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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In a world of “tech neck,” social media, and constant electronic connection, it’s far too easy for kids to overlook nature’s beauty. Beyond being a welcome change of scenery from screens, ponds and outdoor play offer a multitude of other unique benefits for young minds. And now that much of our country is practicing social distancing, it’s even more important to connect with nature.
What’s the Problem?
Research from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) shows that kids are spending less and less time in the great outdoors. On average, children only spend four to seven minutes of the day in unstructured outdoor play. Compare that to the seven and half hours, on average, that they spend in front of electronic media. The lack of physical activity could put children on the fast track for chronic diseases, including obesity. In 1980, 7% of children ages 6-11 were obese. In 2010, that figure climbed to nearly 18%! The NRPA notes that this could create a troubling national trend for the future of conservation as well as health and wellness, which is a person’s first line of defense against any disease or virus.
Fortunately, there are easy ways to turn this trend around – and now is the time to take action. Having access to a water feature, and the great outdoors in general, affords great ways to get kids outside and moving!
Nature Does a Body Good
Simply being in an outdoor setting benefits developing minds and bodies, especially when contact with their friends is limited – like the world’s current pandemic. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, outdoor play allows children to use all of their senses, which in turn helps them build skills such as spatial awareness and balance. It can also help improve their attention span – a subject of great concern in modern times.
Additionally, studies have shown that outdoor time:
Other benefits of spending time outdoors include:
A confidence boost. Playing outside is a lot less structured than playing indoors, giving kids their power to control their own actions and adventures.
Creativity and imagination. The great outdoors allows kids to think more freely, design their own activities, and approach the world in their unique and creative ways.
Responsibility. Children who are tasked with caring for a living thing, such as a plant or fish, learn what happens if it’s neglected or not cared for properly.
Unique stimulation. While nature seems less flashy and high energy than a video game, it does an amazing job of stimulating the senses. Kids can see, hear, smell, and touch outdoor environments.
Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols coined the term “blue mind” to refer to the calm, peaceful sense of happiness that is triggered by being in or near water. Being around water gives our overstimulated brains and senses a rest. Creativity thrives in this relaxed state, as the brain is able to make new and unusual connections because it is not overly distracted by visual and auditory stimulation. Our own personal experience with Autistic neighbor children has shown us that the “blue mind” is extremely beneficial for these kiddos.
Nature Is Its Own Classroom
In 2013, Kaneland High School in Maple Park, Illinois, transformed a previously unused outdoor courtyard into a Koi pond with help from Aquascape (The Pond Gnome’s teacher and mentor). Over the course of three days, members of the school’s Student Council, FFA, and Science Club worked to turn the space into a stunning pond.
During the school year, the pond is maintained by students in the school’s horticulture classes, who feed the fish, check the pond’s water level, and tend to the plants. They’ve even added enhancements to the pond area, including additional water plants and building a runoff to help direct water that was coming down from the school’s roof.
Kaneland staff credit the project for not only demonstrating commitment to the school but showing how community partnerships can provide valuable learning experiences. Kaneland’s pond was even featured on an episode of Pond Stars on the Nat Geo Wild network.
The Pond Gnome has been an integral part of creating Urban Wildlife Habitats for various schools around the Valley, including Apache Elementary School, Hidden Hills Elementary School, Desert Harbor Elementary School, Mesa Community College, Scottsdale Community College, etc.
Don’t Forget Fun
There are so many things to love about ponds and streams. There are fish to feed and frogs to find. If they move quietly, they might just discover butterflies resting gently on the plants surrounding the water. And on a hot day, there’s no better feeling than taking off your socks and wading right into the pond or stream.
Here are some ideas we love for fun in the great outdoors:
Have a treasure hunt. Make a short list of things for your children to seek outside. You could even tailor the list to include things found around your pond. How about a plant that grows in water, a shiny rock, or a fish? As they search for items around the pond, they’ll naturally take in its other cool features.
Identify plants and animals. Go online and print out pictures of the plants and animals that make their home in your pond or around your yard. Then head outside with your child and match the pictures you printed to those living things.
Photograph nature. In this instance, technology isn’t totally banned. Have your child use a camera, or even the camera on your phone, to take pictures of the pond and the nature surrounding it. Explore how lighting impacts the photographs, and have some fun playing with the different camera settings.
Create art. Claude Monet was famously inspired to paint water plants – why not your child, too? Bring art supplies outside and encourage your child to sketch or paint the pond.
Try for a “Green Hour”
The National Wildlife Federation encourages families to commit to a “green hour” every day in which children play and learn outdoors in nature. Regular positive experiences with nature also help children develop a lifelong concern for wildlife and the great outdoors, not to mention respect for living things.
Pondless waterfalls and/or streams are a perfect choice for families with very young children. They allow children to enjoy nature in and around the waterfall/stream – birds love to bathe in it and frogs will visit! – without the safety concerns of a pond. A pond can always be added to the waterfall once children are older.
During this time of pandemic concern and social distancing, be sure your kids spend time in nature. Your backyard is a great place to start!
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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?
My Fish Seem Like They're Fighting, or Picking on One Fish in Particular.
They're actually NOT fighting. They are attempting to breed. Yep, your fish are gettin' busy. The males in the pond are trying to get the female to release her eggs into the water so that they can be fertilized. It does look like a brutal process to an outsider or first-time pond owner, but it's simply the fish's process of procreation. The female actually requires a bit of help from the males to release her eggs that have developed inside of her. She may look a little worse for wear for a short time, but should recover fairly quickly once the eggs are released, which brings us to the next issue...
Why is there foam in my pond?
The wise old owl told Bambi that every living creature gets "twitterpated" in the Spring. Well, your fish are living creatures! If you've noticed a foaming in your pond that comes and goes, don't panic. It's simply your fish responding to Spring's siren call. Love is in the water, and so are excess proteins. If the foam in the pond is a bit fishy smelling, then that is what's going on and it should be gone in a couple of days. There's no need to treat it.
There are a few potential causes of foam in your pond. The most common reason for foam in a pond this time of year is that your fish are doing the Spring thing.
Over-application of pond bacteria can create foam in the pond temporarily, in which case there would be no odor accompanying the foam and it will dissipate in a few days.
Another cause of foam in a pond could be a dead animal in the pond and you will need to locate and remove it immediately.
Soap being thrown in the water can obviously cause foam in a pond. This typically doesn't happen to backyard ponds, but if you have a front yard pond or it's in a commercial location, it's a possibility. In this case, the pond will have to be drained, cleaned, and re-started. This would also kill the fish. If this has happened to you, you have our sincere condolences. And may the bad karma of whoever did it be swift!
So, if it's just your fish being twitterpated, no worries, all will settle down again shortly. If it's something else that you need help with, don't hesitate to ask for help.