Tag Archives: how to build a pond

Meet Vince

No doubt about it, that fish is gone.

Chinese Hi Banded SharkOur exotic little algae-sucker was very quickly made into a fish stick by some passing predator.

Chris was immediately ready to go plop down change for a new exotic. After a little persuasion on my part, we instead invested in a different addition to the pond.

First let me just say, we could have gotten a heron. Instead, Chris wanted this guy:

I’ve been calling him Vincent, an homage to Vincent Price, because the gator’s creepy grin gives me the willies. I find myself out weeding when the hairs on the back of my¬† neck start prickling; I look up to see Vince snarling his toothy grimace and several times the sight has made me jump. If any more fish go missing I’ll be ready to serve the remainders on a platter to the bird that has the guts to go up against this thing.

Chris also picked up a piece of corrugated pipe that we’re going to plant beneath a rock to serve as a third hiding spot. Lately when the skittish fish go to hide I can still usually make out a tail or two fluttering along the entrance to their cave. It’s getting a little crowded down there so hopefully a few new caves will help them out.


Re-restocking the Pond

We were saddened to learn earlier this year that a member of our little family had passed on to the big pond in the sky. When the pond thawed out around the beginning of April, we noticed that one of the koi – one of the larger of our fish, with a mix of white, black and orange coloring – was simply missing. We’re always very excited each year to see our finned friends again, and relieved to know the pond can sustain them as they hibernate through the winter. This was a hard blow, especially to Chris, who takes his pond maintenance duties very seriously.

Tadpoles hard at work, pond-cleaning.

Tadpoles hard at work, pond-cleaning.

As May has crept in, however, the pond is filling back up. The tadpoles are out in force, wriggling eagerly against the rocks as they eat their fill of algae. In the evenings we can sometimes hear the frogs singing from the nursery window, a good reminder for me and the little Rose to go out and feed our fish. Yesterday when we did just that – Rose mesmerized by the swirling colors of the remaining fish – we got a special treat. I bent down by the water’s edge to see a frog that was, as I delicately explained it to the unimpressed toddler, carrying a smaller frog “piggyback.” I knew Rose wouldn’t pay attention to the well camouflaged brown creatures – but then the she frog swam directly to us and popped out of the water. For a moment we were all quite still in our surprise, and then Rose exhaled a quiet “ooh” and the froggy pair plopped back into the protection of the water.

As I’ve written in the past, the tadpoles do a fantastic job of cleaning the pond each spring. But then they leave and the sun grows hotter and the algae blooms in earnest and Chris runs himself ragged replacing the lava rock in the waterfall and balancing additives in the pond. This year he decided to try a different additive: a Chinese hi fin banded shark. SONY DSCOur new friends at Virginia Water Garden had recommended the suckerfish, but we’re currently waiting to see if we’re the suckers.

You see, after allowing him time to adjust to the water temperature and make-up, we released the little guy out into his new home – and we haven’t seen him since.

Releasing the FishChris has been on constant patrols trying to spot some evidence of the fish. I’ve laughingly remind him that the whole point of camouflage is to not be seen, but I’m surprised to by how quickly and completely the fish has hidden. And I recall all too easily that we had originally purchased three goldfish: My favorite disappeared within a week, and a second was gone before winter. So for now we’ll continue our patrols and hope that someday soon we’ll go to feed the koi and realize that the pond has magically be cleaned …

Garden Week Inspiration

Virginia Garden Week has been taking place across the state this week, and yesterday my mom, sister and I took part in the Norfolk area “open garden” tours. The homes were absolutely lovely and the flower arrangements created by Garden Club members were phenomenal. A number of the volunteers on hand to discuss the various rooms were helpful in offering arrangement tips, and further inspiring my interest in the Garden Club. I’m more motivated than ever to add green new textures to my garden, with the goal of recreating some of the uniquely twisted knots and loops that graced many of the vases.

For my purposes, there was one garden in particular that proved particularly inspiring. Being that tours were in the historic Ghent section of Norfolk, gardening space was at a minimum. Yet one couple had turned their tiny backyard into an endless retreat through the use of meandering paths and natural screens around an incredible koi pond.

I liked the way nandina was used near the head of the curvy stream to create a screen that offered privacy while still allowing light to pass all the way through, and enticed the visitor to wander through the “secret” garden.

Nandinas create just enough shelter for privacy - and visually expand this small garden greatly.

Nandinas create just enough shelter for privacy – and visually expand this small garden greatly.

Seating was placed throughout the path, which was lovely since every curve of the narrow path offered a fresh view. I also liked in the photo below how the low growing evergreens near the stream that texture and visual interest, without presumably too many leaves to clean out of the water.

Evergreens and mondo grass add interesting texture to the smooth stream surface and river rock.

Evergreens and mondo grass add interesting texture to the smooth stream surface and river rock.

You can see in the back of this photo how this couple covered their skimmer simply by placing a tree with low branches nearby, just enough of a distraction to hide the plastic without making clean-up a pain.

Low-growing trees add shade and security for the fish, and conveniently obscure the necessary skimmer.

Low-growing trees add shade and security for the fish, and conveniently obscure the necessary skimmer.

And of course the entire pond was surrounded by shady protection from birds, making this a safe and delightful place for the numerous koi to swim.

Countless koi are calling this beautifully landscaped pond home.

Countless koi are calling this beautifully landscaped pond home.

Now that my own lily pads are turning green again – and the tadpoles are out in force – I’m excited to add some new landscaping to the edges of my water garden.

Soggy Signs of Spring

At my house, spring isn’t signaled by the first robin or Otis (resident groundhog) venturing out for a peek at his shadow. At my house, it’s all about the fish.

Yesterday hit 60 degrees, a freak of February between the snow and sleet. The pond responded with a lush bloom of algae that Chris and I set out to clean yesterday.

Pond maintenance is hard work, for sure. We started yesterday by peeling back the net and shaking out the wet leaves over the back fence. The next couple hours were spent taking turns alternating between the pond vac and using a long metal grabber to pull errant leaves out from between the rocks. All of the movement flushed out first the two goldfish and, finally, each of our five koi. By this time next year, they won’t be able to fit so easy beneath a single rock.

Once our backs were too sore to go on, we cleaned out the skimmer and then treated the pond with a cup of Algae Fix. Last step was cleaning the vac, before picking leaves out of the net and leaving it to soak in a bucket of detergent.

Today the fish are sticking their heads out again, so I’m feeling hopeful that spring truly is just around the corner!

Pond at Last

As warm weather returned, and our deadline for our backyard event of the year drew dangerously close, Chris and I finally had a final kidney bean-shaped outline for our future pond. We wanted a natural, organic feel to the outline, with a gentle slope to the shore that could support small river rock, hiding the liner we would have to install, and two shallow shelves to support marsh-loving plants. We had spent months moving dirt and tamping it down, letting rain pour out any remaining air pockets and settle the soil. At long last, we were ready to invest in the equipment that would bring our pond to life.

Our estimates put our pond at roughly a 2,500-gallon capacity. We had filled it in so that the final measurements were roughly 3 feet at the deepest point, 30 feet from tip to waterfall and 15 feet at the widest. Supplies included a 50- by 30-foot liner, a Pro-Line pump capable of turning over 3,200 gallons/hour (we were told a pump needed to turn over, at minimum, half the total volume per hour, and we were unsure of our eventual capacity), a Savio living (ie, it includes a biological filter) waterfall system, a Savio in-ground skimmer to filter the water and house the pump, a UV light for additional filtration, and tubing to connect the pump to the waterfall. The customer service representatives at The Water Garden were invaluable in steering us in the right direction. The boxes for all of these components seemed to fill the entire garage when they finally arrived.

The other supply was stone. We began to feel like something of a bad joke at the invaluable Stone Center of Virginia due to our frequent visits. While Chris’ mother was kind in supplying us with red rocks gleaned from the bottom of the stream that ran along her property, one car full of rock was just not going to fill this pond. We purchased boulder after boulder, enough to make a ring around the pond that we then planned to fill in with river rock, mulch and stone-loving plants.

One sunny Saturday we convinced three amazingly brave friends to join us in our adventure. Brave, I say, because Chris is uncompromising when it comes to projects, not settling for less than perfection, and we hard-working fools all knew it.

We began by unrolling the liner over the pond and slowly, carefully draping it into the basin. Shoeless (for fear of somehow puncturing the thick membrane), we climbed inside the pond and pushed it against the pond walls, removing the air, like making a waterless waterbed.

We carefully unfolded the pond underlayment and ensured that there were no air gaps left beneath the heavy liner.

We wound up digging a shallow shelf around the edge of the pond, so that we could sit the boulders slightly below the grass. We thought this would give them the appearance of being more part of the earth, and better hide the liner. This was where the borrowed muscle was critical; as the resident artist, I would stand back, cringe, and whisper a suggestion as to which boulders looked best beside one another.

A shallow shelf around the pond held the various boulders, rather than leaving them to sit awkwardly on the ground.

For the waterfall, we made a ring of cinder blocks to create and hold the shape we wanted without fear of erosion. The waterfall should have some height, we agreed, to create real movement and sound within the pond. Once the equipment was situated where we wanted it, we created a basin for the water to flow before falling into the pond, and filled in the crevices around the waterfall.

Cinder blocks helped form the outline of the mound that would house the pond’s waterfall system.

With the liner weighted in place by boulders, we began the frightening task of rolling rocks down into the pond itself. Chris wanted the entire pond covered, completely hiding the liner. The rest of us weren’t entirely sure that would be possible. As we began placing large stones and the smaller river rock at random, however, it became clear that Chris’ plan would work perfectly. In addition to the river rock, we added several large, flat slabs, positioned in such a way that they would someday offer shade and security to koi.

A gentle slope allowed us to fill the pond top to bottom with river rock for a natural look. Here, Chris cuts the liner to make way for the skimmer.

Once the pond was entirely filled, and we thanked our workers, we broke to consider how to tackle the next step. The next day Chris and I spent trimming the overhanging edge of the liner and inserting the in-ground skimmer into the space left for it. The next week brought the real challenging: electrical.

Our Akita pup, Akira, assisted with the digging and ensuring our electrical trench reached the proper 1-foot depth. Sort of.

With the help of a few more friends, we were able to build a 1-foot deep trench roughly 100 feet from the skimmer to the waterfall and then from the waterfall to the house. We carefully removed the layer of grass before digging deep into the ground, with the goal of replacing it upon the line once complete; somehow, this actually worked. It was necessary to dig below the regional frost line, to prevent future problems with the pipes. Because the electrical was encased in PVC, we felt secure in laying the lines within the same trench. Our wonderful electrician installed a four-outlet post at the site of the skimmer, allowing us to plug in the pump, UV light, and, later on, music, lights, and whatever else I could dream up.

The outlet near the skimmer would prove incredibly handy, although would require some creative landscaping to blend in.

Once the wiring was complete, there was only one thing left to do. It took several hours to fill the pond completely, but once it was filled it stayed that way. With a gurgle and a cough, the waterfall began raining down on the stones below, playing music to our ears. Within three or four days, the brackish water had circulated completely through the skimmer and we could see to the rocks below. Over the next few days, we made small additions, such as a plastic “stone” cap to hide the skimmer but allow for easy access, river rock and small plants around the boulders, a few shrubs and a richly colored Japanese maple, and lots and lots of mulch. With barely two weeks until the wedding, the pond was finished.

Although the pond was technically complete, it would require regular maintenance from this point out.

The pond has required plenty of maintenance since then. The skimmer needs to be regularly cleaned of leaves, algae, and frogs (yes, frogs). We’ve replaced the barley-based mesh in the waterfall at least once, to provide filtration, and found an organic solution (Algae Fix and Sludge Away) to remove algae when it gets thick in the summer. Three months after it was filled, the pond’s ph levels were deemed adequate and we brought home five tiny koi who require feeding several times a day. And of course that neatly laid mulch is in constant need of weeding.

This pond’s need for regular maintenance is far outweighed by the enjoyment it brings on a daily basis.

All in all, I don’t think we’d trade it for anything. There’s hardly anything more relaxing then stepping out onto the porch and hearing the music of the waterfall soft in the distance, or of sitting with a glass of wine in a big Adirondack chair watching the sleek orange and black parade of koi darting among the rocks.

The waterfall slope offers exciting opportunities for landscaping in the future.

The Big Pond Dig

In April 2010, when the dogwoods were replacing pear trees’ white blooms with their storied flowers, Chris and I set out to destroy our lawn.

It’s something of a side effect when renting an excavator. And I didn’t care. It was my first chance to operate such seriously heavy machinery, and it was love, true glorious love.

I may have missed my calling; I had no idea playing in the dirt could be so fun.

Having decided to excavate the roughly 20-foot-long patch of sinking lawn in our backyard, with the ultimate goal of turning the resulting hole into a lushly landscaped pond, the first goal was of course to discover the source of our problems.

We purchased several large blue tarps on which to place the dirt, a halfhearted attempt to salvage our lawn. Then in rolled the excavator, courtesy of Sunbelt Rentals. Chris got a brief lesson in which joysticks swung the claw up and which shook it side to side, and then we were off and rolling.

There was a wrenching in my heart as the claw first ripped through our greenest patch of lawn, but it was quickly replaced by the thrill of the hunt. At first, the dig revealed odds and ends such as bricks, twisted half-burnt glass plastic bottles and myriad other garbage. Several feet deep, the real culprits emerged. The massive old stumps had been partially burnt and quickly covered over, left to settle over time.

Several large stumps, some with roots still attached, had begun to settle in this 20-year-old hole, causing serious sinking in the lawn.

Each time we discovered a stump, we would scoop the claw as best we could around it, pull it up an increasingly greater height, and scratch our head as to where to dispose of it. We scattered easily ten stumps–stumps so heavy the excavator could hardly hold them–in the woods over our fence. Thank goodness for the wild honeysuckle that will forever hide the dent where one of the stumps almost didn’t make it over the fence!

We took turns raking through the dirt pile for trash and scooping up more earth. A friend of Chris’ turned up to play and the three of us had a blast cheering on the stump-unearther or riding triumphantly on the rail behind the driver’s seat every time we had a new log to dispose of. We were a disgusting mess by the time we hit water and what we realized was the bottom of the hole–1o feet down.

It was less fun refilling the hole with dirt, particularly when we realized that based on everything we removed it was unlikely at best that we would get the hole even halfway filled. We were aiming for a final depth of three feet, deep enough, per The Water Garden, that we could potentially keep koi in our pond. We managed to reach a 5-foot depth, still nearly 15 feet long, by the time we were done playing excavation.

“What now,” we groaned.The new hole hardly seemed an improvement.

The solution came in the form of a Walgreen’s. A few months later, on his drive home from work, Chris spotted heavy machinery just down the street making way for a new drug store. After a quick discussion, the GC agreed for a fee he’d have one of his guys drop off a dump truck load of dirt in our driveway.

It was the most excited I’ve ever been about a dump truck. I think I may have applauded when he pulled into our driveway and began unloading a ton of dirt on the asphalt.

At least the big hole had one fan; our new akita pup loved nothing more than curling up in the cool dirt.

The applause didn’t last long. The goal was to take wheelbarrow loads of the dirt and dump them into the pond so that we could have control of the final shape. It was a process that would last through the next winter, until I dreamt about being buried alive and avalanches, and woke every morning with an ache in my arms. Dozens of people helped dig dirt, and the pile never seemed to move. When it snowed in November, I joked about charging people to ski in our driveway. My mother suggested planting a sign that said “Redneck Swimmin’ Hole” and throwing a few rubber ducks down at the bottom of the hole. “Or how about putting a sprinkler down there so you have a water feature for the wedding?” she suggested with a grin.

Ah yes. Our backyard wedding was coming up in May, and it was beginning to look like our guests would be parking around a giant pile of dirt.