Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Heart of Our Garden

After visiting this blog for the first time, a friend asked who built our pond. She suggested others might be interested in the details, too. Okay ... short answer is that it was Steven's (my husband's), idea, my design, and our combined sweat.

We killed the existing straggly ficus by covering it with heavy mil black plastic and let the Texas sun cook it for several months (solar weeding.) Steven dug out the area and cleared plant runners and roots. Then I worked on rock placement that would hopefully discourage our water-loving dogs. I'm also chief maintenance engineer, meaning that anyone can do what it takes to keep a pond healthy with a little vigilance. And, it's another excuse to be "Playin' Outside".

In the beginning, I have to admit I was constantly checking the skimmer for fish (one earned the name "Columbus" for its adventures in the skimmer and into the rocks.) Until we made the overflow drain I mention later, fluctuations in water levels during heavy rains would sometimes strand fish in the rocks. But the skimmer no longer calls my name for cleaning every couple of seconds. It functions just as well, if not better, when checked every couple of weeks. When the leaves fall heavily, I check it daily and remove the excess.

Water falls over rocks to a shallow ledge designed to give the birds a place to drink and bathe. (See the bottom right of the photo below.) It then flows to the plant ledge which is about 2 feet deep, then steps down to about 4 feet deep to give fish protection during the extreme cold (or hot) weather. Water flows through a skimmer with a filter, and is pumped back up to the filter fall where there's a biological filter. That's a total of 3 filters: prefilter on the pump, screen filter in the skimmer, and biological filter in the filter fall.

We used an 1800 gallon per hour pump for a pond volume we estimated to be between 450 and 600 gallons, wanting to allow for adequate circulation and enough force coming down from the waterfall. We lined the floor of the hole with carpet scraps, and used the heaviest gauge flexible liner we could find. If we reduced the likelihood of having to replace it, it was well worth the cost. There's an overflow "vent" hidden at water level on one side for those Texas downpours. That little design feature was retrofitted after one too many nights out there with a bucket in the middle of a storm.

We currently have Japanese Ryukin goldfish, seven at last count. One has a misshapen tail and has to come inside to the mystery snail tank during the winter. We found he can't keep himself upright when his metabolism slows in the winter. Either that, or he just likes to eat year-round and is very clever. (We stop feeding when the temps are consistently below about 55 degrees.) We initially lost a few fish to the local red tail hawks, but that seems to have stopped. The fish actually seem to learn to avoid the skimmer weir and must be better at hiding from predatory birds. Contrary to popular wisdom, raccoons have not been a problem.

We couldn't have done it without the classes offered by Steve at Hill Country Water Gardens in Cedar Park. They actually construct a shallow pond on their grounds while the classes watch and ask a bazillion questions. (Then they give a discount on materials to everyone in the class.) They also have lots of ponds on the grounds to show what's possible and the staff seems to have an endless supply of patience.

We can't stress enough the change the pond has made in our backyard. It's inviting, soothing, and very effective at masking the less enjoyable sounds of suburban living.  It has truly become the heart of our garden. It's cooling in the Texas summer heat, and a great excuse to go "play outside". And no, it doesn't encourage mosquitos (the water moves too much for them to stick around.) It does, however, attract dragonflies. Above and below are pictures of a couple of our regulars ...

In a perfect world, it should probably get more sun and be located where it would collect fewer leaves. However, our pond is just what we wanted, just where we wanted it, and brings us a lot of happiness with very little work. Regularly scheduled visits with a mental health professional would certainly cost more than the approximately $1000 we invested in materials, plants, and fish. 


Lori said...

Wow, I'm impressed at how great your pond looks, especially since you guys did all the work yourselves. I'd love to have a natural-looking pond like this, but until I can convince the local raccoons that my yard is not their playground, I'm afraid it's going to have to wait. I have enough work on my hands replanting the flowers they dig up in the dead of night. :)

vbdb said...

Lori, you're in Austin? Are you sure it's not armadillos doing the digging?

turkey said...


Thank you for this wonderful garden site. You have definitely inspired me to get to know my plants better.

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