tortoise offers the opportunity to gain appreciation for the Sonoran Desert’s unique and fragile ecosystem.
“Tony has changed our routine,” explains Perry. “At the end of the day, instead of turning on the TV, we sit on the wall and talk to him and each other, discussing our day.”
“Tony walks over to sit by us or put his front legs on the wall, signaling he’d like to cruise around the yard,” comments Sandy. “He’s become part of the family.”
Desert Tortoise Adoption
Phoenix Herpetological Society
—This nonprofit organization (
) is devoted to reptile rescue, rehabilitation and conservation education. Because tortoises exposed to humans may have contracted lethal respiratory illnesses, they cannot be released into the wild. The society works in conjunction with the Arizona Game and Fish Department to adopt out tortoises to people who provide safe surroundings.
Arizona Game and Fish Department
—Find details on desert tortoise care, feeding, burrow construction, adoption application and other adoption facilities in Arizona, including Bullhead City, Kingman, Lake Havasu, Tucson and Yuma at
—To download a free desert tortoise poster, log on to
The rock-filled wall provides a safe enclosure for the tortoise. Perry Becker designed the habitat to blend seamlessly with the couple’s landscape. A metal sculpture by Scottsdale artist Jeff Zischke highlights the setting.
Building A Gabion Wall
Regardless of materials used, a desert tortoise enclosure should be dug 12 inches underground to inhibit the tortoise from digging out of the burrow, and extend at least 18 inches above–ground to prevent it from climbing out.
After trenching with a pickax, home-owner Perry Becker set custom-made aluminum bar stirrups—shaped like oversize croquet hoops—in the trench, then attached woven-wire livestock fencing that was cut to size. (Welded wire livestock fencing is another option, but woven is stronger, explains Perry.) He used galvanized wire that won’t rust—and because the wall was intended for seating—relatively smooth rocks sold as “DC Cobble.”
After 5 tons of rocks were delivered, Sandy Becker hauled them from the driveway to the backyard in a wheelbarrow, while Perry filled the wire enclosure. When full, he hand-tied another piece of woven wire fencing to enclose the top. “Although labor-intensive, it was enjoyable because we were creating it for our tortoise,” says Sandy.
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