Garden ponds are a delight

I have been gardening this plot for more than twenty years, and no tree or flower has brought me a measure of enjoyment to compare with the garden ponds. There are five ponds in the garden, and another rainy season, dirt bottomed pond that captures runoff from neighboring properties and stays damp enough throughout to be bordered by lovely Japanese irises and perennials that thrive in the muck. The ponds are gathering points of the garden, and visiting kids and adults will linger for hours feeding fish, jumping from boulder to boulder, enjoying the sound of crashing waterfalls, and exploring the colorful blooms that surround the ponds.

The five ponds are lined with heavy duty, fish-safe EPDM rubber, natural boulders and river gravel, and all recirculate water with high efficiency pumps. There is surprisingly little annual labor involved in maintaining the ponds besides a thorough spring cleaning, and only a few minutes are spent each month cleaning debris or adding water to compensate for evaporation.

The smallest of the ponds (the oldest of the bunch) is less than a hundred square feet, and the most recently constructed is almost fifteen hundred. Sweet flag, Japanese iris, and dwarf cattails grow in the shallows, and delightful hardy waterlilies in the deeper parts. Each pond has been home to colorful goldfish and koi, though now all reside in the large and deep “swimming pond” to protect them from a heron that stalks nearby farm ponds.

What is the ideal size for a pond?

Bigger than you expect. A finished pond will often seem smaller than what you envisioned on paper, and after a while you are likely to wish that the pond was larger. Despite warnings to the contrary, my first pond was too small, under seventy five square feet. The second was double this size, and the swimming pond is thirty five by forty feet. For very small properties a pond under one hundred square feet can be appropriate, but for most a pond of one hundred fifty square feet or larger is ideal. Rather than living with disappointment, or starting over, it is best to plan to build a pond a bit larger than you think is right.

Where should the pond go?

First, and foremost, your pond must be situated to enjoy it fully, preferably in full sun, but if you regularly lounge on a shady patio, that’s where it should be. Not nearby, right next to it. If you have a deck, build the pond as close as possible, so that you look over the edge and see water.

People often imagine the lovely view of their pond in a distant corner of the garden, but once they have it, they realize it should be closer. So, a chair is placed at pond’s edge, then a small table to set your book down while you’re admiring your fish, then a patio is built so the family can be together in the area they enjoy so much. Considerable effort and expense are avoided by building the pond nearest the area where the family spends their time outdoors.

Is a pond constructed with concrete better than rubber-lined?

No. I’ve seen concrete ponds crack far too often so that they must be repaired, or even removed. Rubber liners offer design flexibility, don’t crack, and are very resistant to puncture.

What kind of maintenance is required?

An improperly designed pond can be a nightmare, but if constructed properly, the pond is less maintenance than the lawn or garden it replaces. With five ponds my yearly maintenance is only an hour or two per month, and many months require none at all. There are differing ways to reach this low maintenance goal, but the easiest are to build with a pump to recirculate and aerate the pond’s water and a filtration system to prevent algae and green, murky water. Filtration can be as simple as a pond skimmer and rock and gravel to line the inside of the pond, or more complex UV lights and sand or bubble bead filters. A clear water pond can be achieved completely without chemicals and little labor.

Are fish too much trouble?

A pond without fish is delightful to look at, but there’s something missing. I prefer having fish, and goldfish will do, even the cheapest ones sold as feed for larger fish will quickly grow, and many are better than a few. Koi are more expensive, but can grow larger, are more colorful, and can live many years. I purchased the smallest, cheapest koi I could find, and they have grown quickly and spawned plenty of babies that cost nothing. After a few years you’ll have sufficient numbers to give some to the neighbors.

Other critters, frogs, toads, turtles, and dragonflies will arrive without invitation, and cost you nothing.

Do the pond plants take over?

Plants are a must to naturalize the edges of the pond, and in the water. Aquatic plants help to keep the pond’s water clear, provide cover for fish from predators, and many are quite beautiful and require a minimum of care. A word of caution, a few aquatics grow very aggressively, demanding frequent pruning, and others are considered invasive to natural waterways. With proper plant selection pond plants are less maintenance than those in the dry garden since they will never require watering.

At the pond’s edge we want plants to blur the edges that show that your pond is a manmade creation, to flop over the boulders and river gravel. These low growing shrubs and perennials should be planted as a part of the pond’s budget and not as an afterthought.

Are ponds safe for kids?

My two kids grew up with ponds, dangling their feet in the water’s edge and leaping from boulder to boulder without incident. The youngest son now builds ponds for a living. When my boys were growing up they regularly fell out of trees and crashed into each other on playground equipment,  and ponds also require a bit of training and supervision. Most ponds are eighteen to twenty four inches deep, so particular oversight should be exercised when toddlers are present.

What do I do with the pond in the winter months?

I leave my ponds running through the winter. Moving water doesn’t freeze, and pumps are not harmed. In more northern states ponds must be shut down so that freezing water circulated into warmer, deeper water doesn’t harm fish, but in the mid-Atlantic region this isn’t a problem. If you have fish in your pond, and decide to turn it off for the winter, you’ll need to run a small pump to keep an area open so that harmful gases can escape, or use one of the small pond heaters that keeps a small area from freezing. 

Can I build a pond myself, or do I need professional help?

Ponds need not be complicated to be enjoyable, and many people can construct them on their own. However, the labor can be back breaking, and the liner and stone are bulky and heavy. A professional pond builder will design and build a pond that you can enjoy for many years without spending all your free time maintaining it.

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