by Paul Cox, South Merseyside
The garden of our new home had been neglected for years…
Behind the tumbledown garage lay what had once been a large and productive vegetable plot. A thorn-less blackberry had gone wild, ivy was bringing down the fence between the neighbours and us, and suckers from the lilac hedge were growing everywhere.
The size of the plot was daunting and strangely, the soil was at least one foot lower than the adjacent lawn.
We considered buying in topsoil, but that would be expensive. Then I had an idea – why not dig a pond in one half of the plot? Halving its size would make the garden more manageable and the soil from digging out the pond would bring what remained level with the lawn.
“Koi carp, a waterfall and, of course, a quaint wooden bridge, what could be more pleasant?”
Weeks of cutting back trees, uprooting saplings and generally clearing the land followed. To prevent more suckers from the nearby hedge, I even went to the trouble of wrapping old concrete paving flags in garden fleece and laying them on end in a trench in front of the hedge. I hoped that this would form an impenetrable barrier to tree roots. At last, I was ready to dig the hole for the pond…
Soon, I had a lop-sided hole, much deeper at one end than the other. I was worn out, so the next few days were spent looking at ponds and pond liners in garden centres. We were in for a surprise: ponds are expensive. Pumps were out of the question and so was that quaint wooden bridge.
I was determined to have some sort of bridge, so I decided to divide the pond in two. Two ponds, one shallow and one deep, divided by a walkway that would look a bit like a bridge. How the fish would swim from one half to the other I would worry about later, I told myself. A lot more digging and some expensive pond liner and things were taking shape. The effect looked quite pleasing, even though it had yet to be finished off.
Then disaster struck. The shallow pond developed a leak. We complained at the garden centre, but were informed that our expensive pond liner was only guaranteed not to fade. The warranty did not extend to such unforeseen events as springing a leak! The leak was probably, in any case, due to our faulty installation, we were told. Reluctantly, we purchased a further pond liner. This time we rigged up a temporary pond out of wood in the middle of the lawn, in order to test the new liner.
It held water for three days without the slightest sign of leaking, so out came the old liner complete with the gravel that we had laid around the edges. In the gravel were several leaches, each about one inch long. Had they arrived on the legs of birds? We had seen several bathing in the pond. Would they harm the fish? Were they in the other pond? We did not know. This would have to be looked into.
In went the new liner. The old liner was placed in the temporary wooden structure on the lawn. I wanted to find the cause of the leak and prove to the garden centre that it was not our fault. To our amazement, the newly lined pond lost water and the old liner, now on the lawn, remained watertight. I resorted to topping up the newly lined pond about once every two weeks, while keeping an eye out for the return of the leaches. Things were going from bad to worse.
I regularly checked on the ponds and became fascinated by the invertebrates that had already arrived – there were small black water beetles that would come to the surface for air and rummage around in the gravel for food. These were followed by further black beetles, which walked instead of swimming. Then some very fast swimming beetles arrived and shortly after many extremely small but exquisite snails which looked like minute fossil ammonites. We were starting to have quite a menagerie.
On a visit to see how we were getting on, our daughter, who is quite an expert on wild flowers, identified several quite rare wild flowers growing on soil to the rear of the pond. They must have come from long buried seeds unearthed by your pond digging, she declared “You must make this a wildlife area”. She was most insistent. So our pond was to become a wildlife pond. That at least would solve the problem of how the fish would swim from one pond to the other – there would be no fish! Our plan of fountains, waterfalls and koi carp was not wildlife. We needed to seek advice.
Fortunately, the proprietor of a local specialist pond and water garden centre was a wildlife enthusiast. He showed us his magnificent wildlife pond, resplendent with reeds, iris and tadpoles. It had such a feel of the countryside about it that we were won over.
Our ponds were re-shaped to allow birds to drink and bathe more easily. Some ground ivy growing near the ponds was left to provide ground cover. A patch of Lesser Celandine was left. Anemones, which looked almost like wild wood anemones were planted underneath the nearby boundary hedge. These where joined by gypsy weed and wood sorrel from a friend’s garden. Both are very good for providing ground cover for wildlife in dark corners of your garden, we were assured. Additional cover for wildlife came courtesy of my son-in-law, who was removing his garden rockery. Many of his rockery stones were piled one on top of the other between the pond and the rear garden wall. On top of these were planted miniature alpine thyme and some Ivy Leafed Toadflax from my son-in-law’s garden. The garden centre sold many native pondweeds and native marginal plants. They were unsure as to which pondweeds would grow best, so three different native species were planted. Marginal plants included, Kingcup Water Avens and a miniature iris.
But still our ponds were looking far from natural. Where the water was shallow, our re-shaping of the ponds had formed shallow beaches covered in gravel, which hid the underlying pond liner. Next to the deeper water, however, too much pond liner was visible. We visited a local stone merchant and by carefully choosing flat broken pieces of cheap sandstone we were able to obtain a very pleasing natural look to the ponds. Topsoil may after all have been cheaper, but we were now well and truly committed to wildlife.
One form of wildlife was not particularly welcome though. I had always been told that they were territorial, but our pond appeared to be visited by every blackbird in the neighbourhood, often all together. They insisted in pulling up marginal plants as quickly as we planted them. They were particularly attracted to some shallow rooted pond-side mint, which spent most of its time floating slowly around in circles rather than being firmly rooted at the pond edge.
I don’t remember discussing my plans with the neighbours, but they must have seen what was happening. One morning our neighbour from the house on the left leaned over the fence with a large frog in his hand. “Do you mind putting this in your pond? I filled in mine last year and I feel sorry for this poor fellow in this hot weather.” A few days later the neighbour from the back stuck his head over the fence. He was carrying a bucket full of frogs. “I am worried about my grandson, so I have just filled in the pond, but I don’t know what to do with all of these frogs,” he explained. “I wonder if you have room for them?…” It seemed as though my ponds had arrived just in time for the local frog population!
Read on: Part 2 of Paul’s diary – the frogs take a fancy to the pond but what happens to the tadpoles? Plus, coping with a warm, dry summer.