Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Life Aqautic on the Homestead (part 2)

Our Littlest Friend dips his toes in the cool water of one of my ponds.

Last week I wrote about why I love my ponds. This week I thought I would give a few pointers for "pond" building. Of course, in the Homestead context I am also including garden barrels and animal troughs as ponds.
I don't think the Internet needs another tutorial about building a basic pond so I will just focus on the helpful features and techniques I have learned through the experience of building several ponds.
This is one of my latest and favorite ponds that I have built. It is 5 feet long 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep. I didn't add any critters, not even snails. I just let nature takes its course and now it is a thriving and balanced ecosystem. In fact, as you can see, the plants need thinning, they are growing so well.
I did not introduce any animals to this pond. Only plants and water. A couple years later it is swimming with Rough Skinned Newts, Chorus frogs, skipper bugs, oar beetles and snails. Where do they come from? I have seen a newt walk up the driveway one rainy spring day. I have seen beetles fall from the sky into the water. Since I have often seen slugs and snails tangled in my dogs fur I don't doubt some of these creatures hitch hike their way into the pond. Regardless of how they get there, I am always happy and amazed to see them.

This spring, I spied a Columbia Spotted Frog  hangin’ out in it. If you look carefully you can also see a Rough Skinned Newt peeking up in the middle.The plants you see are goldfish grass, duckweed and a hardy Water Lilly.

You can also see the Butyl liner I used. It is very thick like a car tire inner-tube. It is non toxic and thick enough to last through dog, cat and raccoon toenails. I had it concealed more effectively in the past but all the many visitors to the edge of this pond have degraded my rock ledge. Keep that in mind when you build your own pond. Make the edges very stable because the allure of a pond is irresistible and you DO NOT want to take the pond out to make repairs once wildlife moves in.

Which bring me to a necessary caution. Please don't forget that with a pond comes a responsibility to supervise children and pets.
Even if you don’t have small children, you might have a visitor someday who does. Every visiting child is delighted to see a pond. It is a very magical place for them.

When our Littlest Friend comes to visit we inevitably spend a half hour or so watching the newts and frogs and if there is no wildlife to be seen, off come the shoes for a little toe dip.

Our dogs and visiting dogs alike, love to drink the water from the pond. You can tell it is a special treat for them. We have also had visiting dogs run straight into the pond. They thought the Lilly pads were solid ground! They have a very funny look on their faces when they sink. Some go in for a second time because it was apparently so fun. Or they're slow learners.

Because our ponds are such a popular place for kids and animals I put an added precaution.  I always build an easy exit from my ponds. I include a shallow end and ledges that build up to that shallow end, like steps, so that animals and people can easily escape the water should they fall in.

Even if you live in the city you will have varmint problems. Blue Herons, Kingfishers and Raccoons are very happy to fish out their dinners from your pond. We have a blue Heron that will sit on the crest of the roof and watch for fish in our biggest pond. The only fish that are left in this 14 year old pond are huge black goldfish. We can't even see them unless the sun shines just so.

Raccoons love to come at night and fish out all the snails to eat for dinner. You will see goldfish grass draped all over the edges of your pond when you get up in the morning.

To give pond life a place to escape to I try to include a deep spot at least 2 1/2 feet deep, so that pond creatures can hide down there, out of reach. It helps quite a bit. I have also added black "Milk Crates".

I get them from the storage section of our department store. They don't show from above the pond and they make it even harder for the Herons and Raccoons to chase down and catch the amphibians and fish. They also make the pond a little safer for animals that fall in since they can be stood on. The crates can make a great place to set plant pots too.

At the Homestead we have a lot of water troughs and half barrels, for the horses, chickens or providing water for the Honey bees. I have been converting each of these into little ecosystem ponds. I only use Goldfish grass and duckweed for troughs since they are nontoxic and harmless to my goofy horses who like to eat them.

This is the root system, but Goldfish Grass will grow new roots if you just have a snip of the plant.

I put the roots and ends of pieces without roots in an old recycled container of any sort.

Then a little clay or goo from another pond or even loose dirt from a gopher hole (don't use garden dirt, it has too much nitrogen in it) and then pile rocks on top to hold them down. Silt and organic sediment will form as the pond ages and the plants will grow roots into it.

The goldfish grass will grow to the top and lay across the surface sending a few roots into the water and blooming tiny white blooms. It looks a little messy when you walk up and look at the trough (the leaves that touch air will turn brown) but, if you stick your hand in the shaded water underneath the plants you will feel that the water is 10 degrees cooler. The animals- dogs, horses, cats, birds- all go straight for the pond water, choosing it over any other source. It must taste yummy and very refreshing on a hot day.

For years I had to drain the mosquito larvae infested water and scrub the red algae out of my troughs and water barrels a couple times a summer, which was a real pain. I set up my first trough as an ecosystem about eight years ago. It has been a great discovery for me. It’s made a big improvement in water quality for all. Instead of having hot stale water with red algae in it to drink, the animals now have cool, fresh, oxygenated water.
When the duckweed gets this thick I just skim handfuls off and toss it in the garden for mulch. You want only 30 to 50 percent of the surface covered. This keeps the water cool but lets the goldfish grass underneath get some sun also.

Rio has to have his goldfish grass replaced now and then because he can’t just be a normal horse. He likes to put his head under water like a Hippo and eat the grass on hot days. What a nut.

 Here are just a few of the resources I found on line for designing and building ponds. Don't get too caught up in all the talk about pumps and filters and water falls, you can have them if you want, but you don't need them. Just start small and go from there. Most of all, have fun!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Life Aquatic on the Homestead (Part 1)

Making a lot of noise for little frogs, I went out one night to see what all the ruckus was about- Ahem.

Years ago I learned how to build  a pond to be self sustaining (no pumps, filters or chemicals) from a truly lovely lady who called herself “The Pond Lady”. We have since, sadly, lost her to breast cancer, but she did a great deed in the world with her enthusiastic educational efforts. And those whom she taught have been teaching formally and informally with the same enthusiasm.

I have found that once you build a truly balanced pond and see the amazing transformation that happens to your micro climate, you will want to build more and more of them. Then, when you run out of room for ponds in your own space (if you have too many ponds in your yard they join together and form a mote around your house), you will be very excited to encourage your friends and cohorts to build a pond or two.

We have a few of these food grade blue barrel halves around the Homestead. My mom had a friend who worked at a bakery and he gave these to her. I don't particularly like plastic but they are already here and I am not going to toss them into someone else's backyard (the landfill) just because I don't like plastic. I have decided to just use them while they hold water.

I love looking into each "pond" I've created and seeing all the life I made room for.
It took me all last summer to get this series of photos of our little frog friends in our garden water barrel at the Homestead.

Egg sack

Just about to "hatch", they are already wiggling!

Just hatched

Livin' the life with his belly full of bugs and algae

Look Ma! I have LEGS!

The very first thing The Pond Lady taught us was to stop thinking of our ponds as swimming pools and start thinking of them as ecosystems.

There are ways to have lovely clean water that has no chemicals in it and no pumps for tadpoles to get stuck in. There are methods to keep the mosquito and algae population down and healthy wildlife up.

My method mostly depends on digging the hole, lining it with something the Racoons can't poke a hole in with their sharp claws and filling it with water. Then putting pots of “goldfish grass” Egeria densa at the bottom and having at least one type of floating or partial surface covering plant (about 30% to 50%) to keep the water slightly shaded and cool. Voila! The frogs, newts and skipper bugs will appear as if they had been waiting by your front gate for this moment!

Egeria densa can be invasive also, so be careful not to introduce it to native water ways. But it is fantastic for water oxygenation in your ponds, water bowls and troughs. And because of this, it is the cornerstone of your pond ecosystem. It uses up nitrogen (that is introduced by fish poop, hay, leaves, and bugs that fall in) preventing algae from forming (algae will have no nitrogen to eat) and then it uses its green leaves to turn sunlight and nitrogen into oxygen through photosynthesis. If you sit and watch on a sunny day, you can actually see hundreds of tiny oxygen bubbles forming on the leaves and then floating to the top, keeping the water oxygen content high.

This water bug literally fell from the sky into the water as I was filling Rio's trough the other day. Who knew they could fly?

The nearest waterway to the very first pond that we ever built, was over a half mile away and down a sheer basalt cliff. That did not stop all the varied amphibians and water bugs from appearing as if by magic, in our new backyard pond.
Sure, we put some goldfish in there too. It was our first pond and we had small children who wanted fish in there. Two years later we had to drain it, net out and find homes for the HUNDREDS of little baby goldfish. It was one healthy habitat.

Although Gambusia affinis,  mosquito eating fish from the Guppy family, are very popular in some states, I no longer use them in my ponds, but I do have one pond and another trough with Gambusia already in them.

One reason I don’t use them anymore; I have serious doubts that these fish cannot survive Oregon winters in the wild ( as I have been assured by the Vector Control officer of our County.) They have survived just fine in my small, frozen over ponds, and since I cannot imagine our Willamette River getting any colder than that, I believe they could be a future invasive species here in Oregon, as they are now in other states and countries.

They do eat mosquito larvae, but they also eat everything else. Which includes native frog and toad eggs along with dragonfly and damselfly larvae, newt eggs and polliwogs and so on. I don’t feel they serve a big enough purpose to justify the damage they do. They also procreate at an alarming rate and soon they are the only living things in the pond.

I would suggest that you give your pond a full year before using these fish. You will be pleasantly surprised at how many natives will move in to take care of the mosquito problem. It just takes them time to reach a balance. I would even choose mosquito “dunks” over Gambusia. At least one can stop using them when the pond gets balanced with other wildlife. Once you install Gambusia in your pond, you will always have them. It’s impossible to remove them all, no matter how hard you try. So think long and hard about whether you want to use them or not.

I no longer put goldfish or Koi in my ponds either. They are not as veracious as Gambusia, but they do make it difficult for the native amphibians to procreate. They are beautiful to gaze upon, but they fill the water with lots of fish poop and left over food, all nitrogen rich and algae inducing. Koi will root around in your plant pots and the silt at the bottom, making your pond murky which then makes it necessary to put in a pump and filter.

Next week: Part 2 , where I show how to put in plants and how my goofy horse gets them out.