Pocket Ponds: Water Gardening without “Real Pond” HassleBy Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologist)
October 10, 2013
A pond! How I'd love to have one. I can just picture it, with a little waterfall at one end and lilies at the other. But ponds take money and effort to set up, time and effort to maintain, and there just won't be one in my garden any time soon. Then I discovered I could grow beautiful water lilies and other "pond" plants in large containers, which I like to think of as "pocket ponds."
One water lily pot became three, then I added a bubbler bog, then I discovered lotuses, and now I have more than two dozen 18 to 22 inch diameter containers out back. If you put all my "pocket ponds" together, there's almost enough water for a "real" pond! Remarkably, pocket ponds come with a lot of the same benefits as "real" backyard ponds.
This is a perfect time of year to think about adding pocket ponds to your garden. Check your favorite garden centers and big box stores to find clearance deals on big, sturdy, no-hole containers. Pottery and terra cotta aren't good options for pots left outside year-round. Attractive resin containers are getting easier to find, though, and less pretty plastic containers will work fine as liners for an in-ground pocket pond. Place your containers in the garden, and dream about what you'll plant in them next spring!
IF YOU BUILD IT THEY WILL COME
The National Wildlife Federation says water garden containers, bird baths, or butterfly puddling spots are enough of a water source to help you qualify for Backyard Wildlife Habitat certification. I knew our backyard birds and squirrels would enjoy bathing and drinking in my pocket ponds, but I didn't realize they would attract genuine aquatic life forms!
My daughter and I were absolutely delighted to discover tadpoles in our water gardens last summer. We checked on them regularly, watching them grow and change. We even brought a couple inside, raising them in a small aquarium until they turned into tiny green tree frogs. This spring, we heard some new-to-us critters just hollering at dusk. We tracked them down with a flashlight, discovering our pocket ponds had also attracted the larger grey tree frog.
Snails found us almost immediately, too, and help keep the container edges free of algae. Holding a snail gently in your palm and humming at it will often make it poke its head out for a closer look at you, while you get a closer look at it.
Dragonflies have become more than occasional fly-by visitors, also. We've seen nymphs in our lotus pots this year. Their life cycle requires two years in a pond's muddy bottom, followed by a free-swimming nymph stage. I added several more lotus pots last year, so I hope we'll be seeing more and more dragonflies in the garden. In addition to being lovely, they are great predators. Just like our praying mantis and wheelbug friends, they'll help keep the population of "bad bugs" in check.
What about adding fish? Pond-keepers tell me that fish need additional aeration and water movement. I think my above-ground pocket ponds are simply too warm for goldfish, although mosquito fish might do alright if I added a fountain. I could try a betta or dwarf gourami, as these "labyrinth fishes" are naturally adapted for life in sluggish warm streams. They are tropical fish and would need to come in for the winter. For now I'm entirely happy with my tadpoles, and snails, and whatever else takes up residence.
POCKET PONDS AS GARDEN FEATURES
Containers add architecture to the garden, providing taller focal points and even winter interest. I vary the height of my pocket pond containers. Some are sunk in the ground up to their rims, some are partly dug in or at ground level, and others sit up higher atop big flat rocks. Hardy pond plants, including hardy water lilies and lotuses, can be planted directly into the big pots and live there year-round. Tender plants are easier to lift in fall if planted separately in plastic pots then lowered into the water.
Water garden containers are some of the easiest plantings to maintain. In my sunny back yard, I'd be watering every day to keep most container plants lush. Pocket ponds only need topping up with the hose once or twice a week! Weeding isn't necessary, although fast growing plants may need dividing or thinning on occasion. Monthly fertilizer tablets allow plants to thrive even if you originally potted them in cheap clay kitty litter.
Make your pocket pond habitats more diverse by planting at a variety of depths. Water lilies like to be a foot or two below the surface, while a few inches of water is enough for lotus plants. Smaller pots of "marginal" plants such as cattails, rushes, non-bearded irises, can be set into a pocket pond. Balance their pots on a submerged water lily pot rim or a brick or two. Half-submerged decorative pots look great with water-loving plants like horsetail that need to have their crowns above the water. Floating plants like water celery, chameleon plant, and water hyacinth make great fillers. Submerged plants like Anacharis or feathery Cabonba add another layer of interest.
Pocket Ponds are practical, too. A drooping potted plant can be easily and thoroughly watered by dropping it into a water garden container for a few minutes. Scatter pocket ponds throughout your garden, and you'll have a quick drink close at hand for any plant in need.
People who see all the pocket pond containers in my garden eventually get around to asking the question, "Don't you have a lot of trouble with mosquitoes??" On the contrary! I sprinkle in a few mosquito-control "bits" (a biological control) every week, and it's like a sterilization program for mosquitoes. They lay their eggs in all these very attractive little water spots, the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the Bt-israelensis, and that's that. No new generation of blood-sucking adults.
Yes, with all the rain this summer, mosquitoes were still a problem by late July. Before my obsession with pocket ponds, though, we'd have been overrun with the little vampires already in early June. In particular, we seem to have far fewer Asian Tiger mosquitoes than our neighbors this year. Of course, it's still important to be vigilant. I overturn saucers and other containers regularly and check for other sources of standing water, no matter how small.
I'm sure spraying pesticides is more effective for mosquito control than sprinkling mosquito bits into pocket ponds. But I'm not willing to risk my backyard butterflies, bugs, birds, and other wildlife. My pocket pond container collection cost far less than one of those much-debated CO2 mosquito trap systems, and it's sure a lot prettier!
One of my daughter's friends came over last month to scoop up half a dozen tadpoles and a couple of snails. They resided in a little aquarium in his room, and he watched closely while they grew into frogs. I bet next year his mom will set up a "pocket pond" - and I hope you do, too!
Photos by Jill M Nicolaus. "Mouse over" images and links for more information.