The Thrifty Gardener: Do-it-Yourself Pond, Part 2
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 24, 2008. Part I is here.)
Just Add Water
You can see the light at the end of the pond tunnel at this point. You can finally start filling your pond with water from your garden hose. As the water level rises, move the temporary rocks around so that the liner can settle into the shelves and more wrinkles can come out. I found it helpful to step on the liner and press it into the curves of the pond.
Guides say to let your filled pond sit for at least 3 days so that chemicals such as ammonia and chlorine can evaporate. I only waited a day and a half, because I didn’t read that far into my research beforehand, with no consequences (that I noticed). After a day and a half, I introduced some annual pond plants, such as water lettuce and frog bit. Be careful in more moderate zones with plants like these because they can take over your pond quickly.
You can begin to position stones around the outside of your pond to cover the liner and blend it into your landscaping. Stones can be rather expensive, but can vary according to your location. Check local sources and online trading sites such as Craigslist.com before you try large hardware or garden stores. For my project, I used leftover pavers and white quartz that came with the house we had just purchased, making the pond much more economical.
At this point, you can also start to add plants to the surrounding edge. Some plants that will flourish near a pond are Astilbe, Hydrangea, Hosta, Butterbur, Iris, and Canna. Any plant will do well, but some plants will do better near a pond than not.
After your pond sits for a little while, an ecosystem will start to establish by itself. Often times, algae blooms will occur within the first couple days after you finish your pond. As the natural system becomes established, the algae should die down. Also as you add plants, the fertility in your pond will decrease, thus starving the algae out. A thin layer of green slime will also start to cover the black pond liner. This is normal and will help your pond look more natural.
To begin with, you don’t need any reparative chemicals until you test your water to see what you are starting with. Most commercial sites and stores will tell you to buy a de-chlorinator right off the bat, but this is unnecessary so long as you aren't adding fish right away. Water quality tests are easy to come by online, in pet stores, and at aquarium stores. The best deal I found was a test for all 6 important water levels for under $12 at a big box pet store. There are tests that assess each important level separately at cheaper costs, but you'd have to buy multiple tests to get the whole picture of your pond's health. This particular test assesses the ammonia, nitrate, nitrite, water hardness, pH and chlorination levels. Each of these levels is important to the well being of your plants, fish, and pond ecosystem in its own way. I will spare you the details, but explanations are easily found online.
If you find, after you test your water, that any of your levels are out of whack, then you can start to treat each individual problem. There are water clarifiers, de-chlorinators, anti-ammonia doses, nitrite/nitrate regulators, pH balancers, and algae controllers. I found that after letting my pond sit for a week or so with the 2 plants in it, that my levels were all perfectly normal and safe. Testing should be done at least once a month, if not more, and every time you change the water or add new fish.
Once you get the quality of your water in a safe range, then the exciting part starts! Depending on what time of year it is when you reach this stage, you can begin to introduce plants, snails, and other fun inhabitants. Because I finished my pond the first week in September, I found it very difficult to find a good selection of perennial pond plants.
A good tidbit of information I learned is that in my part of the country (Colorado), and likely in other parts, the big box stores only get one shipment of pond plants a year. When they run out, they run out. So I had to do a little bit more searching to get the few plants I did. Often times box stores will sell pond plants as regular plants with no mention of their aquatic uses. In my search, I found a Dwarf Papyrus, Moneywort "Aurea", and Variegated Sweet Flag, none of which were sold as pond plants. Plants such as Spiral Rush, which can be used in both xeriscaping and in bogs, have such disparate uses that you would never know it's worth in your pond unless you went shopping armed with knowledge. Just make sure you do your research before you start looking.
The place I found most of my thrifty and special pond plants, though, is from Dave's Garden friends. No matter how many pond plants I buy, the ones I received in trades will always be my prize specimens.
Some great starter pond plants are: Elephant Ear, Water Lettuce, Canna, Rush, Parrot Feather, Umbrella Plant, and of course Water lilies. Oxygenating plants such as Starwort, Anacharis, and Willow Moss can and should be added to supply oxygen to wildlife and add nutrients to your growing pond ecosystem.
Spiral Rush is a striking plant with curly, modified leaves which can be grown as a bog plant. Pictured on the top left, Spiral Rush is a fast grower requiring full sun. Parrot's Feather, the finger-like plant sticking out above the water surface in the bottom picture, is an excellent natural and cheap algae filter. Alga catches on its web-like leaves and roots and is easy to remove.
Both hardy and tropical water lilies are always a beautiful addition to any pond. Their blooms are striking, as are their wonderful large floating leaves. Water lilies should be potted with a pond specific soiless medium in at least a gallon sized container and placed in a deep part of your pond. They will benefit greatly from monthly water plant fertilizer stakes during the heavy growing season. Water lilies can run anywhere from $15-$60 in retail and online stores. I suggest shopping around, waiting for clearance sales, and making good water gardening friends.
The other day I went to a local nursery with usually pricey but well cared for plants with a bargain in mind. I found their meager and dying water gardening section and asked if they were offering any discount for some poorly kept water lilies. The sales associate asked a superior who called the owner who offered me 50% off. Usually I would feel embarassed about pushing for a discount, but in the middle of September my inhibitions were lowered. This is an excellent way to find cheap pond plants at the end of the growing season. Don't be afraid. The worst they can tell you is no!
Many different plants will do well in and around your pond. I am experimenting with a Peace Lily in my pond and so far it is doing just fine. Try testing out lots of different plants and eventually you will get your pond looking just right.
If you only want to keep plants in your pond, the fact of the matter is that you don't necessarily need any mechanical pond equipment such as a pump, filter or fountain. The pond will establish its own healthy ecosystem which will self-clean and self-promote. However, if you want to start adding things with fins or legs that is a different story. People do keep a few fish in water gardens with no filtration or aeration systems. Before you do that, make sure you understand fish needs and requirements.
Decorative water fountains can also add a great deal of enjoyment to your pond experience. The sound of moving water is incredibly relaxing, not to mention the added whimsy a statuary fountain can add to your pond's edge. Also, mosquitoes cannot breed in moving water, which I know is reason enough to use a fountain for some of our readers! Water pumps and small fountains can be purchased relatively inexpensively, but add a big impact to your pond. You can buy a pump, filter and fountain for around $100 if you look around. More on that later.
In the next article of the series, I will address adding fish and more pond equipment to your new water garden. Kick back and enjoy your hard work until then!
Astilbe - Sherlock221
Black Gamecock Iris - jnana
Spiral Rush - Jody
Waterlily - Beckygardener
Parrot's Feather - Wingnut
All other photos, copyright Art_n_garden