by Terry Kramer
IF A HECTIC LIFESTYLE PREVENTS YOU from seeking a peaceful weekend getaway to the North Coast lakes and rivers, try having a slice of it in your own backyard. Build a water garden.
It is easy, fun and soothing, said Dan Wake, a local biological consultant and water garden enthusiast.
"It is so relaxing just hearing the water trickle. It is another dimension that you don't get with regular gardening," he said.
Wake's backyard pond, measuring 6 feet by 4 feet, is merely 10 inches deep. It is festooned with water plants and surrounded with bronze flax, rockrose and wild huckleberry. Large rocks line the perimeter of the pond in a natural fashion. Much of the water garden is landscaped with what most gardeners consider weeds in other situations. Wake's water garden hosts such plants as horse tail, wild huckleberry, clover and buttercup.
On a warm sunny afternoon a silvery blue dragonfly hovers about a thick clump of California poppy and lupine. A soothing trickle of water pours from a bamboo spigot cloaked by a Japanese maple.
"I want a more natural-looking set up, and that's what I've gone for. I don't want the nice formal garden," he said. "With this pond I just go in once a year, pull weeds, trim stuff back and that's it. I like some of the weeds that have shown up because they are natural."
Part of the fun of water gardening is landscaping with water plants. It is also an important factor in maintaining healthy, fresh water, said Wake.
"Water plants help shade the water and they also compete for the same nutrients that the algae wants. The plants help filter the water naturally. The more plants you have, the less algae you will have. In fact, if you have the right balance, few fish and lots of plants, you really don't need to have a filter. You just use biological filtration," he said.
Most of Wake's pond is filled with plants such as water hyacinths, dwarf water lilies, sedges and pickerel rush. "I don't strive for crystal-clear water," he said. "How many ponds do you see in nature that are crystal clear?" he asks. He does, however, spend an hour a week skimming algae and moss out of it.
Water gardening can offer educational opportunities for young gardeners. Eureka High School junior Burleigh Wilson built a pond in his backyard as a project for his agricultural science class. His efforts landed him a Gold Award for the Eureka chapter of Future Farmers of America and the 1996 Turf and Landscape Management Award from FFA.
"I had been thinking about building a pond in my backyard for a couple of months, and then we had this old diseased apple tree that had to come out. We were going to have a big hole in the garden, and then there was this school project, and I said, 'Heck, let's just put in a pond.' It was a great project!" Wilson said.
Wilson said his pond is approximately 10 by 15 feet. After hand digging the hole, he lined it with a heavy duty rubber liner designed to last 25 years. Wilson then blanketed the bottom and sides of the pond with smooth river stones purchased from a landscape materials supplier.
The perimeter of the pond is embedded with large, smooth river boulders purchased from a rock quarry in Willow Creek. Wilson's pond has a formal appearance featuring large ceramic koi squirting water from its mouth as a focal point.
Wilson landscaped the pond with an assortment of perennials mulched with fine orchid bark.
"I loved doing it. And I love the natural feeling of it. The peaceful feeling (the water) gives. I enjoy watching the fish and watching the plants grow," Wilson said.
Using a large pump with filter, Wilson strives to keep his pond water crystal clear. He has added a few koi, gold fish, dwarf water lilies and a few water plants to the garden. In spite of the heavy-duty pump, he still has to maintain it weekly. "I have to come out here twice a week to clean it, clear away some of the moss and algae. But I like doing it," he said.
Building a water garden is not a costly project if you do the labor yourself. Wilson estimates his project cost $550. Wake said you can build a quality pond, complete with liner, filter, pump, fish and plants for under $500. "Just don't try and go too big. Most people try something larger than they really have space for or time to deal with," Wake advises.
A water garden need not be a hole in the ground either. Wake has constructed a water garden in his front yard that is simply half an oak barrel filled with water plants. Water trickling out of the cistern into a gravel pit is pumped back into the barrel. It gives the illusion of an artesian spring. Wild birds love it, Wake said.
You can even make a small indoor water garden that requires no maintenance. Wake's living room hosts a 12-inch ceramic shallow flower pot transformed into a small water garden. He filled the container, which lacks drain holes, with smooth river stones and a strand of pothos plant. A small aquarium pump circulates the water.
And if you live in an area where digging a hole is out of the question, Wake suggests building a raised pond. "You don't always have to put your pond into the ground. If you live in a mobile home park on a cement slab, you can place the pond (using a rigid preformed liner) above ground and then build a planter box around it ," he suggested.
It is critical to filter the water adequately. Either use a good pump and filter or fill the pond with plenty of water plants, Wake advises. "If you skimp on filtration, you will end up with pea green soup," he warns.
Overfeeding fish will also cause maintenance headaches. "I never feed the fish," Wake said. "But I don't have the fish coming up to look at me either. If you want to have friendly fish and want to feed them, just give them one pellet per fish each day." he said.
Wake also warns against purchasing non-native tadpoles. "Don't stock your pond with tadpoles that you buy in a pet store. They will be selling you bullfrog tadpoles, an introduced species that has done a lot of damage to the native wildlife populations. The red-legged frog is a prime example of what is going on. When the bullfrog was introduced, red-legged numbers declined rapidly," he said.
According to Wake, bullfrogs also eat ducklings, native fish, other frogs and salamanders. "They are a nasty little critter. If you want frogs in your pond, let them occur naturally," he suggests.
Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer and owner of Jacoby Creek Nursery.