It’s not really a secret that ponds take on a life of their own. If you’ve followed my heron and snake backyard pond escapes, it quickly becomes evident how an ecosystem is formed. It’s all there – the good, the bad and the ugly. The Zen-like quality of a pond with its lush greenery, wildlife visitors and contemplative soothing water are all good. The inevitable lifecycle of the life and death of its inhabitants (the fish) is bad. The ugly build up of algae and stagnation can be gross.
Since the posts about my backyard pond elicited such an interesting array of comments, I thought I would ask an expert – Amy Stetson, the Green Gardenista to share her comprehensive knowledge about creating eco-friendly backyard ponds.
Amy designs and builds gardens and ponds. As the Green Gardenista, Amy’s philosophy for building ponds is simple: “Green gardening involves many things both biological and ecological – but the end goal of going green should be practical and attainable.”
10 Questions for the Garden Gardenista
1. For those who want to build a backyard pond, where do they begin?
How do you choose a site? What are some good pond designs?
Backyard ponds can be as simple or complicated as you want. The easiest ones are simply a large hole dug in the ground, lined with sand, covered in pond liner, and planted with various pond plants. The addition of pumps, water features, and fish can complicate the process. So, I recommend beginning with something simple, and then adding on elements as you find the passion and desire for them.
I recommend checking out books from your local library about pond building, or keeping fish, and beginning there. Get a good idea of what you want to create, what you want to maintain, and then plan accordingly. My top tips for choosing the right site for a pond would be to avoid lots of direct sunlight, and to keep in mind the number of mature deciduous trees in the area. Tree roots and annual falling leaves can really rain on your parade — both in the maintenance area, and in the initial dig process.
If you want to try something small before you dig up too much of your yard, you could try your hand at creating a variation of this simple Zen Barrel Garden.
I think the best pond designs are those that fit into with where you live. Japanese ponds look so beautiful in Japan because they work with the natural landscape, and with the plants native to that region. If you live in the north woods of Michigan, celebrate your area by using plants and shapes that fit your native habitat. Free-form ponds look great in most yards, and my only tip on the shape of that type of pond is to make the pond look like it fits in naturally with your landscape. I think formal ponds have a great feel around more formal architecture, and gardens that feature lots of hedgerows, organization, and right angles.
2. What are the most eco-sensitive liners?
The most eco-sensitive liner I know of is Sodium Bentonite. This is a naturally occurring clay that comes in a bag form. It contains no chemicals, preservatives, or toxins. The Federal Government requires it to be used to line landfills, waste lagoons and abandoned oil wells, but it can be purchased commercially. It is non-toxic, and swells on contact with water to create a watertight liner. It can be applied in naturally occurring ponds already filled with water, or used thickly in the basin of a pond that is being built.
3. What type of fish do you recommend? What are the feed procedures?
I recommend Goldfish and Koi first and foremost as pond fish. They are the easiest to acquire, and there is lots of good information on their needs and rearing practices. They are the easiest fish for beginners, and make great backyard pets if you choose the right fish for your pond. Koi and Goldfish have very different needs, so I recommend reading my article “How to Choose Between Koi and Goldfish For My Backyard Pond,” as a crash course in breeding, feeding, and general keeping tips on both types of fish.
I don’t recommend keeping fancy goldfish with their sleeker comet style cousins. In my experience the more aerodynamic fish tend to pick on the slower fancy fish, and can physically throw them out of the pond, or “stuff” them into rock crevices if they are so inclined. Keep varieties of fish that compliment each other and can compete equally over the resources.
In small water garden containers for decks and apartments, I recommend Betta Fish. Bettas have been living in small water gardens for thousands of years. As long as the weather is warm enough, they give movement to a tiny pond, and help you keep the mosquito population down as well. For areas with cold winter weather, you can move the Betta inside the house in the fall and keep them indoors until the following year.
For experienced pond keepers, Minnows, Gudgeons, Orfes, Bitterlings, and Tench are very popular, and often times less needy than Goldfish.
When feeding fish that are in a planted pond, you want to make sure that they are getting enough to stay healthy. But, you also want to encourage them to eat any bugs present in the water, and clean up around the bottom. I recommend feeding the fish only what they will eat quickly, and skipping a day or two of feeding per week. You should stop feeding the fish for the year when the temperature dips below 54 degrees.
4. How about plants and flowers?
Irises are really easy plants for around pond. Water lilies are great as long as they never get splashed by moving water, since they hate getting wet on the top. I find Rush grasses and Cattails (for the really brave) to be excellent water purifiers. And, for the big box store shopper, I have a list of six great water garden plants here that you can find literally anywhere.
5. OK, this is a biggie: As I’ve personally been dealing with herons, snakes and snapping turtles, should you do something or let nature take its course?
I do feel like letting nature take its course has a lot of benefits. I think that a pond that attracts wildlife can really enrich your yard, and tie you in to nature better. I think that there is value in providing an oasis for the creatures that live around us, especially those that are losing their habitat. You will ultimately enjoy your pond more when you see more interaction around it. I also believe that building shelters into your pond for your fish is a great idea, and one that gives them a fighting chance when predators arrive. It’s a balance.
6. How about stagnation? How do you circulate water movement? Do pumps and filters harm fish?
Stagnation is a problem, as are the “dead zones” that develop over time when a lack of oxygen in the bottom of a motionless pond can kill animal life. Pumps and filters do not harm fish when assembled properly, and provide needed oxygenation, and purification to the average pond. Centuries ago, before all of our powered pumps and filters, ancient people used the movement of streams, and roof run-off water to provide fresh water, and outflow to and from their ponds, and they filtered their ponds with large trees or crops, which aren’t practical in modern pond keeping. For the average pond, especially those with fish, the addition of filters, spitters, or movement of some kind is encouraged.
Next: Algae, natural bug repellents and overall pond maintenance
7. What causes algae?
Algae grows in all ponds, but it really becomes a problem in stagnant ponds, shallow ponds that heat up quickly, and ponds in a lot of direct sunlight. Make sure your pond is at least two feet deep, and out of direct sunlight, and you’ll have less of a problem with algae.
8. Is there a natural repellent for bugs? Do certain plants keep the bugs away?
Fish can eat mosquitoes and their larvae, so that is a definite mark in their favor. Plants that repel mosquitoes are often those that have thick scents to them. Mosquitoes do not like basil, chives, lavender, and several other herbs. So one way to try to keep more bugs away from your pond would be to plant a few herb containers around the pond. There are a lot of articles online about what plants discourage mosquitoes from visiting.
9. What can readers expect in the different regions of the U.S.?
The number one regional issue that I can think of is in regards to wintertime temperatures. In areas with long hard freezes, ponds may freeze solid, and flexible liners can tear and crack. Pond warmers that keep the temperature just above freezing can be a valuable purchase, and can save you time and money in the spring, when you might have to patch leaks, or install a new liner. In the desert southwest, evaporation is a big issue, as is the amazing amount of unfiltered sunlight.
Build a pond to suit your area’s strengths. If the area isn’t conducive to large ponds, adapt your needs into smaller scale water gardening, or learn how to create a water garden indoors. I had a neighbor who had an indoor/outdoor water garden built into his living room, and backyard patio slab. The shallow, tile-lined pool was visible from both sides of a picture window, and he had a small opening placed in the wall below the window for the fish to swim in and out all day long. Get creative!
10. Is tending to a pond labor-intensive? What does the day-to-day maintenance entail?
Ponds can be labor intensive when something is going wrong with them, and that will happen often if your pond was constructed with a major fault. Filters and water levels should be checked weekly, and fish should be fed, and observed regularly. But, as far as most hobbies go, ponds are not as time consuming post-construction as most other hobbies.
Thank You Green Gardenista!