PONDS FOR LIFE
How many kids do you know, of all ages, who are fascinated by water? What is it about a garden pond which acts like such a magnet for inquisitive young minds? Have you ever dipped a net into a pool, dragged it out and been amazed by the wriggling creatures amongst mud, weeds and sludge? There’s a mystery about the watery world which hooked me as a boy and has never gone away. From toddlers with tiddlers in jam-jars to grown men sitting on river banks, yanking fish out of the drink on hooks, I suspect that this sense of wonder is something which many of us share.
Clean water throbs and heaves with life. What our naked eyes see is just a fraction of what’s really going on down below. A microscope would reveal more. In the garden, a pond is nothing but an asset to the bigger environmental picture. Ponds are a drinking hole for birds and mammals, attract masses of insects which in turn feed birds, frogs and others. Some dragonflies are quite spectacular in colour and, fear not, perfectly harmless to the human observer. The surface of a pond is actually an elastic film which is home to some amazing animals. Certain beetles and insects actually slip-slide and skate across this natural trampoline and feed on those poor unfortunates who crash-land and get stuck. Lots have snorkel-like breathing tubes which allow them to do their thing underwater but still breath fresh air. Honestly, the more you learn the more you realise how little you really know!
Garden ponds are rich in what we call ‘biodiversity’, a word which simply describes the whole of life on earth. Biodiversity includes every plant, animal and micro-organism on the planet, including people. The United Nations has declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity in an effort to celebrate what we share and encourage conservation of the natural world. If you feel moved into positive action then making a pond on your home turf is a great thing to do. It can be as simple as filling an old bucket with rain water and seeing how life within evolves. I’ve done this with a cattle-drinking trough in our garden and its home to all sorts of wildlife. As an adult, I crouch and stare for ages. Kids could be encouraged to find out the names of things as they arrive, keep a wildlife notebook or diary, to open their inquisitive minds and eyes.
Allowing plants and animals to find your pond by themselves requires patience. A short-cut is to introduce plants from neighbouring ponds. Water that arrives with the plants will be a soup full of minute creatures and kick-start biodiversity in your pond. But beware – some plants can be very invasive. The water fern, or Azolla, is one of these invasive plants. It floats on the surface as small, single, fleshy, fern-like leaves which turn a shocking red in summer. Azolla leaves divide and double in size every 4 to 5 days. In no time they swamp the surface, exclude sunlight and choke the life out of most other species. Azolla spreads naturally on the legs and feathers of birds like ducks, as they move from one pond to another. Unwitting gardeners can accidentally move it too so beware.
However, Azolla is full of nitrogen, which helps green plants thrive. A friend of mine scoops it regularly from her pond and spreads it amongst the vegetables. As the Azolla rots down you should see those beauties grow!
Copyright, Joe Hashman May 2010