Water Garden- you can grow that!


My happy place.

My happy place.

Pretty much every morning, I go out to my patio, set my coffee on the table, put my feet up on the big terra cotta pot, and watch the sky reflected on the surface of the pond.

To be clear, this is a horse tank, 100 gallons of galvanized metal with a lily plant and a few goldfish swimming around munching the mosquito larvae. There is no fountain, no water filter, no waterfall, just a flat surface.  If I had to move to a place with a smaller yard, a small pond would be the number one thing I would have- and I would keep it tall, above ground, rather than in the ground. Having it up high makes it easier to maintain, and the structure makes it feel like it takes up more space in the landscape.

This is the third iteration of a pond in our yard- I started with a 20 gallon tub, then sprang for a whiskey barrel, then a couple of years ago I picked up a 100 gallon trough at the farm supply store- I call it a hillbilly goldfish pond. The dull metal works with my aesthetic, if I wanted to be fancier, I would side it with stone, or cedar or something. Or maybe not, that seems like a lot of work.

The beauty of the larger pond is that it is less work than the smaller ones- the additional water acts as a buffer for temperature swings. You also don’t have as many issues with ammonia build up from fish waste.   I bought five very cheap goldfish at the beginning of the year, a couple of them died early on, and the others have gotten very good at hiding- I see the ripples of them moving around beneath the surface, but haven’t seen a tell tale orange fish in about a month. Will says he saw one being eaten by a preying mantis. I asked him why he didn’t film it, and he looked at me like I was crazy.  It is crazy to ask a kid to stop watching an insect eating a fish, run inside, find his camera, replace the batteries, then run back outside.  The circle of life.

About once a week, I use a bucket to scoop out some water and dump it onto the patio pots- they appreciate the “nutrient rich” water- it winds up being a very dilute fertilizer. Then I turn on the hose and top up the tank. The water lily, water hyacinths and other plants use up other nutrients- the more surface of the water is covered with plants, the less algae growth there is.

Anyway, I cannot recommend more highly the idea of getting a big tank of some sort, putting in water, and a couple of cheap feeder goldfish. Add a plant or two, and place a cinder block so the fish have somewhere to hide, then make a cup of coffee. It is so worthwhile to have a water garden. And you can grow that.

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Water Lily Transplant Team


At the pizza place last night, I told my kids I was planning on taking the water lily out of the pond to repot, and asked if they would help. They did not respond enthusiastically.
I clarified by saying I wanted to blog about it, so I would need photos.  I won’t say they were eager…the only eagerness came from each not wanting the other to get to use the camera. Oh well, I’ll take any assistance I can get.
To prep, I checked my pond reference book “The Pond Doctor” which has enough illustrations to be useful, but not so many that it counts as a coffee table book. The directions for repotting recommend lining a basket with burlap, then adding clay soil, then removing the lily from the pond, rinsing the old soil off, cutting off any dead material, and placing the rhizome at a 45 degree angle with the growing tip at the center, then covering with gravel, then placing it back in the pond in shallow water, until it starts growing. Whew. That seems doable.

The water on top is warmer than in the depths of the horse trough, but not by much right now. My “shallow water” zone is a couple of cinder blocks I placed at the south end of the trough, one vertical and the other horizontal. They make a stand for plants, and the holes create happy little hiding places for the fish.
Step 1 Basket: I got a basket at the dollar store. It cost a dollar… I ran into a preschool mommy- Someone I hadn’t talked to since we stood around waiting to pick up our kids, 5 years ago. We had a nice discussion about what size basket I should get for the water lily. Actually, we talked mostly about how big the kids were getting, and our conclusion about the water lily was that I might as well get 2 sizes of basket, since they were only a dollar.

Step 2 Burlap: I bought a yard at the hobby store, which is conveniently in the same mini mall as the dollar store. I cut it in half and crisscrossed it in the basket.

We used the bigger basket- the recently fished out lily is in the smaller one.

We used the bigger basket- the recently fished out lily is in the smaller one.

Step 3 Clay soil:   easy to find, in theory, since my yard is nothing but clay. I found an inconspicuous spot to dig a bucket full.

Step 4 Remove lily: When I fished the lily out of the pond, I was surprised at the size. I bought it two years ago in a mesh bag the size you might buy garlic in. There wasn’t any soil in the bag originally, I don’t think, just some gravel to make it sink, which made

Step 5 Rinse soil off rhizome  very easy. I cut away most of the mesh, and

Step 6 Trim: I cut away the mucky stems and leaves from last summer.  Kate was appalled by the smell. She is the one who won the “I get to take pictures” argument.  Honestly, it wasn’t that bad- if pond smell is the only thing keeping you from repotting a water plant, get over it.

Extreme close-up of fresh growth.

Extreme close-up of fresh growth.

Step 7 45 degree angle:  I nestled the rhizome into the soil at an angle, leaving the growing tip out of the soil in the center of the basket.Then I wrapped the lose ends of the burlap up around the soil on top.

Step 8 Gravel: I know I have a bucket of gravel around somewhere- I am sure it will turn up in the spring cleanup. When I find it, I will put some scoops of it on top of the burlap, to keep the soil from making the water cloudy.   That’s a little joke- the water is pretty cloudy on its own right now.

Next fall, I'm going to put some kind of a screen on top so we don't get a tree's worth of leaves in the pond. It's pretty darn gross.

Next fall, I’m going to put some kind of a screen on top so we don’t get a tree’s worth of leaves in the pond. It’s pretty darn gross.

Step 9 Shallow water: I placed the basket on one of the cinder blocks very gently. Some bubbles came up from the burlap, but fortunately the soil was pretty moist already. If it had been dry, I would have had to hold the bundle down until the air bubbles had all come up out of the soil, and it was fully moistened.

Step 10 Scrub arms: Okay, Kate, you’re right, it is pretty stinky, and my right arm, which is the one that went into the water to get the plant, is pretty gross smelling.

Self watering pot- a goldfish story.


Frozen Hillbilly Goldfish Pond.

Frozen Hillbilly Goldfish Pond.

I pinned something on Pinterest that was repinned more times than anything else I have put up. Then, my brother found it somewhere and sent it to me, as well.  It is a tutorial for a mini pond in a pot, with divisions for a wetland area with more soil and cattails, and a pond area, with a water lily. It is honestly adorable.

I have worked my way up in mini-ponds- from a 10 gallon tub, to a 20 gallon half barrel, to my current one, a 100 gallon horse trough, aka the Hillbilly Goldfish Pond. I have learned that the more water, the better the pond works. The fish like it better, (although there is some…attrition). The plants like it better. This experience tells me that the little patio pond depicted probably wouldn’t work, but it is adorable. People like adorable.
It makes me think, though, about adding more “wetland” area to my pond. And with that, it makes me wonder about combining the idea of a self watering pot and my pond. A self watering pot is a porous pot  with a reservoir underneath that holds a constant source of water. Roots are always able to access the water they need, so they tend to grow better than they would in regular containers. Earthbox is one brand. They seem expensive and  ugly. (that’s one way you can tell I don’t make money from these links.   If they were affiliate links, I would say, “kind of expensive, and kind of ugly.”)

In a six foot long pond, what about putting in some cinderblocks, and some pots that would keep the roots wet, but the tops dry, so the plants don’t rot? Or islands, out of floating styrofoam, for lettuce and spinach? Or grow bags with squash, and the vines could drape over the sides of the trough? I would still want enough open space for fish, and I wonder if the goldfish would wind up eating the roots?
That’s what’s great about winter- I can imagine these ideas all day and night, waiting for the pond to thaw.

Spring Cleaning- the Hillbilly Goldfish Pond


Even pond scum looks pretty in the sunset.

I left the water lily in the pond (okay, it’s a horse trough) over the winter, and didn’t cover the tank up, so any and all leaves and detritus that got in, stayed in.

I skimmed the scum off the other day with a mesh thing that I got at the dollar store- I think it was originally intended to prevent grease from splatting all over the place when you fry stuff. It works great for skimming scum, though. Frugal, or cheap? Either way.
I pulled up the lily, and it had new growth. I pulled off some of the last leaves from last year and tossed the plant back in the tank. My pond book says to re-pot in a mesh basket in heavy clay with fine gravel on top, but I think I am going to be lazy. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

We wait for warmer weather before putting in goldfish- cheap feeder ones from the pet store. I mostly have them to eat mosquito larvae, and it isn’t hot enough for mosquitoes yet. In the past, I have brought goldfish inside for the winter, but we are starting over with young, cheap ones this year. Wow, I did say cheap twice to describe my choice of fish…I bought a $10 koi one time, when I first started with an outside pond. It died pretty quickly.

White emporor tulips on the west side of my 100 gallon horse trough

White emperor tulips on the west side of my 100 gallon horse trough.

Before the fish come home, I will scoop out most of the leaves and rotten gunk in the bottom of the pond and put it  in the compost. I am waiting for a warmer day- the water is still pretty cold. I think we’ll also do some science, and do an ammonia and pH test on the water. The boy recently learned about the pH scale, and spent a happy afternoon cleaning the copper bottoms of my pans with lemon juice, lime juice and vinegar.

Speaking of science, if you didn’t get a chance to see Nova’s recent episode about the periodic table, check it out Nova link There are explosions and everything!

Should I fertilize the plants in the pond. or just buy more goldfish?


oooh, pretty flower...ugh, what's wrong with the lettuce?

My water lily just bloomed- a lovely yellow flower, and I notice that the bloom is the same shade as the water lettuce and the water hyacinth. That’s not good. They are supposed to be a much richer green. My pond book recommends fertilizer spikes for potted plants, but these two are floaters- they have massive furry root systems that absorb nutrients from the water. Nutrients such as fish poo.
I won’t put fetilizer in the water of the pond itself, because that would be hazardous to the fish.

I put 5 comet goldfish in the tank at the beginning of the summer, and have removed one corpse- the other fish are nowhere to be seen, but I am assuming they are alive- Shrodinger’s cat, I guess, if I dig around in the pond searching for them, does that change the outcome? Maybe I don’t really understand what Shrodinger’s cat is all about. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schr%C3%B6dinger%27s_cat   In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t.

Google has helped me once again, though, by suggesting that I put some fertilizer in water in a bucket, set the plants in them overnight and see if that helps.  About half the plants are soaking now- we’ll see what happens.

Dead Goldfish Haiku


Floating sideways up
Milky eye stares at nothing
Fins flapping no more

I bought nine goldfish a couple of weeks ago- I didn’t mean to get so many, but the fish girl and I got to talking, and we both got distracted. She said, “how many did you want?” and I breezily answered that whatever was in the bag was fine…they went into a 30 gallon holding tank in the basement, and they weren’t fine. They went through that nitrogen cycle that you’re supposed to learn about in junior high science, but my science teachers were ski coaches, and I didn’t really pay attention anyway…. Anyway, all nine died pretty quickly, which is what inspired my haiku.

They went into the holding tank because it is still pretty cold here at night. Also, the purpose of having the fish is to eat mosquito larvae; since there aren’t any of those around yet, I would have to feed them fish food, which I try to avoid.
I have put some duckweed in the pond, and a water lily, which has a couple of leaves. When it warms up more I’ll get some water hyacinth from the nursery, and a papyrus to replace one that died.

Today I got 4 goldfish, put them in the holding tank, and hope that chemistry doesn’t go quite so crazy this time. I thought about putting them in the tank outside, but I think it is still too cold at night for them to do well. I’ll have to check my journal to see when I put fish out last year- I think later in April than this… Writing this down makes me wonder why I bothered to get the fish this early, anyway, just to keep them in a holding tank? That’s a good question.