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Everyone into the pond

Installing small pools for plants and fish is easier than it looks. Maintenance is simple too. Birds and insects love them. And people find them as soothing as a trip to a spa.

June 17, 2004|Robert Smaus | Special to The Times

Just add a water element and suddenly a garden feels cooler, more inviting.

Although summer is not a good time to be making major changes in the garden, installing a pond is an exception. You can buy ready-made plastic and fiberglass ponds at a nursery or by mail-order. You can also buy a special rubber liner to make a pond big enough for water lilies or small sailboats. Surround it with plants and stones and it will look surprisingly natural. Or build it above ground to give yourself a ledge to sit on (and you won't have to figure out what to do with all that dirt from the hole).

The materials are easiest to find during warm weather, especially aquatic plants. With any luck you'll be finished by early fall, when the hottest weather arrives and that sparkling water is going to look great on a sweltering afternoon.

But the first-timer probably should start with something simple. Forget about mixing concrete by the wheelbarrow full. It's actually a good idea to stay away from concrete ponds or streams since they're liable to crack and leak unless they're built by pros and reinforced like a swimming pool. Take it from me.

I grow water lilies and keep a half-dozen fish in a sturdy elevated concrete-block pond built on a reinforced pad. It's been a constant delight. But although it's very tough, it also springs the occasional leak, which is not easy to fix in a planted and well-stocked pond. Let me assure you that sturdy, seamless rubber liners or solid, formed basins are the way to go for the home builder.

Add a pump and a fountain and the pond becomes animated. It sparkles, dances, sings. And it attracts more wildlife -- dragonflies to deer. Several years after we built ours, a bright orange-red dragonfly called a big red skimmer showed up, and every year since we've found the papery husks shed by the larvae attached to the pool edge, meaning the young are growing up in the pond-bottom muck. With fish, water snails, plants and dragonflies, our pond has become its own little ecosystem.

Trish Meyer, a motion graphics designer, was after bigger game with her much smaller ponds. She bought special 3-inch-deep fiberglass ponds by Avian Aquatics that are made for birds.

"They're really big bird baths," Meyer said. "Birds really prefer splashing around in about a quarter-inch of water." This little set of shallow ponds attracts all sorts of birds to her Sherman Oaks backyard. "A lot of birds are insect eaters," she continues, and while "birdseed won't lure these insectivores to your garden, water will." She's seen warblers, tanagers and even black phoebes.

Because she lives in the hills, she also sees deer, coyotes and, of course, raccoons drinking at her little pools. The masked pond robbers are not welcome in many gardens because they can make a real mess of plantings, uprooting and shredding them in search of pond snails or fish, but they do little harm to Meyer's shallow ponds.

It's worth noting that birds and dragonflies attracted by water eat insects in the garden, keeping things in balance -- a balance you don't want to upset with poisonous sprays, many of which are particularly deadly to fish or birds and should never be used near ponds.

To put in a molded plastic or fiberglass liner is as simple as scooping out a little dirt and setting one in a cushion of soft soil or sand. Try to situate it in a low spot so it looks most natural. Line the edges with rocks or plants.

Meyer cleans hers by hand once a week, early in the morning to avoid the honeybees that are also attracted to the water. But there are all sorts of biological filtering devices that can keep small pools naturally clean. If the pool is too small for fish, make sure it does not breed mosquitoes by emptying and refilling it regularly. Another safeguard: Tiny mosquitofish can live in only an inch or two of water and they eat the larva.

Making a large pond with a rubber liner is a little more difficult but a lot more dramatic. A big pond may not lure as much wildlife, but it is a powerful people attractor. Ponds and fountains pull people out into the garden. That's why we made ours high enough to perch on. It's 18 inches deep -- the maximum depth in Los Angeles that doesn't require a building permit. We built it high because we had small children at the time and didn't want a pond they could accidentally fall into. It's also easier to grow dramatic aquatic plants in an 18-inch-deep pond, such as lilies, which need the depth, or water iris. And, of course, there's more room for fish.

Ponds with fish and plants may need no filtering, though they will have to be cleaned every few years and the plants need at least yearly maintenance. Our 3-by-10-foot pond has no filter or aerator of any kind. Once a year, I repot the three lilies, and every five years I need to scoop accumulated muck off the bottom.

Professional pond and fountain builder Bill Dimino of Acquabella simply uses an air stone and a small pump (just like for an aquarium) to keep the water clear in ponds without a fountain or filter. Although he has built elaborate filters for ponds, he warns, "the more hardware, the more maintenance."

In Southern California, he suggests putting ponds in partial shade because they can easily overheat and fill with algae. Covering much of the water surface with floating vegetation such as lily pads also cools ponds. Some experts suggest covering 70% of the surface with floating foliage. Dimino is quick to point out that green water is completely natural, especially in spring. "Don't panic and use an algaecide," he cautions. "It will come back into balance on its own."

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