FloraQuest 2011: If We Cantelope, Lettuce Marry!

A Water Garden is an artificial body of water which typically contains both goldfish and a variety of aquatic plants. So much more than just a premium landscaping feature, a hole with a liner filled with water and a few plants, my water garden is a focal point for entertaining guests, a little refuge for wildlife, an engine that produces fertilizer, a home to colorful little pets, and on the hottest days, something to slip into to help beat the heat.

But first, the BACK-STORY!
Way back in 1998, when I was courting my wife, I owned a 15 gallon fish tank in my bedroom with Kory Cats and Neon Tetras and other typical little tropical fish. I still lived at home back then. After having dinner with my folks, Virginia and I would retire up-stairs to "watch the fishes".

One day, Virginia and I went to Petsmart to look into buying a few new additions for the tank and she insisted on buying two tiny little Koi whom she named Siffle and Oly. Little did I suspect, this was the first step of an insidious plot to eventually deprive me of thousands of dollars and a summer of leisure.

Sure enough, Siffle and Oly outgrew my little fish tank. Virginia graduated from Columbia College in Chicago and moved back home to help with the family business. As a present, I bought her a 75 gallon fish tank for her bedroom. Siffle and Oly moved right in with some Bala Sharks an Albino African Clawed Frog, an eel of some sort and a Plecostomus.

Siffle and Oly rapidly out grew the 75 Gallon tank and Virginia and I become engaged and in the summer of 1999. It was then that she unveiled the true nature of her scheme. She always wanted a water garden just like the one at her uncle Larry had down in his floral shop Lake Worth, Texas. It just so happened that Virginia's parent's backyard used to have an above ground pool which was now only an elevated deck and conical sandy crater in the earth about 30' in diameter.

After consulting a few books and a local supplier of pond equipment in LaFox, IL, we set to the task. Using only a wedge shaped pickaxe, a shovel or two and a wheel barrow, we hacked and dug down below the topsoil to the rocky sandstone impregnated clay below. After much toil we had the rough shape of our pond in three tiers.

The edges of each tier we felt were troublingly unstable so we created the walls of each tier with cinderblocks.

The outer tier was about 26' in diameter and about a foot deep below the surface. The outer tier would be for marginal plants that grow in shallow swampy places.

The middle tier is about 3 feet deep and about 18' in diameter. This tier would be for our Water Lilys which prefer deeper water.

In the center is the 5' deep well, about 8' in diameter, which is well below the frost line so that Koi and Goldfish can safely overwinter.

These dimensions were approximate. We calculated at the time that the pond would hold a volume of roughly 2,200 gallons of water.

Today, neighboring St. Charles, Il is the "Water Garden Capital of The World," home to AquaScape Design. But at the time LaFox Landscaping was the closest pond equipment vendor in our area. They were also a traditional landscaping material vendor as well, so LaFox became our one-stop-shop!

The first thing to buy was an EPDM rubber liner for the pond. LaFox carried a huge roll of it and we did the math and they cut us what we needed. We laid down a few layers of burlap as an underlayment before we put the liner down. Working with a huge sheet of rubber is a chore in itself. We learned that filling the pond up with water slowly and working out he folds as it fills is the best way to do it.

LaFox sold us a skimmer box and waterfall set which are made out of molded PVC by a company called PondSweep.

The skimmer operates like that in a swimming pool: The skimmer box is set into the earth so that water is gravity fed into it. The box has a net and a filter pad to keeps the large materials from clogging the pump. The pump is a continuous duty sump-type pump. The water is pumped out of the skimmer box through a flexible PVC pipe to the bottom of a waterfall box.

The waterfall box has several more filter pads and a couple of mesh bags filled with porous volcanic rock. The rock and the pads are home for microorganisms which convert ammonia and nitrites that are generated by the fish into harmless nitrates. The water passes up through the pads and rock and spills over a lip into a short "stream" that we created out of cinder blocks and pond liner and filled the "stream" with small river boulders. The water gurgles pleasantly back into the pond, filtered and oxygenated.

Once we had all of the pond equipment in place and the liners sealed we filled up the remainder of the pond and found that we were not quite level. The east side was just a little lower than the west side. But it was too late to correct that. Our "stream" was not of the greatest design either and we had some spillage to correct. But overall there were no leaks and the pond installation was a success!

But before Siffle and Oly went into their new home we went to Petsmart and bought twelve "feeder" goldfish, the variety which are sold as live reptile food. We dubbed these "The 12 Gringos" and put them into the pond first to "season" the water. After a week, the Gringos were still alive and in went Siffle and Oly who were relieved to be out of their cramped 75 gallon tank.

During that time we had LaFox Landscaping deliver a truck full of pea gravel and the truck full of river stones. These ranged from the size of your palm to the size of your head and we arranged them artistically on the edges of the pond and falls and inside the stream to conceal the liner. The pea gravel went on the bottom of each tier of the pond for a prairie river bottom look.

We bought water lilies from LaFox as well but found that we had made our middle tier a bit too deep so we set the water Lilly pots on cinder blocks. These cinder blocks had an added benefit of giving the fish a place to hide from sudden predator attack. We bought several types of marginal plants and set them in plastic baskets on the upper tier. My mother donated a great number of yellow Flag Iris to plant along the dry boarder of the pond. A number of Violets and Lily-of-the-Valleys also hitched a ride with the iris tubers. Much of the usable top-soil that we excavated from the pond we left piled in a crescent a few feet from the pond's perimeter. Into this soil we planted Pampas Grass and striped Fountain Grass.

Gradually, the vegetation took hold and filled out. The Irises ceded the high ground to the grasses and thrived in the lower areas, especially on the east side which was lower and prone flooding when I top off the pond or after a heavy storm.

The 12 Gringos got big and Siffle and Oly got bigger! The Gringos began to spawn furiously in the springtime and within a few years we had a new generation of little Habañeros. All of the Gringos have fallen victim to predators or stupidity but I do believe that one of the original Habañeros is still in the pond to this day.

Oly, however got dropsy and passed away within those first years. Dropsy is a strange disease, or perhaps just a symptom of a disease, where the fish becomes bloated and its scales stick out like a pine cone. After the bloating subsides, death is soon to follow, there is no curing it.

We bought several more Koi to replace Oly and they too grew fat and huge. Within a few years the new Koi were growing into big adults. They even spawned which produced a pair of Koi babies!

But in the winter of 2003-2004 after a mild December, there was a brutal cold snap. Even though the pond is deep enough that it does not freeze all the way down, an opening in the ice must always be present to allow the exchange of toxic gasses and oxygen in the water. I came home from a business trip to discover that the floating trough heater that we use for this purpose had failed and the ice was frozen many inches thick. One of the Koi was frozen in the ice where the hole was. I hacked though the ice and opened it again and bought a new heater but the damage had been done. By the spring thaw all but one of the adult Koi had died.

We replaced them with a few more little Koi and life went on. We found that the two Koi babies had survived and within a few years we had adult sized Koi again.

Around this time we got a new boxer puppy who we named Malcolm. When Malcolm got big he was a destructive little shit. He loved to go sloshing about the upper tier of the pond and enjoyed dragging the marginal plants out of the pond to chew of the plastic baskets. One day, we let Malcolm in and I swear he slinked in on his belly looking guilty,

"What have you done?"
I accused Malcolm and I headed straight for the pond whose pump was making the tell-tale sucking noise that the water was too low to fall into the skimmer box. The little bastard had torn a huge hole in the liner of the upper tier!

After an emergency patching, we quickly decided that the days of the marginal tier were over and we filled in the upper tier with river stones. Our strategy worked and it had a few benefits as well. Between the submerged stones became a haven for little frogs and tadpoles and other little creatures that the Koi and Habañeros would otherwise eat. We always enjoyed having the wild frogs and toads that are drawn to the pond but this new development greatly increased their presence. In stops we also let the Irises take root between the stones and they flourished with much greater vigor in the marginal area near the skimmer box.

A few years ago we had another bad winter when the Koi had gotten bigger than they had even been in our pond before. In hind sight we should have sold them that summer. We would have made thousands.

That winter all of the Koi died. This time there was no failure of the heater. Bigger fish need more oxygen and I can only assume that the winter oxygen supply in the pond was inadequate for so many large fish.

We have since bought two new Koi and I believe that we will just stick with the pair from now on. I have also purchased a few colorful Shubunkin, as they don't get huge. Maybe when they get huge, I will sell the Koi for a profit to someone with a bigger pond and start with little guys again.

The winter is not the only killer of fish that I have to contend with. A few years ago a Great Blue Heron started showing up in the early hours of the morning. I suspect I have lost a foolish fish or two to a patiently waiting cat or raccoon from time to time but I have lost most of the remainder of the Gringos and many Habañeros to the Heron. I find them all still in the bottom of the well and the damn bird was sitting in a tree waiting for me to leave so that it could return to breakfast.

By the late spring the grasses have grown tall and the Heron does not come around because it fears an ambush from those grasses. But in early spring I always make a ruckus when I go out first thing in the morning to discourage it from returning. I just hope that this is only the same heron every year and that my pond has not become a well known feeding hole for the local Heron Population.

Every year when the earth has thawed completely through I bucket out that nasty water from the falls and skimmer boxes, rescuing the frightfully skinny frogs that survived the winter, and disposing on the ones that did not.

I put the pump back into the skimmer box; plug it in and soon the sound of gurgling water heralds the coming of spring in chorus with the calls of the returning songbirds. Evenings will grow mild and the sweet evenings of April will be filled with the song of dozens of toads and then the croaking of the bullfrogs and leopard frogs.

The fish shall begin to spawn and every morning I will have to rescue a few that beach themselves amongst the rocks of the first tier and inside the skimmer box. As the days grow warm, they will emphatically crowd at me with their little carp mouths sucking in anticipation for the handfuls of food that I will throw to them.

On the hottest days, after working in the garden, I might slip on into the water and the fish will tickle as they "nibble" at my skin.

Once a month I will rinse out the filter pads and collect the sludge in a galvanized beer cooler, rich with soil and nutrients, and pour it out into my garden.

Birds and frogs and toads and dragonflies and even little chipmunks make my pond home or provide them with a nice place to stay or just to visit. What started out as a couple of $1 fish and an inclination has become an important feature of my home. To paraphrase The Dude , it really brings the yard together, man!

Many thanks go out to ALittleHawk who helped me to edit this writeup!

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