By Clement Kent
I am one of those curmudgeonly souls who earnestly attempts to do the exact opposite of what is fashionable, so I find it mortifying to admit that in 1999, just at the peak of "Water Feature Frenzy", I built a pond in my city garden. In my defense I offer the fact that I had been hoping to build the pond since beginning the garden 8 years ago, but this you must take on faith. I could point to my stack of moldering old catalogues from Mooreís Water Gardens as evidence of my (previously) unrequited passion for damp, boggy bits. But nothing I can say will hide the fact that I am now part of the herd.
Itís a nice herd. As I was taking photos of some of the messier, muddier intermediate stages I thought of what a good time Iíd have showing them to the Hort. Then I saw David Tomlinsonís excellent talk this fall, in which he quite covered all the practical points I meant to pursue, followed by Marion Jarvieís rhapsodic reminiscences of her new pond at our January meeting. My talk is in tatters! But I feel Iím keeping excellent company...
So given that garden pond art and architecture have both been covered, whatís left for me? The mistakes, of course! Theyíre ever so much funnier than things that go right, anyways - so, forthwith, a new title:
Of course, the real reason for building the pond was not for the pond per se, it was for the stream and waterfall that would run down into it, and for the boggy bits all around it. Since my pond was not very big (17 feet long by 8 feet wide by 3.5 feet deep, with a lenticular form) I knew in advance I would have terrible problems with algae, mosquitoes, and other scummy things if I didnít filter the water.
The problem with being part of a great thundering herd of water gardeners is that the "accessories" are highly priced and of dubious value. I had my choice of many barely adequate filtration units, but I chose the cheapest and (so I thought) the most reliable: a stream and marsh.
By pumping water from the bottom of the pond up to the top of my rock garden wall about 40 feet away, letting it trickle down the wall, and run back through a narrow stream filled with pebbles and gravel, I could aerate the water without a fountain (I despise most commercially available fountains as ugly plastic piddlers) and filter it without a filter. Plus. One must haul out and clean pond filters quite often, whereas my stream and the marsh it ran into would be self-cleaning.
Iíve told you almost all the salient facts that influenced my pond design, except one last: no beans! Iím drastically tired of those pressed plastic "natural pond inserts" that call out to all and sundry "a giant extraterrestrial kidney bean fell to earth here". I imagined my pond and stream as having the same crooked, unpredictable contours as a natural water body.
While all well and good, thereís a problem: you canít buy such a pond off the shelf. What you must do is build it yourself. Fine, says I! Onwards. Next we consider the practicalities. How do you hold water in an irregular hole on sandy soil? Concrete will do it, then crack the next winter (my neighborsí very expensive raised water feature didnít hold water for its first year, and had to be rebuilt twice). Or, you can dig an irregular hole, then line it with flexible membrane (a nice word for thick black plastic). Now, while the plastic can be made to lie nicely into the curves and hummocks of the bumpy hole, it must be admitted there is something less than fully natural about looking down into the crystalline depths of your pool, past the water lilies and the koi, only to espy the hulking neanderthal cousin of a black garbage bag on the bottom.
Concrete has great virtues: you can step on it and it doesnít puncture, you can glue stepping stones and such pond hardware to it with more concrete - none of these can be done in a garbage bag pond. You must tiptoe about in bare feet (after carefully trimming toenails) and sedulously ban all pointed objects from the neighborhood with the same care as a nurse in a suicide ward. Small hard objects, like stepping stones, must be laid on top of larger pads so as not to strain the bulging bag. But, in the end, your ingenuity will triumph at last. Either that or your liner will puncture and itís off to the store to see if there any kidneys left.
Now, all the books recommend a hole whose outline is like an inverted ziggurat, or perhaps a miniature strip mine. The deeper my assistant and I dug, the sandier our soil became, until we were at last heaving up shovels full of what seemed to be slightly gritty talcum powder. Somehow, I was not convinced that those idealized ledges would hold their shape - I had an image of the whole pond slumping into a more relaxed shape, much like a working parent on a weekend night. So, we dug the whole hole with a gradual slope, which proved to be quite stable. This engineering triumphís shortcomings only became clear when the raccoons arrived.
For, arrive they will. In July, after the pond was finished, we had, I believe, thrice nightly visitations. Fortunately, I had made provision to shelter the fish at the very bottom, where a slab of rock juts out over the deepest part. The fish quickly learned a healthy paranoia and retreated under this rock, 3 feet deep, every moonlit night. It was the plants which had no escape.
Frustrated by their inability to indulge themselves in a little fresh garden sashimi, the coons turned their attention to water garden salads. They methodically tore up each and every plant I had placed in the pond, usually pulling it right out of those heavily weighted pots that imprison the expensive darlings. I soon found that anything with fleshy roots would be repeatedly uprooted, until either it had been completely consumed, or until every raccoon in the vicinity had convinced her- or himself that it was inedible. By this time August had arrived and the pond garden looked a bit tattered. I myself was merely somewhat slimy, and had become quite adept at donning my bathing trunks and diving to the bottom of the pond to retrieve the weighted pots which had rolled to the bottom of that so-well engineered slope after being walloped by masked bandits.
By August I had new problems to consider.
I mentioned fish, didnít I? Not great big, ugly, muck feeding koi, but charming, delicate mosquito-eating minnows were what I bought. For mosquito larvae I had almost immediately. I knew I would have them, and I bought fish that like bugs, rather than slime. The minnows did a marvelous job on the larvae, Iím happy to say, and proved adept enough to dodge the daily lineup of cats and the nightly queue of coons. What they couldnít cope with was the stream.
As I said, my filtration system was the waterfall and stream. It worked very well, except for one small hitch - it leaked. When you use flexible liner you must try to get it all in one piece. Although you can glue pieces together, it appears to be an alchemical art to make the seal waterfast. If only I could have bought a single piece of liner fitted to my pond, stream, and waterfall! It would have been shaped like a brontosaurus: a huge body, long thin neck, and big head. It would also have cost me about $500, since one pays for the full width of the roll of liner up to the maximum length you need, no matter how thin your dinosaurís neck may be. Tightwad that I am, I compromised, bought one smaller piece, and cut and glued it into the right shape. I made sure that no seam would be at depth: in fact I was so clever that the only join is 6 inches wide and the water there (where the stream joins the pond) is a half inch deep.
Nevertheless, as Galileo said, it leaks. Not too much - running the hose on the waterfall once a day was more than enough to top it up. Thought I, Iíll fix it after my vacation.
For it was time for my annual August migration to the cottage: two weeks of computer-less bliss, and all the weeding one could wish for! Knowing my pond required care and maintenance, I engaged a reliable house-sitter, amongst whose duties was to be topping up the system daily.
I left for the cottage Friday night. The sitter was visiting friends in New York that weekend and was due in on Sunday. I knew the pond could go a day or two so did not worry. Besides, rain was predicted.
And rain it did...in New York. Enough to cancel the flight back. Fine, thought the sitter, another day to visit museums and galleries. And when he returned Monday night, Ďtwas dark and he had to get to work early the next morning.
Late Tuesday I got the call: the water level had dropped below the intake, and the pump had stopped, and what was he to do? I agonized, but not knowing what damage might have been done to the pump, I advised him to do nothing. Mistake...big mistake.
During the rest of that idyllic vacation we had some of the hottest summer weather Iíve ever experienced in Ontario. Just to the west of the now stagnant pond, the pear tree ripened a few hundred squashy, soft yellow pears two weeks ahead of schedule.
When I returned from vacation, the pond water had thickened to the texture of Sarnia industrial waste dump sites. Even more alarming, if one looked closely, it seemed to, well, be moving, in a rather sickening way. Although I briefly considered calling in Torontoís ever-present film crews and doing a quick D-grade Sci-fi flick, in the end the forlorn thought that there might yet be a fish or two alive under the rotten pear soup galvanized me into (yecch!) wading in with a fish net.
For the first half hour, I found no fish - not even their dead bodies. Instead, I pulled up net after net full of solid, writhing mosquito larvae and pupae. I pulled quarts and quarts and liters and liters of the horrid things out. I fully believe that had my cottage vacation lasted one week longer, my entire city block would have been carried away by a Winnipeg-scale plague of blood suckers. As it was I had returned at the last possible moment to save my neighbors from otherwise certain doom.
After about an hour, the last two net drags came up with two traumatized minnows. I carefully placed them in yogurt containers, cleaned the pond completely out, refilled it, and liberated the fish back into it.
Whilst the Plague of Pears continued, there was no question of running the pump on the pool bottom, where it would clog daily. Instead I put an ugly black plastic fountain attachment on and sprayed the water up in the air for three weeks, which at least kept it aerated and clean.
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Fall arrived. I removed bag after bag of rotting leaves from the pond. Finally, the pond and I reached a compromise - it was still and serene under the November skies, and so was I as I watched the autumn winds riffle its surface. My minnows even gained company - my neighbors were about to throw out their spectacularly ugly koi, which had grown gross and fat in the above-ground concrete feeding basin which finally held water. They would freeze solid in winter, so my neighbors were about to make all the neighborhood cats happy when I volunteered my pond. Next spring I'll give the ugly things back to the neighbors and buy more minnows, and some toad-spawn.
In the meantime, the pond is frozen, except for the foot-wide circle of open water where the bilious green plastic pond deicer floats. It doesnít go with the black garbage bag dominant color theme, but it was the only one powerful enough to keep a pond as large as mine open. I keep it open not for the fish, which would happily hibernate in putrid half frozen slush, but for the birds. Unfrozen water is a scarcer resource in midwinter than sunflower seeds, and itís a rare moment of daylight when there are not a half dozen birds lined up waiting to bathe in or drink from the open water. I have however had to warn my daughter and wife away from the pond as a hygienic measure, as each benighted bird-brain poops in the pond just after drinking. I shudder to imagine the water quality the first warm week of spring! More delightful wading experiences are in store for me, but this time in freezing cold spring meltwater...watch this spot.
I feel certain I have by now gone on long enough to convince you, dear reader, of the almost inexpressible joy of having a garden pond, and all the wonderful surprises it keeps in store for you. So long, in fact, that I have no space left to tell you which plants I planted, nor of the amazing new varieties of weeds one discovers in a large, naturalistic water garden. These will perhaps be the subject of a subsequent article. "Plants among the Poop"? or, "Return of the Killer Raccoons"? Watch this spot!
Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t