Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Ponds Part 1: The Whys of Water Features

Hello again! Sorry for the delay, but here's a new article on a totally new topic. Enjoy!

Here in New Brunswick, Canada on the 4thof December, it's a chilly morning. We're (supposedly) in winter now and there's not a whole lot you can do in terms of gardening unless you have a climate-controlled greenhouse.

But make no mistake, this doesn't mean you have nothing to do. On the contrary, winter is when a lot of very important decisions can be made about the upcoming growing season. This is when you start looking at what concrete improvements you can make to your site. You don't want to leave the overall design of your site until you're ready for planting, you want to do it when you have the time and energy to change your mind. That way, your chances of being disappointed with the result are far lessened.

So, what do I mean by 'concrete improvements'? By this I mean, (permanent) features that will significantly boost the production of a site eg swales, food forests, ponds. For this series of articles, we will be looking at the various stages we took in turning this:

Pic 1: Early Spring 2012, looking towards W-SW corner of property

into this:

Pic 2: Summer 2012, standing in SW corner of property,
looking E-NE

Ready? Part 1; The Whys of Water Features

There are several notable benefits to having a larger water feature like a pond included in your design.
  • Aquaculture: Water has a very significant advantage over soil in that water supports the mass of everything growing in it so they don't have to deal with gravity. This is why the largest of everything is aquatic, animal, vegetable, overall rate of production etc. This is a very handy fact for our purposes because there are many edible, aquatic plants that can be grown in anything from an aquarium to a lake, e.g. Chinese water chestnut. Also very handy are the North American cattail for several varied reasons; the tubor, stem and and large "fruit" pods are edible, the cattail (as well as the bulrush) is very, very good at cleaning waste streams and retaining silt, and the stems are hollow, so in winter they provide an excellent gas exchange system to the water trapped under the ice which allows over-wintering fish to survive (if the pond is deep enough for the fish not to freeze that is). Which of course reminds me, you can grow fish in a pond too (Imagine going fishing without having to leave your property!). We didn't put fish in the pond this year because we wanted it to clear up first and we didn't feel we had an adequate oxygenation system running, but it's something to do next year!

  • Temperature moderation: Rays from the Sun reflect off of the surface of water and provide extra light and heat to any surrounding vegetation, especially trees. In the hot times, the water acts as a heat sink.

  • Extending the growing season: The extra heat and light from sun reflection extends the growing season up to three weeks in both directions. For fruit trees in cold climates like here, this can be very helpful.

  • Slow irrigation: Water seeps through all unlined ponds, the more clay-y the soil the slower, but it still seeps. This provides a consistent water supply for surrounding vegetation and helps bridge gaps between rainfalls.

  • Buffer: The pond also acts as protection in strong rain events. When the water collects in the pond, all of the silt and colloidal matter sinks and is retained within the site. This is very important as not blocking the water flow off your site and not allowing it to release the fine, organic matter will eventually result in all of the nutrients being leached off your property and that just makes everything harder. You don't need to stop the water leaving your site (well, you cant anyway, not really) you just need to slow it, sink it and disperse it throughout the landscape. Swales are amazing for this, but ponds aren't too shabby either.

  • Reservoir: After having a pond closer to half the garden than the hose, we can tell you how handy for irrigation a pond is! Even just using a bucket, having the pond saved so much time and effort. Next year there will be a pumped hose rig-up, it just didn't happen this year.

  • Wildlife: We already had more wildlife on our site than our neighbours because for several years much of the site was left completely alone, and previous to this year we also tried to do as little damage (ie work) as possible, simply because we both hate mowing a lawn. When we put in the pond, our wildlife numbers and variety sky-rocketed. At least 3 types of frogs, 1 type of toad, 5 different kinds of dragonflies and the birds, butterflies and bees were unbelievable. Having this large, (mostly) still body of water available made a lot of difference to a lot of different creatures. And we got the benefit of that mainly in pollination, pest control and entertainment. All summer, our site was alive with the humming of bees,  frogs and toads regularly travelled across the whole slope above the pond (one toad seemed to make a home in our tomato patch which meant a great many saved tomatoes!) and many a summer's evening, we have sat watching the birds and the dragonflies. It was wonderful.

  • Mental Ease: All of the above benefits add up to a more stable system, which includes; increased quality (and also quantity) of the soil for your plants, increased quality and quantity of interaction with nature for you, increased quality, quantity and variety of fresh and healthy food for you, decreased stress and work for your plants, decreased stress and work for you and greatly increased opportunity for you to sit beside your pond and relax with a cool drink. There is a lot to be said for the ability to sit near a body of water, watch nature and relax with a cool drink.

  • Winter Fun!: If you live in a cold enough climate and have the space, you can even have your pond so that you can skate on it in winter. Here's a picture of us on our pond from last weekend when it got cold enough for 4-inch thick ice to form.

Picture 3; Need to get some skates....

So when you get right down to it, whether you have always wanted a pond, or whether I've just sparked off the idea in your head, there are multiple benefits to having a pond included in the design for your property. Even if all you can fit in is a Belfast sink concealed in a bench, or an aquarium on a balcony, that's fine. That's enough for you to grow some extra, different kinds of food, give some extra help to a fruit tree, take some effort away from your irrigation and give much-needed support to wildlife of all sizes.

So this winter, while the bad weather is having it's own way out there, why not sit down with a pencil and paper and see if you can't include a pond of any size or description somewhere on your property.

You may be surprised.

As always, comments are welcomed in the comment box below.

Up soon: Ponds Part 2 Planning the Dig

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