Technical information for this article supplied by our friend and colleague, Bernie Kerkvliet of Skyland Ponds in Lake Arrowhead, California.
What is a Wetland?
Ecologically speaking, it is known as an Ecotone. An Ecotone is a transition zone between two diverse communities. It contains organisms native to each overlapping community, as well as organisms characteristic to the Ecotone itself.
In a wetland, life is very dense and variable. Every ounce of water from a wetland environment contains millions of organisms that make up a highly diverse community.
The Plantonic community includes algae or phytoplankton, zooplankton, and bacteria. Together, they are the plants, animals, and scavengers of this unique, aquatic ecosystem. The scavenger-like plantonic bacteria, along with fungi, clean up the corpses, wastes, and organic debris present in the water. The algae transforms sunshine and inorganic nutrients present in the water into food so it can grow and reproduce. In a nutshell, the bacteria, fungi, and phytoplankton all feed on impurities in the water and clean it as it flows thru the wetland. These are the base consumers of the ecosystem, or the base of the food chain. The amazing thing is the phytoplankton and bacteria can produce another generation in a matter of hours to days. Pretty cool, huh?
Simply put, the phytoplankton represents the grass and herbaceous plants in a meadow. The zooplankton which are protozoans, rotifers, and tiny crustaceans are the animals that feed on the plants in the meadow (Phytoplankton).
This basis for the food chain in turn provides food for insects, fish fry, larvae, etc. Aquatic plants also get their nutrients from the water and decomposing sediment in the wetland. The food chain continues to grow to include larger fish, frogs, reptiles, and eventually mammals and birds.
What do Wetlands Do?
Wetlands are also good for slowing the water down. In a constructed wetland, we accomplish this by the size of pump supplying the wetland. Slowing the water down allows for sediment to settle out. In nature, after hundreds, or even thousands, of years, sedimentation continues until a meadow is formed. The sedimentation process prevents soil from washing downstream. Since the water is almost stationary, it allows water to percolate down into the water table.
In a constructed wetland, the nutrient rich sediments are periodically pumped out on to the surrounding landscape.
The sedimentation process in both cases produces water clarity.
Wetlands, whether natural or man-made, are the most effective water purification systems on earth.
Where do Wetlands Come From?
Wetlands can be created in many ways. They can be built by rivers in slow moving waters and deltas that create wetlands. Lakes and landlocked basins can develop into wetlands, as well.
Aquascape has developed a very effective arificial wetland system that is very effective. Whenever water filtration is required, we prefer to use a constructed wetland if possible. This does require a bit of extra room on the property, but the results are well worth it – and it’s pretty!
One of the best ways nature has for building wetlands, man has destroyed in multiple ways. The best natural builder of wetlands is the beaver. All the industrious work the beaver has done in the northern hemisphere, man has slowly destroyed all in the name of two things: a hat and “progress. “ We hesitate to go too far into the history of the fur trade and beaver felt hats that became so popular in Europe, but the fact is that’s what started it all. But let’s fast forward to a little more current time in North America.
The total land area in the contiguous United States is 2.96 million square miles. It is estimated that there were some 200 million beavers in the US at the time white man came from Europe. It is also estimated that there were about 300,000 square miles of beaver ponds at that time. Can you imagine the benefits that brought to the land? Better plant and animal biodiversity, slow moving water meant better water percolation and recharge in the water table, flood control, clear unpolluted water -- and those are just some of the macro benefits.
What Can I Do AS JUST A HOMEOWNER?
In the pursuit of fur, hats, farmland, industry, and “progress,” our land is not what it used to be. That is why the work that we do is so important. Each pond, pondless, patio pond, fountainscape, stream, and waterfall we build creates another little island of biodiversity in our individual private back yards.
The bonus is that it also creates ambiance to help us decompress, to bring us back to nature after being “plugged in” all day, to teach our children about the nature world, and to use this natural world to teach a multitude of other subjects from biology to math to art to music, and beyond. And then there’s just the pure enjoyment of a backyard oasis – something that takes minutes per week to maintain, but provides hours upon hours of simple pleasure.
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Though the term "water garden" is normally used to describe a particular type of natural or man-made water feature that is used for a relatively specific purpose, there are many other types, styles and designs of water feature. And it seems most people want water in their garden in some way, shape or form -- it just doesn't seem complete without it.
History of Water Gardens
Water gardens first originated in ancient Egypt when the Egyptians channeled water from the Nile into their palace gardens. In their water gardens, they primarily grew lotuses, a primary source of medicine and a plant considered to be sacred. They also grew Papyrus and kept fish in their ponds – over 3,500 years ago!
The earliest planned gardens that included ponds were probably in Egypt, documented as early as 2,800 BC. They were also great garden designers. In most of their garden designs, the water garden or pond was the central focal point of the entire landscape! The gardens were created around the pond with blooming aquatic plants like lilies, lotus, and papyrus. Ornamental plants and trees came right up to the edge of this oasis. To top it off, they would create lots of space to lounge and enjoy the outdoor area. So, outdoor living environments are not actually a new trend.
Decorative ponds and fountains were a major feature in gardens of the Middle Eastern civilizations of Mesopotamia, as a result of the need for irrigation canals. The design tended to include four water features in the form of a cross, thought to stem from the four rivers of the Garden of Eden and the concept of "flowing to the four corners of the earth."
Water gardens, and water features in general, have been a part of public and private gardens since ancient Persian and Chinese gardens. Water features have been present and well represented in every era and in every culture that has included gardens in their landscape and outdoor environments. Up until the rise of the industrial age, when the modern water pump was introduced, water was not recirculated, but was diverted from rivers and springs into the water garden, and then exited into agricultural fields or natural watercourses. Historically, water features were used to enable plant and fish production for both food purposes, as well as for ornamental aesthetics.
It’s pretty cool how similar people and civilizations are over the millennia, and how we all want and need a connection with water. These ancient people surrounded themselves with water and beautiful plants, and pioneered concepts and things we still use today – like irrigation, garden design, arbors, edible ornamental’s, and even ornamental fish keeping.
Aquatic Plant Development
Aquatic plants were among the earliest flowering plants. Fossil evidence places an early form of waterlily at 125-115 million years BC! One of the most important plants of the world (and an aquatic!), rice was domesticated 4,000 years BC, based on evidence in Thailand. The value of many aquatic plants as food cannot be underestimated.
The lotus appears in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics as early as the First Dynasty (2,950-2,770 BC). Legends, myths, art, and physical evidence bespeak its importance in ancient Egyptian culture and religion. How and when lotus reached Egypt is not really known, but the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of its presence there in the fifth century BC. Lotus seeds were found as a part of the Hemudu Culture in ancient China as long ago as 5,000 BC, and presumably were native to that region. Chinese poetry from the Zhou Dynasty (1,122-256 BC) also speaks of lotus. It is indeed a mystical and sought-after plant even today!
Ponds & Water Gardens Today
Fast forward to present day. Water gardens can be defined as any interior or exterior landscape or architectural element whose primary purpose is to house, display, or propagate aquatic plants. Despite the primary focus being on plants, most also house ornamental fish, calling it a fish pond. Most people, though, just refer to water gardens, ponds and fish ponds as “ponds.”
Water gardening is basically growing plants adapted to ponds. Although water gardens can be almost any size or depth, they are typically small and relatively shallow, generally around 24” in depth. This is because most aquatic plants are depth-sensitive and require a specific water depth in order to thrive. And what better place to garden when it’s 110 degrees outside than standing in water?
Ponds and water gardens are what you make of them. Luckily, The Pond Gnome just happens to create custom build-to-suit water features. Tell us your dream, and let us help make it a reality for you! Or, you can peruse our pricing and use our cool Build & Price Tool to select your options and build to your budget. It’s easy and fun!
My fish died overnight, and I don’t know why!
It’s absolutely heart-breaking to wake up in the morning and find your fish floating in the pond – especially when you don’t know why it happened. If they don’t have any visible wounds on them, and it’s mid-Summer in Phoenix, the cause is probably suffocation.
Several factors can contribute to this issue:
If any (or all) of these factors combine with the already low oxygen levels in warm water, the pond fish can suffocate. Here in Phoenix, during the summer, our nighttime lows can remain above 90 degrees! This sets up a very oxygen poor environment in our water to start with. Warmer water naturally holds much less oxygen than colder water.
What goes in must come out
An over-abundance of plant life provides plenty of oxygen in the daytime, but exhales carbon dioxide at night (photosynthesis). That’s right: too many plants allowed to grow out of control actually rob your pond of oxygen at night. Now, that’s not so bad in the wintertime, when cold water is oxygen-rich and the fish’s metabolism has slowed to a dormant rate, so they’re not in need of as much. But in the summer, the fish are more active, their metabolism is at full-throttle, and they need all the oxygen they can get.
Plants grow like wildfire in Phoenix from Spring through Fall, taking up the nutrients from the fish waste and adding shade and oxygen to the water all day long. Then nighttime comes along, and the plants reverse this process, stealing oxygen from the pond and releasing carbon dioxide, just like a human inhaling and exhaling. If you have a lot of fish (measured in inches) competing for that oxygen, someone’s going to lose -- and the plants can hold their breath longer than the fish.
Sun exposure, aeration, depth, plant varieties, etc. play a role in healthy pond-keeping practices. The following preventative measures are rules of thumb, and you need to remember that each pond is an individual and unique unto itself.
Pond Size & Fish Load
The first rule of ponding is to not over-fish your pond. Yep, there are a lot of really cool fish out there, and people are tempted to collect them all. If you want to do that, build a bigger pond with appropriate filtration for that goal. Otherwise, choose wisely.
Experts agree that you should keep your fish collecting to between ½” and 1” of fish per ten gallons of water. And if you have other aquatic life in the pond, such as a turtle, you need to take that into account, as well.
A well-maintained ecosystem pond really should only need a complete drain & clean every 3-5 years here in Phoenix. Preventative measures can extend that timeframe, or even eliminate it. That estimation changes depending on how many fish you have, other aquatic life in the pond, and how much food and waste accumulate.
The toxicity of the mulm building up on the floor of a pond depends on many factors: the types and size of your fish, the circulation system on the pond, the filtration system on the pond, etc. Preventative measures like netting the floor or adding sludge digesters to the pond regularly could actually keep you from ever having to worry about this issue.
If your pond wasn’t originally planned for abundant fish-keeping goals, you should err on the side of caution when adding fish and stick to the ½” of fish per 10 gallons of water recommendation.
If you’re just starting to think about a pond, you need to make sure you (or the professional you’re hiring) are clear on your goals of desired fish-keeping so that the design of the filtration system is appropriate.
Keep plants under control
This is a big part of maintaining an ecosystem pond. In the wintertime, it’s no big deal because the water is cold and both the fish and plants are fairly dormant. Plus, a bit of extra dormant plant material in the pond makes for great cover for over-wintering amphibious life.
But once Spring hits, those plants start growing like crazy! Just trimming off the dead leaves isn’t enough. You need to make sure you’re keeping the roots under control – which also has the added bonus of preventing water displacement leaks. A good rule of thumb is to keep your plants from covering over 50% of the pond’s surface area. If you have stellar aeration, you can have more; less aeration, less coverage. Sun exposure and depth play a role, as well.
Pond Maintenance Programs
Ponds need regular maintenance. Most well-built ecosystem ponds with appropriate filtration for their size need as little as 10 minutes a week, and provide hours of enjoyment. But it has to be done.
If you are unable, unwilling, or just plain too busy to do the maintenance, but still want a gorgeous living water feature, The Pond Gnome has maintenance programs for folks who want to do a little, a little more, or not a bloody thing!
How can we help?
Never Pray for Patience
Have you ever been told never to pray for patience, because it will not be simply granted, but taught to you? And how often have you heeded that advice? Some things give you no choice; however, those are the things that tend to be the most rewarding!
Patience is a Virtue!
An ecosystem pond teaches patience. Mother Nature has a way of deciding exactly when she will turn things around, and not until. Most of the ponds that we install do great right from the start, especially when people follow the instructions given. We tend to say that it’s like getting a puppy. You just have to have a bit of patience and coax it along. Getting impatient and adding quick-fix “chemicals” is the equivalent of smacking that little puppy on the nose with a newspaper for being a baby and just doing what puppies do. Most experts agree that is not the best approach to training.
All of our clients who have followed instructions and had patience are rewarded with gorgeous living ponds that delight them every day.
Don’t You Just Love a Problem That Fixes Itself?
It’s funny how a pond can be pea-green for days on end, and then go crystal clear overnight. It happens all the time. Or be completely algae-ridden one day, and be clean as a whistle the next. Typically these turn-arounds take place the day after they've called us to come look things over to see what's wrong.
Using Mother Nature’s formula for the life cycle will surprise you like that. If you’ll add the beneficial bacteria & enzymes, allow the plants to grow and thrive, not be in a hurry to add a bunch of fish or turtles, or other aquatic higher life forms, you’ll be amazed at how the pond just fixes itself one day. And stays that way.
We have a couple of stories of clients who “just couldn’t wait” to throw large Koi into their brand new pond. The large Koi, doing what Koi do, ripped all the young and yet-un-established plants out of the pond right away. With nothing to take up the nutrients cast off by the fish, the pond goes green. And then they’re shocked and upset by the results of their impatience. The pond eventually overcomes the initial impatience, but it takes a whole lot longer than if they’d just had a bit more patience in the beginning.
Nature finds a way
Sometimes things go wonky in an ecosystem pond. From wind storms. From some chemical being accidentally introduced by your weed guy or pest guy, etc. From a dead organism or rotting plant that was left unchecked. Once the problem is found and corrected, a healthy ecosystem pond will come back from just about anything. Once again, patience is key.
Working with Mother Nature, and not against her, definitely takes some getting used to. We’ve become a society whose first inclination is to throw a chemical or pill at something instead of addressing the root cause and fortifying the immune systems to stay healthy. Same goes for ecosystem ponds. Fortifying the good guys (beneficial bacteria, plankton, etc.) will allow it to overcome just about anything.
Case in point: a client with a brand-new baby ecosystem pond built for her beloved Koi had a painting contractor spill an entire bucket of paint into the pond. She was devastated! Well, believe it or not, the pond actually overcame that issue, and it didn’t take nearly as long as feared. Once the paint sunk to the bottom, it was pumped out and fresh water was added. Happy ending: the pond cleared up, AND the fish survived!
If you can control yourself and have some patience with an ecosystem pond in its genesis phase, you will be rewarded with years and years of pleasure! Have patience with the plants, and they will thrive. Have patience adding fish, and the entire pond will flourish. Have patience with the water quality, and it will give you stunning views. See more examples of the results.
Pond Fish Love Air!
Have you ever seen your fish hanging out under your waterfall in your pond? Of course you have! They love the highly oxygenated water provided in that particular spot.
Aeration for your Koi and other pond fish is essential to their health, especially during our long hot summers here in Phoenix. Pond aeration can be accomplished by a properly-built waterfall, a fountain element, or an aeration device.
99.9% of the ponds that we build come with a waterfall, but that may not always be enough. Some folks add an additional fountain element for the aesthetics, but the bonus is that it adds aeration to the pond, as well.
We’ve found aerators to be so beneficial that we’ve started using them as an alternative to floor jets in a pond.
What are the Benefits of an Aerator?
An aerator provides additional life-giving oxygen to your pond. An aerator benefits all aquatic life, from large Koi all the way down to heterotrophic bacteria: the good guys that need to thrive to keep your water crystal clear and healthy for the upper level aquatic life forms. There are no drawbacks.
Aerator vs. Predator
Aerators are also terrific diffusers that can act as predator control. The water disturbance produced by the aerator obscures the view into the pond from would-be predators. But you can control this by simply turning it off when you are outside enjoying the pond. This video shows you how that looks:
How Much Does an Aerator Cost?
Not only is it less expensive to purchase than buying an additional water-moving pump, but it also uses less energy, making it more cost-effective on a daily basis. Basically, it’s less expensive to move air than it is to move water.
The average DIY kit runs somewhere around $175 to $500, depending on pond size. We install professional-level aerators for between $400 and $2500. The professional-level equipment is a more heavy-duty version, including more substantial, weighted plumbing.
All life needs oxygen, and we highly recommend aerator devices on ponds, especially if you have large fish. It’s a life-saver!