Published in the Toronto Star – July 22, 2017
Are you a modern gardener? One who plants and nurtures your own garden space with an eye to enhancing the biodiversity in your community? It has taken a few generations, but now we are at a point where we have torn up our property deed, figuratively, and replaced it with a consciousness of the impact our outdoor activity has on nature, up and down the street.
If one of your garden goals is to maximize the attraction of beneficial insects, song birds, butterflies and hummingbirds: welcome.
The most impactful addition you can make to your garden is to add still water. A half barrel, a pond or any small container filled with water and ‘managed’ will attract amphibians, dragonflies and many more helpful critters in the local environment. Here are some top tips for still water features in the garden:
- When you are successful in attracting frogs, toads and salamanders to your water garden, you have achieved a very special level of success. These creatures breathe through their skin and as such are very sensitive to environmental changes and pollution. Nurture them by not disturbing your water garden too severely each spring (I just give the top 20% of the liner a scrub). Provide habitat by placing water plants in your H2O garden.
Locate your water feature in part sun. Ideally about 60% of the surface of the water should be shaded. You can provide shade using a nearby shade tree, water plants that float and by planting broad leaved water lilies that produce leaves up to the surface of the water.
- Avoid raccoons and mosquitoes. The two objections that I hear most, where water features are concerned, are ‘I don’t want raccoons’ and ‘I don’t want to encourage mosquitoes’. To avoid raccoon problems, design your pond with sides that slope steeply downwards, about 50 cm deep. Raccoons can’t (or won’t) swim and are unable to swipe the fish out of your pond if it is steep enough.
Mosquitoes are easy to manage. Just put some gold fish or koi carp in your pond. I have a 10 meter X 10 meter pond and I have about 30 small fish that do the job very nicely. You can have too many fish though, as they create a carbon-rich environment that encourages algae growth.
- Butterflies and dragonflies love ponds. Especially where water lilies and other broad-leaved plants sit on the surface of the water. These flying insects do not use bird baths to either drink from or bathe. They are both ‘top heavy’ and prefer to drink from water droplets on the surface of water plants or in mud, which can occur at the margin of your pond. Note that dragonfly nymphs live in still water for up to 4 years before they mature into flying adults. Another good reason not to clean your pond too thoroughly each spring.
- Have fun. Through the 12 years that I have lived with our family pond, I have added sea shells from Florida vacations (what else are you going to do with them?), some broken clay pots, where fish and frogs like to hide and some shiny marbles from collections that the kids had and left behind when they moved away (go figure) .
- My earlier tip about making the sides steep to avoid raccoons needs to be balanced with safety. Is your yard well fenced? If not, consider building a ‘pond’ that has a rigid metal screen over it and place river rocks on top of it. Secure the screen well from the cavity below, which you fill with water. It is an ‘invisible’ pond that you can splash water into from a waterfall.
- The plants that you establish around your pond are as important as the ones that you place in it. They provide cover for egg laying and drying post for emerging dragon flies. Consider native marsh marigolds, water iris, tall water forget-me-nots, hibiscus and Joe Pye Weed (a butterfly magnet).
When you build a garden pond I recommend using a butyl pond liner as it will not break down as PVC will over time. It costs more but it is worth it.
The pond cavity should be lined with sand and a layer of polyester fiber that acts as a buffer against the existing soil (more likely clay and rocks).
A pond or a small water feature has much to commend it and it is likely that you won’t anticipate what will go on in your new water feature until you try it. Note that the animals on the Serengeti plane meet at the watering hole each evening while they take a break from eating each other or being chased. It is a wild version of ‘Cheers’ every night. Such is the power of water.