Gadbois: Lewis at the pond

The pond in our front yard is artificial. We inherited the heart-shaped feature from the previous owners when we moved into our home some 20 years ago. They had installed it themselves using local limestone rocks to form the rim surrounding a bowl of tarp-covered sand on the limestone bedrock base. It is not a deep pond, not able to overwinter fish or frogs, but has a fairly decent 12′ by 12′ diameter basin roughly in the middle of our front lawn next to the main pathway.

The black plastic tarp eventually ruptured and leaked and we had a decision to make: remove the feature entirely or replace it? We chose the latter. We decided to do it ourselves; after all how difficult could it be? In those days, unlike now, there were no or very few specialized companies in pond design and maintenance to ask advice of locally, so we went on our own.

Artificial ponds can be a lot of work and expensive to install. Honestly, if there had not already been one on the property, I think we would have thought twice about putting one in, especially since our topsoil is thin and the limestone substrate thick and pervasive. We thanked the former owners for having done the brunt of the excavation work and proceeded to replace the liner after removing the right ventricle of the heart shape – the pond’s shape being a little too cutesy for me. Arduous and painstaking I admit, but the work has been worth it in the end.

A water feature can provide beautiful sights and sounds, garden columnist Anne Gadbois says. Photo by Anne Gadbois
A water feature can provide beautiful sights and sounds, garden columnist Anne Gadbois says. Photo by Anne Gadbois

Over the years, the edges of the pond have softened and naturalized. At one point, I was happy to notice that a stand of cattails had colonized one end, happy that is until a few summers later, I was stuck with trying to get the overgrown mess out with an axe to the dense and gnarly underwater roots. The rushes had most probably come in as seeds on the legs of birds and the plant had found the environment to its liking – much too much to its liking.

In an effort to save energy, the pump is on a timer – every other hour during the daytime hours – and the soothing sound of cascading water is most pleasing to the ear. There are very few natural water features in our subdivision, only some marshy ditches and land which attracts migrating ducks and tons of mosquitos. There is a small dredged-out lake on a neighbour’s property, but it has no public access, unfortunately. That is why having a water feature in the yard during the summer months is such a treat. Another one of our neighbours has more recently introduced a naturalized pond which allows them to swim in it. I am envious, ours isn’t that large (or pristine).

Planted around our pond is a good variety of lilies, so that area is at its best in late July to early August. Most were sourced at nearby Whitehouse Perennials who have an astounding number of lilies and perennials in their wonderful, large display gardens. It really is a destination worth the visit – prepare to linger and learn. Also flanking the pond are flowering spireas which, when trimmed after first flush in the spring, do flower again in the fall. A rock garden with alpines and creeping thyme finishes off the pond feature.

Our water feature has been a draw for all kinds of insects and wildlife. The blooms surrounding it draw in pollinators, birds pass and cool off on perches nearby, many species of dragonfly swoop in and out of the water area picking up black flies and mosquitos. Swallowtail and monarch butterflies feed and bask on the cultivated and wild flowers. Frogs breed, emerge and sit on the water lilies and serenade us with their surprising calls. We routinely have bullfrogs in the pond, their mating and territorial calls enliven the soundscape of our days and evenings. My understanding is they are voracious eaters, even of their young! We don’t have to worry about mosquito larvae, the frogs take care of them.

In the early years, I would go to Walmart and bring home a dozen or so goldfish which used to spend the summer in our pond. This worked out well, they kept the mosquito population under control. The only problem was they cannot be overwintered due to the shallowness of the pond. For the first year that was not an issue since a migrating heron spent two days in our pond at the end of the season (what a beautiful sight!) and feasted on our goldfish and frogs. No heron the next season, we overwintered them in an aquarium in the house – too much work! We decided to forego fish and stick with frogs which come and go from the pond on their own.

Three years ago, while doing some gardening around the pond, I looked over and saw a little face looking up at me. A Painted Turtle! Lewis, as he became known to us, came in the early summer and stayed until the end of August (actually, we do not really know if he was a Lewis or a Louise.) He arrived and was trapped in the pond water which at the time had a stone overhang, and no landing place for him to climb back out on. We remedied that quickly, putting in a little ramp which Lewis would use regularly as a sunbathing area. He was free to go, could leave the pond area at will, and I guess he found our pond suited his needs, enough for him to stay the season. At one point we noticed that Lewis’ left front claw was missing, he was an amputee. We sought the advice of the Rideau Valley Wildlife Sanctuary; they told us that he would most probably be fine. He did not seem to have any problem walking. We grew very fond of Lewis. We did not handle him, but my daughter did give him the odd piece of lettuce from time to time. One day at the end of August, we looked for him in the pond, and he was gone.

Water features can be a lot of work but they are so worthwhile. Nowadays, there is so much more expertise and resources available to the homeowner that did not exist even 20 years ago.

We are fortunate to have two such professional resources in the West Carleton area: Ponds and Aquaria in and the Pond Clinic, affiliated with Aquatopia, on the March Road. Furthermore, pond equipment and plantings are now available in most large garden centres. There is even a water garden society in Ottawa. The Greater Ottawa Water Garden Horticultural Society has an annual pond tour in June which has become quite the event.

We are still very pleased with our water feature, it provides us with hours of relaxing sights and sounds every day. If the thought of installing a full pond or other large water feature is too daunting, perhaps using a container, some rocks, a small pump, water and a few small plants might just be a great start.