I Think I Want A Pond…

I Think I Want A Pond…

I really believe it is hard-wired into our brains. There is something about the sound of rapidly moving water that strikes a chord in the deepest parts of our souls. Perhaps it is the (barely) upright ape in us that links that sound with basic survival, a promise of life, coolness on a hot day, and the chance, if we are quick and lucky, of dinner.

Whatever the reason, the desire to have moving water in your immediate living space has hit, and you are beginning to do the research. As you start, there are some questions you should ask.

1) How much time do I want to spend?

This question has implications both as you start up and as you persist in the hobby. If you are not careful, water gardening can easily absorb large portions of your limited leisure time and has the tendency to eat other hobbies if not closely supervised. Folks with two jobs, a young family, housework and a host of social obligations should be very careful here, and limit themselves to a pot garden at most. Those with an aversion to muck and wet should stop reading now and take up knitting. Model railroaders had better have finished work on their layouts and rolling stock, because this hobby is addictive, and their current setup will be their last, unless they can transfer their affections from HO scale to Garden Railway.

2) How much money do I want to spend?

No question here. The bigger it is, the more it costs to build and maintain.

3) How much space do I have?

This is a no-brainer if you live on the 73rd floor of a high-rise in downtown anywhere. You are only at risk if you have enough grass to mow in a protected area around your house. If you have enough grass to require a power mower, you are really in trouble. Rider mower? Uh-oh. Full-time groundskeeper and staff? Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

4) What do I want this water feature to do?

Is it just the sound of moving water you want? Do plants figure into the concept? What about animal life? Fish? Frogs? Possums? Raccoons? Deer? Herons? Neighbors? Building inspectors? Ordinance Control? If you want fish, what kind of fish are you thinking about? Goldfish are small, practically bombproof and easy on the ecology, but are considered by practically every backyard predator to be delicious and easily caught. Koi are big, beautiful and impressive, but also expensive, demanding and sometimes challenging to maintain.

How much time do I want to spend?

This question has implications in both the construction and maintenance phases of pond ownership. In construction, the obvious conclusion is that if you buy something that comes out of the box, fits on a tabletop and plugs into the wall, it’ll have instructions that say “Just add water”. You’ll end up with something that may look nice and goes “burble” (and occasionally “bing”), and won’t take up much of your time at all. It will, however tend to get ignored over time, run dry and burn out. These mini-features come under the “funny once” category of water gardening, and if they support wildlife, it wasn’t the wildlife you were thinking of.

If you are looking for an outdoor feature, but are both time and space-challenged, (Over-employed high-rise dwellers come to mind here.) a satisfactory compromise can be attained with a barrel garden. Half-whiskey barrels and convincing plastic look-alikes can be had at most garden centers, and liners for the wood barrels are also easily found. A small pump and fountain (or falls) arrangement, some rocks and small aquatic plants and even a goldfish or two complete what can be a very satisfying and relatively low-maintenance water feature.

Any advance beyond this point suggests outdoor yard space and a larger commitment of construction and maintenance time. Now is the time to stop, think and decide just what it is that you want this water feature to do.

Decision point one: “I don’t want to deal with critters, I just like the sound of splashing water. I think waterfalls are neat.”

The neatest solution to this situation is an arrangement I saw at the Midwest Pond and Koi Society’s trade show last fall (2004). It combined a liner-based waterfall of the “build-it-yourself” type, cascading down into a bed of coarse rock. This can obviously be anything from limestone landscape rock to carefully hand-chosen Wisconsin cobble rocks. The secret to the arrangement is that the waterfall cascades onto the rocks, which are contained by a large heavy-gauge plastic basin. At the bottom of this basin (about two to three feet deep) is a high-efficiency submersible pump protected by a cover. The basin is buried to its edge below the falls and filled almost to the brim with water, the level stopping just below the top of the rocks. Water cycling over the falls empties into the rocks and vanishes, to be pumped back up to the top of the falls. No open water, no mosquitoes, but plenty of places to stick plants between the rocks, and lots of room for creative rock arrangement in a small space. The small footprint of the feature keeps the amount of digging to a minimum and the major investment of time will be in arranging your waterfall rocks on the liner. Most of your ongoing maintenance time will be directed at maintaining your water level so your pump does not run dry, and fall drainage to prevent water freezing in your pump and water lines.

The key thing to remember here is that you will be digging a hole in your yard of significant depth and width. Even though it will present zero drowning risk to even the clumsiest of neighborhood drunks, it still puts underground structures in the way of your shovel. Call your local Utilities Tracking Service (in the Chicago metropolitan area it is called “Julie”). They will come out, and at no charge, will mark off where all the buried water, gas and electrical lines run. Do this first before beginning any dig.

Decision point two: “I don’t have a lot of time or space, but I’d like something pretty, with fish.”

Check with “Julie” first. Then touch base with your municipality, if you have one. Owners of farms and other rural properties do not have this issue. Most urban and suburban communities have very specific ordinances governing placement, depth and protection of in-ground water features. Many also require building permits. It is much easier on everybody if these details are dealt with before the first shovelful of earth is moved.

The decision to add fish to a water feature puts you into a whole new category of this hobby. Although shallow versions of this type of pond (18 inches or less in depth) are considered by most communities to be “water features” not requiring extraordinary protective measures, the livestock have needs that must be met, and the open water that this feature contains will also require maintenance.

To be very basic, fish eat and excrete. The products that they excrete are toxic to them, and if not disposed of in some way, will eventually kill them. In the wild, fish live in large bodies of water fed constantly by springs, streams or rivers. There are thousands of gallons of water available for each fish present. Your backyard pond offers no such luxury. Most “beginner” ponds range between 50 to 250 gallons (especially if they are of the preformed “dig and go” type) and are closed, recirculating systems. Maintenance of water quality adequate to sustain fish health will require either daily large-volume water changes or some form of biofiltration.

Very simply put, a biofilter is just a box full of something with a large amount of surface area (media) that beneficial bacteria can attach to and do their job. Water from the pond flows through it and the bacteria on the media convert the toxic ammonia produced by the fish to nitrite (also toxic) and then to nitrate (relatively nontoxic, but great fertilizer). Most biofilters also contain mechanical filters (brushes, mats, fine gravel or sand) which remove larger solid waste and floating debris. These can be home-built using food-grade plastic drums or garbage cans as the container, or bought complete with all sorts of horns and whistles from any number of manufacturers. If there is a caution to be raised with regard to any of these manufactured products, it is that the manufacturer will always overstate the filtering capacity of his product. View any statement on the box such as “…for ponds up to xxx gallons” with the gravest suspicion, and divide the “xxx” by at least 2.

Remember also that municipal water is treated to kill bacterial contaminants, usually with chlorine, chloramines or both. While these render the water safe for you to drink, they also will kill off your biological filter and injure your fish’s gills. Any pond with fish and filled from the garden tap will need to be pre-treated with a good dechlorinator.

The decision point “pretty” also implies plants. Aquatic and marginal plants are an essential part of the backyard pond ecosystem, adding shade, cover and beauty to the mix. They also provide a small amount of biofiltration, and will be important in removing ammonia from the water. Ammonia is toxic to fish and creates another problem: algae. Hobbyists deal with both floating algae and hair (or string) algae every season as a matter of course. Both are present everywhere in the pond environment, and grow rapidly in the presence of sunlight and food (ammonia-otherwise known as “fertilizer”). Growth of both types of algae can be limited by the presence of actively growing aquatic and marginal plants, but small ponds can’t support a large enough plant population to do the job and still leave room for the fish. In the case of floating algae, the kind that turns your pond to “pea soup” in late spring, the easiest solution is an ultraviolet light unit placed in your water line between your filter and your inlet to the pond. String algae is another issue, and is dealt with elsewhere.

The most basic, cheapest and easiest to install in-ground ponds are the so-called “pre-formed” type. You can see these for sale at any home and garden outlet. They have the advantage of being easy to install and run, requiring a minimum of digging or piping. They are frequently sold as kits, and may include a pump, a fountain or falls arrangement, and occasionally even a filter. From a time and money standpoint, they are very attractive.

These rarely exceed 200 gallons in capacity and have a number of drawbacks.

•    They come in a limited number of shapes and sizes. This limits your ability to fit it into your landscape plan.
•    The kits are usually under-filtered, and will support only small populations of aquatic life.
•    The pumps are frequently designed to run small fountains and often do not move adequate volumes of water through the filter to allow for proper bioconversion. They also tend to be fairly flimsy, jam easily, and rarely last more than one season. They are inevitably submersible pumps, which present a constant maintenance problem as well, requiring that you pull them out almost daily to clear the inlets.
•    They are necessarily shallow, rarely exceeding 18 inches in depth. This makes them easy targets for predators. Raccoons, possums, herons, bullfrogs and other common predators all love these types of ponds. The fish in them tend to be slow and delicious, and tend to come towards any disturbance in the water, hoping to be fed. It’s better than McDonald’s!
•    The small size of these units limits your options with regard to fish. Goldfish do well. Anything bigger, such as koi, will suffer and die.

More time on the install, but…

For all practical purposes, flexible liner-based ponds are the most adaptable and most easily maintained ponds going. They can be designed to fit into any space, incorporate any feature you want, go to any depth, and if designed with forethought, can be easy to maintain, durable and almost self-sustaining from an ecological standpoint. A wide variety of liner materials are now available ranging from the old reliable (but heavy) butyl rubber to lighter, thinner and very durable space-age plastics and polymers. Since the design and building of this type of pond is entirely your choice, it allows for absolute freedom in your choice of pumps, streams, waterfalls, fountains and filters. For specifics, we refer you to Mike White’s excellent series of articles on pond construction elsewhere on this site.

How much money do I want to spend?
The fact that you are even reading this article implies that you are willing to spend something. How much you will actually unpocket will depend on your imagination, resourcefulness, energy, and the intensity with which this hobby will bite you. At the point at which it transmutes from an interest to a hobby, you begin to spend money. When it goes from hobby to enthusiasm, you can multiply your willingness to spend by a factor of at least five. When you slide from enthusiasm to obsession and become “koi kichi” and your spouse or S.O. is ready to drown you in your ever-expanding construct, you’ll need a lotto hit or two or three new jobs.

The Ebeneezer Scrooge Option
Get a pot out of your cupboard, put a piece of celery, some water, and that hokey plastic goldfish you picked up at that garage sale into it. Done.

One Notch Up
Container water gardening is a popular low-cost and space-thrifty option to ponding that allows cliff and bungalow-dwellers access to at least some of the fun of ponding. While these systems do not have the volume necessary to support koi, they will handle a couple of goldfish and a surprising variety of aquatic plant life for minimal cost. What is essential here is a small but durable pump arrangement with enough output to keep the water in the container circulating briskly. Aeration can be supplied either by a small but turbulent stream bed or an aquarium-grade air pump and stone. These tend to be inexpensive, and your container can be anything that’ll hold water and won’t leak, tip or go crashing through your floorboards. Careful attention to water quality is essential here. The major failing that these systems have is chronic under-filtration.

…and Another Notch!
Preformed ponds can be had at almost any garden supply place these days, and, if cleverly installed, can look quite good. They tend to range between 75 and 200 gallon capacity and rarely exceed 18 inches in depth. They are easy to install, and many come as kits with pump and small biofilter included. Be cautious about these systems. The manufacturer almost always overestimates the capacity of the system to support aquatic life, and even a couple of enthusiastic goldfish can overpower the filter in a couple of spawnings. These systems also are not sufficient to support koi, and worse, are very difficult to defend from predation. Raccoons love them, especially if they have (as most do) plant shelves. They knock the plants into the pond, hunker down on the comfy seat thus provided, and chow down on your fish. Possums and wading birds are also a threat, and the more rural you live, the worse the problem will be.

…One Notch Further…
Liner-based ponds can be any size, shape and depth, and if you are willing to do the work of planning, digging and piping yourself, they can be built for surprisingly little money. An article in Koi USA about three years ago detailed a complete construction plan for a liner pond, including a home-built skimmer, falls and barrel biofilter which cost, at that time, about $1200. Given the design and materials, this cost has not escalated much over the intervening years. As you get into the 800-2000 gallon range, koi keeping becomes possible, and the deeper you go, the better koi will like it. Most experienced hobbyists consider a depth of four feet to be a minimum, and prefer six to eight feet if they are planning on having really big fish. Oddly enough, maintenance and running costs decrease as the pond becomes deeper and larger, mostly due to increasing stability of pond chemistry and temperature. A well-designed deep pond is also much easier to defend against predation. Raccoons can’t fish when they’re dogpaddling, and herons can’t hunt when there is no place for them to wade.

It’s important to remember, however, that your community may have views about your project, and have probably backed them up with ordinances. These are probably easily viewed at the Public Works Office in your local Town Hall, filed under “Stuff” beneath a pile of 1944 calendars in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet in a small alcove in the fourth sub-sub-basement with a sign on the door that says “Beware of the Leopard”. As hard as it may be, staying in compliance with your local rules and regulations from the beginning saves time, energy and heartbreak later on. Remember to call your local Utilities Tracking Service BEFORE you dig. Hitting the neighborhood’s 220-volt service line with your shovel while standing in damp soil is no fun.

Doing the digging, wiring and piping yourself cuts way down on the cost, but remember, all that dirt has to go somewhere, and dug dirt takes up a lot more room than the hole from whence it came. You can use some of it to construct the hill that your stream and falls will cascade down, but neighbors tend to get cranky when the grade level of their veggie garden mysteriously rises two feet in one night. Time to cultivate that “innocent” look. (Mike White’s articles on pond building become required reading about here.)

At the high end of this scale is the option of having a professional with heavy digging equipment and a horde of manpower come in and do the gruntwork for you. What becomes important here is in the selection of this kind of help. Ask around at other ponds about the contractors in your area. Many landscapers will offer to dig for you, but if they do not have actual ponding experience, they will screw it up and you will inevitably be disappointed, left with an unworkable, badly designed hole in the ground and no recourse and backup. Your contractor should have experience in pond construction and be willing to give you addresses and phone numbers of prior customers. He should be willing to help you design and build the pond that you want, and not a “cookie cutter” design that happens to be easy for him. He should be familiar with piping and filtration systems, or should know someone who is.

Don’t talk to just one contractor. Get multiple bids and multiple plans. Above all, talk to other water gardeners. Be sure you know what you want your pond to be and to do before you dig. A plant and frog fancier will not be happy with an 8 foot deep formal koi pond, and a certifiably koi-kichi enthusiast can’t use a winding 18-inch deep stream for anything other than eye candy.

If you are going this route, you should be thinking of volumes of 4000 gallons and up, and be planning on spending at least $7000 not counting pumps and filtration. As with any project of this magnitude, there is no upper limit on what it is possible to spend. The best local example of this exists (beautifully!) in a northern suburb of Chicago, where a hobbyist doubled the square footage of his already large and gracious home with a very deep, very large and very well-filtered indoor pond. He takes every advantage of this and scubas with his fish frequently.