Pond life

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No matter how small your garden – even if it’s just a few metres square, get yourself a pond.

pondBack in October last year, the DH and I finally saved enough money to install our pond. It was something we’d wanted to do for a long time, but we ummed and ahed over the cost, given that there are still so many things that need doing to the house.

But if we had known how many hours of pleasure it would give us, we would have done it years ago. I knew that having a pond would be ‘nice’, but I really didn’t realise how totally absorbing and fascinating it would be, nor that we would spend every possible moment down here with our laptops and mobiles, reluctant to move indoors.

This is a wildlife garden, so we opted for a wildlife pond, focusing on invertebrates, not fish. (Fish may end up in there, but not by our design.) We took instruction from How to Make a Wildlife Garden by Chris Baines, which has been our bible in creating this garden, and followed his instructions pretty much to the letter, creating deeps and shallows, a bog area, ‘steps’ for critters to get in and out and planting native species.

Southern HawkerThe result has been amazing. No sooner was the pond filled with water than creatures began to colonise it. The very next morning, it was full of water boatmen and pond skaters, then little black water beetles, then a Southern Hawker dragonfly, some 75mm long, laid her eggs all around the edge.

We begged a starter bucket of mud and weeds from M, a friend with an established pond, and with that mud came a whole host of creatures, including thousands of snail eggs, which – once hatched out – have acted as the vacuum cleaners of the pond bottom, hoovering up algae and rotting vegetation. Occasionally the water goes cloudy, but there is, as yet, no sign of blanket weed or an algae problem, thank heavens.

waterlilyM also gave us three clumps of lilies with curly pondweed attached (fabulous oxygenators, which spread quickly and efficiently), and I scoured the local streams for other plants such as starwort, water mint and water forget-me-not (I don’t feel bad about taking a few clumps of these, as the streams are choking with them, due to fertiliser runoff from the adjacent fields).

Another plant or two has piggybacked, too, including a quite handsome affair with complicated leaves (don’t know what it is) and some floating grass with red stems. From another friend came clumps of yellow flag iris, and from another’s reed filtration bed, phylaris and other sorts of tall grasses for the bog garden.

Within a week, wriggling creatures were visible in the depths and whirlygig beetles appeared, dodging round each other on the water surface like little beads of mercury.

Now, in May, and despite the terrible drought, the pond is beginning to look wonderful. The curly pond weed has spread like mad, burrowing its way through the mud, and one of the lilies has opened (pink rather than white, much to my surprise, given it was labelled ‘alba’).

pond bankDigging a pond obviously results in a spoil heap and rather than moving this, we spread it out a bit and dug another small pond into it about 1m in diameter. This is intended to become a bog garden, and is very shallow, but it was also instantly colonised with wildlife. The bank itself we randomly planted with whatever seed we had hanging around, including bird seed, which has resulted in a forest of (I think) black mustard plants, clover, poppies and rapeseed, again giving food for visiting insects, and cover for frogs and lizards.  

From being a rather blah part of the garden, which we often skirted around on our morning walks because there was nothing in it, the pond has become the main focus of the entire garden. For weeks now, it’s been alive with dragonflies and damselflies, flitting around like mobile flowers. There are blue-grey Broad-bodied chasers, the deep turquoise Beautiful Desmoiselle with its black, fluttering wings, Small Scarlet Damselflies and little turquoise ones (I can’t get close enough to work out which species). I had expected one or two, but not 70 at a time, filling the air with colour. The other day, we even had a kingfisher, and a pied wagtail takes a noisy bath each day, using a dead log as a perch. Even bees come down for a drink, landing on the rocks, then cautiously sidling to the water’s edge, and in the dusk, the bats appear, skimming the water for moths.

Our cats, which we thought would be fearful, are curiously fond of the pond and love to lie on the railway sleepers, gazing at the water. Birds comes down to drink (as evidenced by the droppings all around), and in the winter, when it was topped with snow, a rabbit had clearly hopped across the frozen surface.

Fifteen bundles of frogspawn resulted in thousands of tadpoles, most of which have gone the way of all tadpoles (they have a survival rate of 5 per thousand), but the bigger ones are now turning into tiny frogs. We even have a palmate newt, which gently tucks her miniature arms into her sides and swims along like a mermaid.   

Being by water is a deep, atavistic pleasure (after all, we humans can’t survive without it) but it also teaches you to observe. I did not know that male damselflies clasp the females by their heads and tow them around while they lay their eggs, so they don’t become too exhausted; that they pierce the leaves of lilies and plant their eggs inside;  that chasers mate on the wing, and the male then flies around guarding the female while she lays by dipping her abdomen repeatedly into the water; that hawkers (single parents, all of them) land and carefully fold their bodies to position their ovipositors, laying their eggs one at a time; that snails sleep by turning upside down and floating their big foot on the water surface; that water beetles float to the top and at the last minute, turn and poke their bums out of the water, trapping air under their wing carapaces, then dive back down again.

A pond, however small, affords so many lovely sensations – rain pattering on the lily leaves; reflections of the surrounding rocks and plants, or the sky on a sunny day; cherry petals floating on the surface; our Zen-like cats, sunbathing on the rocks, or lapping at their mirror image in the water.

I would advise everyone – if you possibly can, put one in, even if it’s just a 2ft square butler sink with a clump of horsetails. You’ll be so glad you did.

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