As soon as the temperature here on the East Coast slips over the 50 degrees mark I start itching for it to really be spring. Spring is when I can move my plants outside and set up my mini-pond. It seems that the smaller my yard, the more I get the pond itch. And, I’m not alone. Ponds are huge business and many homeowners add a pond to their landscape each year.
There is no doubt that a pond can be an incredible impact on the local environment – both positive and negative. Minimizing the negative impact of the pond has the benefit of increasing its positive aspects.
The most obvious negative aspects of the pond are the amount of water and electricity it uses. A pond is a big hole full of water, exposed to the outside environment where sunlight and wind can rapidly rob it of that water. Add water changes to this, and a lot of water can go into a pond. Planting around the pond may significantly reduce water loss to evaporation, as well as reducing available light for algal growth (a good thing). Of course, designing spillways, filtration systems and the like so that they retain their water is a necessity. However, there’s not a whole lot you can do to really reduce water usage with a pond, but you can use that water well. Consider installing an underground PVC pipe from the edge of the pond to a garden, and attach a diverter to it. When it comes time to backwash filters, let the nasty water flow through here and into your garden. Similarly, water changes can be done through this tube. You’ll grow the best vegetables or roses (just be sure to add some kind of manifold to spread the water out). By the way, aquarium water is also great for plants (just not out of the saltwater tank – we have the D.O.T. to salt the earth for us).
Electrical usage for some ponds can be surreal. For small ornaments, consider solar. The small pumps that power fountains can all be solar. Many lights, including landscaping lights, are now available with solar charged batteries, and they can cost as little as a few bucks each. As I’ve discussed with aquariums, always look into the electrical consumption of a pump before purchasing it and compare. Saving a few bucks on a pump that uses more electricity is not worthwhile – you’ll spend that quickly. Similarly, be sure all plumbing is intelligently designed and uses the maximum diameter piping. All too often, I see pumps that have a ball valve on their output, at least half closed. Not only are you reducing your water flow to the point where a smaller, less energy consumptive pump would work (a pump that’s cheaper to run and probably cheaper to have bought in the first place), but all that back-pressure on your pump is going to wear it out faster. Plumbing with lots of bends, narrow tubing, or long lengths of tubing will add a lot of head pressure to a pump, significantly reducing its flow rate.
A backyard pond can become a wonderful haven for wildlife, attracting birds, amphibians, insects and all wonders of animals. Properly planned, it can attract those types of animals that we like while deterring those that we dislike. When planning your backyard pond, try to avoid stagnant, shallow areas – these can attract mosquitoes. Deeper, slightly moving water will draw in dragonflies and amphibians (which eat mosquitoes). Mix both fully submerged plants and emergent plants (those that break the waters surface) to create the best habitat for these, and add rocks, stones, and other structure to break the surface of the water.
When choosing plants for the backyard pond, avoid invasive species. Many invasive plants are widely sold, both legally and not. Once placed in a pond, it’s all too easy for them to find their way into natural systems and cause disruption. Even plants that don’t overwinter can cause severe habitat disruption if introduced, even just for a summer. Beyond that, there’s the huge risk of them possibly surviving. For instance, water hyacinth is one of the most popular pond plants out there. A single plant can reproduce and completely cover even a huge backyard pond in a single season. While it can’t survive winters in the U.S. beyond Florida or the Southwest, it can survive fairly low temperatures. Additionally, a cold resistant variety could very easily develop, particularly given the large numbers of plants grown each year.
Instead, why not choose native plants? Watershield (Brasenia spp.) is a beautiful floating plant like a miniature water lily, and makes a great alternative to hyacinth. In the eastern U.S., American floating heart (Limnobium spongia) is also a beautiful floating native (though in the Western U.S., it’s not only nonnative, but potentially invasive). Cardinal flower is native to essentially all of North America, and, for my money, one of the most beautiful flowering plants out there. It also attracts hummingbirds.
For truly aquatic plants, why not try some of the many, many native Potomagetons? These are the common “bassweeds” you’ll find along any backyard pond. Many aquatic plants nurseries are stocking these plants, or you can very often go collect your own. However, be aware of which plants are invasive in your region and which ones are protected. The best part about native plants is that you know they can survive your local winters – they’ll do quite well in your area.
When choosing fish, care should be taken that the fish cannot reasonably escape into the wild. It goes without saying that koi and goldfish should never be stocked in a natural body of water. Aside from the environmental impact, it’s quite illegal. Every year, however, these fish manage to escape into natural bodies. When designing your backyard pond, plan for the eventuality of it overflowing, and design either a drain system that will leave the fish in the backyard pond, or a system to prevent them from washing down into the nearest storm drain (and soon into the nearest river).
Second, why keep goldfish or koi? Consider stocking your backyard pond, instead, with native pond fishes. But, that’s the next installment.
Native Floating Plants*
Mosquito Fern (Azolla caroliniata)
American Frogbit (Limnobium spongia)
Watershield (Brasenia schreberi)
Waterlilies (Nuphar spp., particularly N. lutea and N. variegate)
Fragrant Waterlily (Nymphaea odorata)
Native Marginal Plants*
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Arrowhead (Sagittaria spp.)
Cattail (Typha spp.)
Lizardtail (Saururus cernuus)
Golden Clubtail (Orontium aquatic)
Pickeral Weed (Pontederia cordata)
Water Iris (Iris versicolor)
Horsetail Rush (Equestrium hyemale)
Watercress (Nasturtium officiale)
Submerged Aquatic Plants**
Anacharis (Elodea canadensis – this is not the plant you buy in stores under this name)
Cabomba (Cabomba caroliniata)
Hornwort (Ceratophyllum spp.)
Bacopa (Bacopa spp., particularly B. caroliniata)
Bassweeds (Potomageton spp.)
Water Grass (Valisneria americana)
American Sword (Otelia alismoides, Echinodorus cordifolius – often sold as E. radicans)
Crowsfoot (Ranunculus spp.)
* This list is by no means comprehensive, and there are many, many other plants out there. As the world is a big place, not all of these plants may be native to your region. Some plants may be native to a nearby area, but invasive in your region. Check to ensure that these plants are truly native.
** Many of these plants are readily available at any aquarium store, often as aquarium plants. Some store employees may swear that they will not survive in a “cold” pond, but they are quite native. This list is far from comprehensive. As with other types of plants, they may be invasive in your region. Do your homework.