Casual Gardener: Pond life is not the easy life

Maintaining a sustainable wildlife pond requires more effort than you would think

Ponds should be at least two feet deep
Ponds should be at least two feet deep

Warm, sunny weather and water are among the best combinations nature has to offer. There’s a primeval, elemental allure to the simple contrast between blistering heat and cool water. It’s what draws people to seas, rivers and lakes when the mercury rises.

Every warm, sunny day in our garden ends with a cold drink by the pond. The water is only entered rarely and always for maintenance purposes, nonetheless it still has that soothing, revitalising effect.

The pond in question took me the best part of five years to dig and a further two to finesse with decking and appropriate planting. I’ve no regrets whatsoever – perhaps apart from wishing it were bigger – and believe it to be the garden’s key feature.

Decaying foliage will turn a healthy pond black and smelly. Picture by Alamy/PA
Decaying foliage will turn a healthy pond black and smelly (Alamy/PA)

And it not only benefits us, but is also a boon for wildlife. Inhabitants include frogs (in various stages of life), sticklebacks, water snails and water boatmen. A pair of blackbirds, the mother looking heavily pregnant, have been bathing there a lot in recent days, fluttering in the shallows before flitting quickly to the nearby hedge/shelter belt, a meshed mix of cropped willow, oak, sycamore, elder and dog rose.

What the pond notably doesn’t sustain, much to my disappointment, is dragon or damselflies, and newts. ‘Build it and they will come,’ the mantra of natural gardening advocates has not rung true in this instance. There are newts just 400 yards away as the crow flies, both in a natural environment and in the pond of a friend’s garden but so far they have declined to avail of our hospitality.

The sticklebacks are possibly responsible for the absence of newts and ensuring the half-a-dozen I introduced didn’t prosper. The dragon and damselflies would be welcome to come and start a family on the flag iris.

A so-called marginal, the roots and base of the irises’ long sword-like leaves are beneath the water’s surface. This is where the flies’ larvae are supposed to hatch before emerging in spring, winged and with a beautiful iridescent body.

I built it, and planted it, yet still they didn’t come. But hope springs eternal, and each year fresh efforts are made to ensure the pond as amendable as possible to the widest variety of creatures.

A solar-powered water pump gently oxygenating the water, plenty of nearby cover for birds, and a late spring sludge clear-out that see autumn’s organic debris removed to improve water quality, are all part of the wildlife pond maintenance regime.

A hole filled with water left to its own devices will be of some value to wildlife, at least initially. But steadily, as the duckweed takes over and the light is blocked from the water, it’ll not have the same appeal either aesthetically or as a habitat.

The same robust net that lifts the sludge from the bottom of the pond – before it’s sifted through by hand to rescue any larger wildlife – is used to regularly take duckweed off the surface.

To prevent the water getting too warm, which triggers eutrophication and algal blooms, it’s recommended that from late spring through to the autumn at least two thirds of the ponds surface area covered. Water lilies fulfil this purpose best but they too need maintaining, whether it’s to keep them in check or re-secure them in a basket where the pond deepest.

Don’t let anybody tell you the pond life is the easy life.