Plants and Fish...

Sorry about the wet spot on your desk, but you caught me still in my hip waders and straw hat. I've been out in the pond cutting flowers for She Who Must Be Obeyed... After all, that's one of the purposes of having a pond isn't it? Flowers??? That's what I want to talk about on this page. Plants, of course, and fish, not S.W.M.B.O.

OK, plants and fish. The easiest pond to take care of is one that contains a balance of both plants and fish. Both are really necessary to eliminate many problems and to enhance your enjoyment of your efforts. If you have a pond with only fish, you're going to have to work harder to keep your water crystal clear. If you have only plants, you really have nothing more than a pretty mosquito factory. A well-balanced pond doesn't need much more from you than a little cleaning occasionally. Itís when you start adding stuff that you canít take out that you get into trouble. I talked about that in previous pages so I donít have to repeat THAT sermon!

The first plant to appear in your pond is algae. If I†get 100 e-mail questions a day, half of them will be about algae. What's funny is that it's not that difficult to control. There're hundreds of kinds of algae but for our purposes, they fall into 3 main categories, single celled or floating algae, string algae, and for want of a better term, slime. Slime is actually a good sign. A good coating of slime algae on your sides and bottom, your pond of course, is a sign of a healthy pond. If you ever drain and clean your pond, donít scrub this algae off.

Single celled algae is the worst problem if your goal is to have crystal clear water. You wonít be able to get rid of all of it, and in fact you donít want to as itís food for many lower life forms, but you can minimize it. You can use chemicals to get rid of it, but you are only treating symptoms, not the cause. As with any other plant, algae needs water, food and sunlight to grow. You control it by controlling itís sources. You canít get rid of the water and still have a pond, so weíll talk about the other 2 sources. The food feeding your algae is typically from one of 3 sources, decaying plant material, fish poop, and nitrates from your biofilter. The decaying material is easy to take care of. Once every week or 2, I run a pool net over 1/3 to 1/2 of my pond bottom, scooping up the muck there. That's a pool net, the deep kind, not a leaf skimmer. I dump it on my garden plants and they love it!!! I also stir up the rest of the muck on the pond bottom to be sucked up by the pump to be eliminated by the filters. I also make sure any dead pond plant leaves and spent blooms are cut off at least once a month to keep them from ending up on the pond bottom.

The other way to control the nutrients is to have other plants in the pond that will also use the nutrients.The plants that do this best are the oxygenating plants and grasses. There are many different types of these, but the most common you will see used are anacharis, cabomba, and hornwort. These plants donít put out much of a root system so they take up most of their nutrients directly from the water through their leaves. Because of their relative lack of roots, they are also the easiest to plant. "Planting" for these things is really anchoring them to the bottom of the pond. I just tie a small rock to a bunch and drop it in the pond. You can stick them under a brick or another plant pot. For a good balance in your pond, you need at least 1 bunch of these plants for every 2 square feet of surface area. Theyíre not expensive and are your best bet against pea soup water, so splurge. They're also one of the favorite foods of your fish, so put them in a container or a fenced off section of your pond using netting. Let the fish eat whatever gets through the container or net. Controlling sunlight is just as easy but takes a few different methods, depending on the season. In the spring, there is not much in the way of higher plant life and the algae will be the first to take advantage of all that spring sun. When it thickens to pea soup, it will also slow down the emergence of your other plants by keeping the sunlight from them. In new ponds and occasionally with established ponds, I will recommend using a vegetable dye in your water. It does the same thing as the tinting on your car windows, except that it is natural and short lived. It will color your water a dark blue-green and will last for about 3 weeks until your other plants are strong enough to do the job. It will also color your rocks a bit, but that color will also go away shortly after your water clears. Your fish wonít notice any differenceÖ

Another way to control algae is to use plants whose leaves float on the water to block sunlight. The most popular of these in your pond are the water lilies. They come in 2 basic forms, tropical and hardy. Iím not going to get into much about specific names since you could be here a week just on the hardy varieties and your ISP would probably like the line back at some time. I'm also going to describe them in pretty general terms because the growers and hybridizers are constantly changing things on us. Itís in picking out your plants that the catalogs come in REAL handy so be sure to visit my Library page and order them. The best pictures are in the Lilyponds and Van Ness catalogs, but the assortment is more varied in some of the others.

Hardys are just that, hardy in most zones in the U.S. and Canada. If youíre a guy, like me, the hardys come in 5 basic colors, white, pink, red, yellow, and changeable, usually from a cream white to a pink, red or "autumn" color (Guys may think of it as orange, but many catalogs call it "autumn" or "sunset".). Hey, most guys only know the colors in the Crayola 16 box. Blooms may start to appear here in north Texas, on the border of zones 7 and 8, from the end of April and quit at frost. (Your conditions may vary... Sorry northern Manitoba) Each flower lasts about 3 days, and will start opening around 8 or 9 in the morning and close each day around 4:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon. The flowers of most hardys sit right on the surface of the water, though a few stand proud by as much as 6 inches. Some may be freely flowering all year and others may have as few as one flower at a time. Most normal sized plants will have 2 to 5 flowers during the peak season in July and early August. The leaves, or pads can be colored from light to dark green with some varieties having mottled leaves. You can get hardy lilies in pygmy, small, medium and large sizes. Except for the pygmy, the size typically refers to the growth spread of the plant, not the size of the blooms, although they frequently go together. The pygmy, though, is tiny in spread and and flowers an pads not much larger than a half dollar. Some of my favorites here are Sumptuosa (red), Colorado "autumn", and Joey Tomocik (yellow). You can usually tell a hardy by its growth in that they grow from a tuber like a Louisiana iris. And some can grow at a "vigorous" rate producing as much as a foot of tuber in a year! Your water lilies will be "planted" from 8 to 16 inches below the water. Hardys need at least 4 hours of direct sunlight to do well, and can survive in full sun all day. All my plants get full sun from sunup to sundown.

The tropicals have many of the same general characteristics as hardys. They also come in a couple of additional colors, blue and purple. Most tropicals have their flowers proud of the water. They also tend to be more strongly scented than the hardys. An additional type of tropical is the night-blooming varieties. These open about 9:00 to 10:00 each night and stay open until about 10:00 the next morning. Night bloomers, so far, come in red, white, and pink. A tropical lily grows from a corm or "bulb" that looks like a pine cone. They can reproduce by producing more corms or viviporously. That is when a new plant starts to grow at the junction of the pad and itís stem. I have seen one plant with several "babies" still attached and the babies also blooming! The problem with tropicals is that they are not as tolerant of our winter weather, but the larger,showier blooms are worth it. I will get into that a little later on if I have time to do winterizing. If not, we will have to see about a late summer seminar on repotting and winterizing. Tropicals do best with at least 6 hours of full sun and planted 12 to 16 inches under water. In these, I'm pretty partial to Albert Greenberg (the flower, I'm married). A†pot of tropical Albert Greenberg next to a pot of a hardy Joey Tomocik is a tough combination to beat.

A balanced pond will be covered from 50% to 75% with lilies and other floating plants. When weíre talking about lilies, it is best to buy "named" varieties since the growth habits are so varied. If you buy a named variety like Joey Tomocik, you know what youíre getting as far as habit, large flowers standing above the water, versus buying "yellow", which could be anything. You can get some good buys this way if you are willing to take what comesÖ You can go deeper or shallower with both hardy and tropical lilies, but they will not be as freely blooming deeper, and are susceptible to sun damage shallower.

Bog plants are another category of water plant. These plants live in the shallows of your pond, remember the plant shelves that you didn't put in, and the plastic stands and boards that you did use? There are dozens of different varieties of these things. They come in both hardy and tropical varieties. I donít have a lot of pictures of these. Again, this is where your catalogs come in handy in early spring. They're plants that love water, from having their roots under water to having the whole plant as much as 3 inches under water. They also take varying degrees of sunlight from full sun to heavy shade. When you think of bog plants, you think of things you have seen growing beside lakes and streams. Among these are cattails, horsetail, and rushes. Many of your house and garden plants will also grow as bog plants. Many iris varieties will love a wet environment. Umbrella palms, cannas, caladiums, spider lilies, lobelia, some of the palms, all will grow in water, and perhaps better than in your pot in your house or in your dry garden. A few you might not have heard of are papyrus, taro, arrowhead, lizard tail, sagittaria, pickerel plant, flags, thereís even a water hybiscus. They grow from a foot or so, to some over 8 feet tall. Some have dwarf and miniature varieties. Some flower, some don't. You use your bog plants to frame your pond, bracket different pond features, or serve as a backdrop for your waterlilies. Some bog plants are very unusual. The thalia is a plant with spear head shaped leaves that stand 18 to 24 inches high. Then it sends a flower spike up to 6 feet in the air that has a tassel of small dense purple flowers. Whatís really neat is that the flower spike REALLY withstands high winds!!! Some other bog plants have leaves and flowers that sit right on the water. Some of these are mosaic, water poppy, snowflake, and water clover. Again, this is where a good catalog comes in.

Another type of bog plant is the lotus. This plant also has a long history. A lotus sends both leaves and flowers above the water. You can get miniatures that are only a foot or so high to the Indian that is over 8 feet high with sizes in between. They come in white, red, yellow, and pink.

Lastly, are the floaters. If you live in a state on the bottom coast, most of these plants are illegal because the weather does not get cold enough to kill them and they will take over. But youíll see them and you might have a little bird deliver some to you, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. These are water hyacinths and water lettuce. The plants float on the water and the roots hang down like a ponytail below. You donít see much of the lettuce, so Iíll skip that. The hyacinths may have a spike of purple flowers, but are not real easy to get to bloom here in N. Texas for some reason. The plants reproduce like crazy, which is why theyíre illegal here. Why most people have them is that they are a great water filter. There are some municipalities that are using them to treat sewage. They get drinkable water just running raw sewage slowly through 4 or 5 different tanks full of them. They then use the hyacinths as cattle fodder. ĎNuff said.

When you buy any of your plants, itís best to buy them that have been in the pot for at least a year. These will perform best for you from the get-go. If you have to pot it yourself, be prepared to wait until next year for the plant to be at its' best. For water plants, the pots are wide and shallow compared to dry land pots. Pot them in the worst dirt you can find. Clay-gumbo is just the ticket! DONíT USE COMMERCIAL POTTING SOIL, IT FLOATS!!! The dirt will stop about 2 inches from the edge of the pot and a layer of stones/gravel will go on top of that to keep your fish from digging in it. Your flowering plants need to be fed if you want them to perform for you. You feed them using plant tabs. I feed hardy lilies once a month from April to September, 2 tabs for every gallon of soil. Tropicals and lotus get 2 tabs per gallon twice a month. Your bog plants can get by with one tab a gallon at the beginning of the summer unless they are heavy bloomers, after all, we want them to help with the algae problem. The tabs I refer to here are not the 3 month, slow release things. They're OK, I just haven't figured out a good cycle for them. If you are in the far south, you might think about repotting your plants every year like is referred to in the March '97 issue of Water Gardening Magazine. Perry Slocum has a good article there pn his methods.

These are usually goldfish and koi. Iím not a fish expert, but I can give you a start. Iím going to give you a warning that only half of you will heed.Itís not your fault, you wonít be able to help it, and then the person you help probably wonít listen, and theyíll do it too. Heck, I did it. Donít add fish to your pond until itís been sitting with plants in it for at least 2 weeks. If you do, all of your fish will probably go fins up. In Tulsa, you could add goldfish as youíre filling up the pond and they couldnít care. The water in most areas will not let you do that. Next, only add half the fish you think you want the first year. They WILL breed and you will have many more fish next year than you want. Start out with fish at least 3 to 4 inches. As fish grow, they will change color on you. Donít overstock your pond. The more fish you have, the more waste you will have and the harder you will have to fight algae. 1 to 2 inches of fish for every 5 gallons of water is sufficient. They wonít outgrow your pond, so donít worry. Goldfish and koi release a hormone into the water that controls their growth. When it reaches a certain concentration, they quit growing and spawning. Not everyone feeds their fish. Thatís OK, they will just eat on the plants and algae in the pond. If you do feed your fish, donít feed them anymore than they will eat in 5 minutes, scooping out anything left after that. Also, every pond owner should have a book on koi so that they can identify and treat diseases. A good koi book will also help you to figure out what variety you want to buy. I currently use the Tetra Book of Koi, which provided the picture above. It's a pretty good starter book and I†recommend it to anyone who has either goldfish or koi.

Koi, or colored carp, are named basically using the Japanese words for their colors. They are solids or combinations of usually red, yellow, white, and black. A few also have blue on them. You can tell a koi from a goldfish by the little barbels or whiskers that a koi has at the corners of its mouth. They are also flatter on their bottom sides than goldfish which is more symmetrical in shape. Koi in a pond have a bad reputation about digging up your plants. This is mainly true if you introduce big fish to an established pond. If you start with smaller fish, 8 inches or less, they will have more trouble digging thru the gravel you have on your pots and will learn that they aren't getting anywhere and will quit doing it. And they usually won't try much anymore. It also helps to use larger pots for your plants. Small pots are easier for your fish to push the pots over, which they can't do with the large pots. As I†said before, I†am not a fish expert. I†specialize in design and construction of water gardens and can help with plants. If you need more information, and who doesn't, there are a bunch of great koi related web sites listed on my links page.

Winterizing your plants is pretty easy if you are in zones 7 or greater. That is, it is easy if your pond is in-ground and deep enough. A†pond at least 2.5 feet deep will allow you to winter over most of your plants on the bottom of the pond. Many tropical plants such as tropical water lilies and umbrella plants will do just fine if placed on the bottom when air temps are about 40 degrees. I†trim off the tops and drop them down until night air temps get back up to the high 40's or so in the spring. You will occasionally lose one or 2, especially in a hard winter, but it is much better than always treating them as annuals. There are many methods of winterizing your tropical lilies, usually requiring digging up the plant, but they seem to be just as iffy as leaving them potted. If you're in more northern zones, you will need to stick with hardy plants, or plan on bringing them in over the winter. Even in southern zones, you can bring in your plants to get a nice green kick start. I†brought in several plants this winter. They lived in the guest room in a cheap 6 foot kiddie pool, much to the chagrin of SWMBO. I†will be the first one on the block with my cannas in bloom!!! Unfortunately, I†SWMBO has said that there will be no repeat next winter...

Winterizing your fish is pretty easy. You quit feeding them when the water temperature gets below 50 degrees. Actually, you need to quit a few days before the water gets to 50 degrees by watching the weather. See, fish don't have much of a digestive system. At low temperatures, it quits working and any food they eat will just sit there and rot, which of course, will kill them! Here in N. Texas, we get long warm spells where the water temps get high enough to feed. When that happens, I†feed them low protien foods. They are particularly fond of crushed Cheerios and previously frozen (thawed) peas. Just quit feeding a few days before the next Canadian blast hits. The other thing they need is an air space. If the pond freezes over, they need a gap in the water for the pond gasses to escape. This is done by using an air pump to agitate the water in a section. You can also leave your pump running, just move it close to the surface.

Many of the pictures on this page are from the catalogs of Lilyponds Water Gardens 800-999-5459, "Water Gardening Water Lilies and Lotuses" by Perry Slocum and Peter Robinson, Paradise Water Gardens 617-447-4711. Lilyponds and Paradise have great catalogs and I†highly recommend dealing with them. Also, if you already have a pond, I†recommend picking up a copy of the "Water Gardening Water Lilies and Lotuses"†book. It's a wonderful book crammed with some great information.

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Chuck Rush