GARDENS July 2001

Liquid Refreshment

Ponds and other water features can be lovely—but they can be stinking, murky eyesores. A primer on what makes the difference
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I have always been a firm believer in taking a bold approach to gardening, sort of a horticultural equivalent to what the military calls reconnaissance-by-fire: just get out there, blast away, and see what happens. This is generally both instructive and fun. Occasionally it produces astonishing successes, such as the four diminutive but irrefutable artichokes I managed to eke out of my sultry Virginia garden last summer.

Gardening is as much art and craft as it is science, and there is so much that has to be adapted through individual experience to individual climate, soil, tools, temperament, and tolerance for tedium that studying handbooks and following expert advice can take a person only so far in any case. The failures that come from just getting out there and trying something are no worse than any other failures one faces when confronting the notoriously fickle gods of agriculture.

That is what I thought, at least, until I tried water gardening and a fine late-winter day earlier this year found me, shin-deep, bailing out 200 gallons of something that smelled like a cross between pond scum and an open sewer. It smelled that way mainly because, technically speaking, that's what it was. Floating in the murk was one semi-intact dead goldfish; at the very bottom was a forlorn fish skeleton that reminded me of old Sylvester the Cat cartoons. The rest of the many fish that had been there last summer, before things went really bad, had vanished without a trace. By the time I was finished bailing it all out, my hands were dyed algae-green, a vivid color that came off only after five vigorous scrubbings. The odor was not so easily eradicated. And thus ended my just-get-out-there-and-do-something attempt at "natural" water gardening.

The idea of a garden pond dotted with lily pads and colorful fish, alive at night with the chirping of frogs, has proved irresistibly alluring to a growing number of home gardeners in recent years—and understandably so. Richard Koogle, of Lilypons Water Gardens, a major supplier of equipment and accessories, says that business has grown about 20 percent a year for most of the past fifteen years. He attributes this growth in large part to the availability of inexpensive, durable, and convenient rubber or PVC pond liners, which have taken the place of expensive and difficult concrete. A typical backyard do-it-yourself water garden, he says, costs $500 to $1,000.

When I jumped on the bandwagon, a few summers back, I found it quite easy to dig out a small pond in the center of my formal garden; install the flexible liner; add a few goldfish, snails, and water lilies in pots; and stand back and let 'er rip. The fish spawned with remarkable celerity, the lilies blossomed, and a variety of wild animal life showed up in no time: dragonflies, frogs, even a turtle. It was a lovely, dynamic centerpiece to the staid square lawn and boxwoods, and part of the pleasure was that it really did seem to be a complete ecosystem in miniature, with its own internal rhythms and sense of purpose.

In their sales literature the purveyors of water-garden supplies take a wonderfully inconsistent attitude toward what's involved in making a garden pond work. On the one hand, they make it sound like a snap. On the other hand, they prominently advertise a frightening armamentarium—electric pumps, biological and mechanical filters, UV sterilizers, chemical disinfectants, underwater vacuum cleaners, skimmers, algicides, and a vast pharmacopoeia for fish—that strongly hints at disasters awaiting anyone not equipped with everything modern technology has to offer. The idea of running a high-tech outdoor aquarium did not appeal to me; neither did turning my garden into some sort of water extravaganza, with jetting fountains, waterfalls, and, who knows, colored lights and mood music. Much of the "it's a snap" advice, though, suggested that a water garden, even a small one, could be made to function as a balanced and natural ecosystem without all these gizmos. That sounded like the ticket.

Things worked well until last summer, when the water in my pond started turning darker and darker, first green and then brown. Fish sightings became rarer and finally ceased altogether. I admit that I was guilty of gross wishful thinking ("The fish are probably just hiding"; "It will clear up by itself"). I finally faced reality on that late-winter day. If this was an ecosystem in miniature, it was now a dead ecosystem in miniature. And so I bailed, and prepared to begin anew. The question I wanted answered before I started again was whether a water garden really can be self-regulating, or whether that is just propaganda aimed at the lazy and gullible. I still didn't want to install pumps and filters, with their noise and plumbing and wiring. But I knew that even big-time zoologists and botanists who try to re-create balanced ecosystems on a large scale usually have to mess around with them constantly to keep things from going haywire. Furthermore, I have seen plenty of perfectly natural small ponds out there in the perfectly natural world covered with perfectly natural pond scum, and reeking.

Michael Masser is an expert on aquaculture and the ecology of ponds; he is an associate professor at Texas A&M University and a fisheries specialist who advises both commercial fish growers and amateur water gardeners. When I phoned him, not long ago, the first thing he told me was that although many of the key ecological cycles found in nature can indeed be reproduced in a small garden pond, such ponds differ from real ones in important ways. Natural biological and chemical processes can operate even in a rain barrel, but by themselves they generally won't carry the burden of keeping things in balance. In a small water garden it's more likely that they will have to be tricked into doing the dirty work.

One big difference between most real ponds and most garden ponds is the density of fish. Even a few small goldfish in a several-hundred-gallon water garden result in a huge injection of nutrients, especially when the fish are fed pellets or other food beyond what they would forage, thereby increasing their natural output. "The fish are excreting nitrogen and phosphorus, the same ingredients in fertilizer," Masser explained. The growth of microscopic algae that float is held in check in most ponds only by the limited availability of these nutrients, which all plants require for growth. Masser said, "People tend to overstock with fish and tend to overfeed the fish they have. And then they get all bent out of shape about green water."

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