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Add music and color to your backyard with watergardens — yes, in Arizona

One of more than a dozen watergardens at Gail Barnhill’s home in Tucson

For years, I’d longed for a gurgling watergarden pond brimming with blooming waterlilies, frolicking goldfish and darting dragon and damselflies but had no idea how to go about it.

Fourteen years ago I finally had it with the “wishing and hoping” and bought a 300-gallon Rubbermaid stock tank, dug a (big) hole, stuck the tank in it, filled it with water, plants and fish and much to my surprise — it thrived!

I enjoyed it so much that four years later I founded The Tucson Watergardeners, a garden club dedicated to educating the public (and each other) about our favorite “water sport.” In the 10 years since, I’ve learned much more and have built 12 more watergardens ranging from 1 gallon to 1,500 gallons. If you’d like to experience the joy of watergardening, here are two key considerations and lots of tips:

• Put the watergarden where you’ll enjoy it most, but try to avoid too much shade or tree debris, and especially electric, gas and water lines — contact Arizona Blue Stake, Inc., at 1-800-STAKEIT first!

• Unless you want to just dabble with the idea to get your feet wet, so to speak, build a watergarden larger than you think you want. Believe me, even the biggest watergarden gets small when you start filling it with all those “must have” waterlilies and fishies — otherwise you’ll end up with 14 watergardens like I did!

Watergardens can be constructed in many ways:

Preformed liners — basically, you dig a hole the shape of the liner and plop the liner in. Beware of those with shallow shelves as they can cause stagnant areas that are algae prone;

Flexible liners — the most common are EPDM by Firestone (more flexible, heavier, perhaps more puncture prone) and PPL24 (less flexible, lighter, said to be more puncture resistant) that you drape into a predug hole (lined with sand, old carpet, etc.);

Construction block or brick — will need a flexible liner inside;

Large decorative pots — seal the drainhole and paint the inside with several coats of black exterior latex paint if not glazed (you can also use an oak barrel with a liner);

Poured concrete — unless you have experience, best done by a professional.

I’ve built (by myself) all of the above, except poured concrete, which I’ll definitely use to build the lake/watergarden — when I win the lottery! You can even convert an unused swimming pool into a watergarden, but that’s another method that’s best left to professionals.

Other things you’ll need to think about:

• A pump to make your pond “sing”: Pumps are rated with GPH (gallons per hour). At minimum, you should turn over the gallonage in your pond at least once an hour so a 1,000-gallon pond should have a 1,000 GHP pump. I prefer a pump at least twice the GPH as your volume of water, as each bend or turn in the tubing from the pump and each foot of height it needs to push the water through decreases the effective GPH. Plus a stronger pump gives you the ability to add other water features to your watergarden such as spouts and brimming pots.

• It is best to have a filter with a pond over 100 gallons or so — or if you are a glutton for every cute fish that needs a home. The best is a biofilter, which is basically a container outside of or incorporated into the watergarden (mine is the top tier of a three-tier pond), which is filled with a filtering medium that the water from the pump will flow through before returning to the main pond. This medium sets up macrobiotic colonies that cleanse the water. The filtering medium can be anything that creates a lot of surface area: pea gravel (cheap, heavy and needs frequent cleaning); lava rock (cheap, sharp but needs less cleaning); “bio-balls” (expensive … never tried them); and my favorite, shaved PVC (yes, from PVC pipe) contained in a net lingerie bag (relatively expensive but lightweight, only needs cleaning every couple of years). Actually, you could use a bunch of excess hair curlers … the idea is to have a lot of surface space in which the microbes can set up housekeeping. In-pond filters are usually much less effective, difficult to reach and need frequent cleaning.

Plants — besides waterlilies, which are magnificent, there is a wide variety of tall and short, exotic or grassy-leaved and free-floating plants with which to fill your watergarden (or, if you’re not careful — overfill, thus requiring another pond).

Fish are mesmerizing to watch gliding around your watergarden — they are like moving jewels! But think about the “rule of fish”: 1 inch of fish for each square foot of water surface. Try goldfish, which are easy to keep in a watergarden, are cheap (12 for $1 feeder goldfish that grow to 6 or 8 inches and are quite colorful) but avoid the short- bodied goldfish, which aren’t as hardy; Shubunkins (basically multicolored goldfish); even guppies (though they are less cold hardy); and a must-have, mosquito fish (gambusia). Even though they are the most beautiful, beware of Koi. From personal experience I can tell you they can quickly grow to 27 inches and 10 pounds in a few short years, are very destructive to waterplants and create a lot of waste. With an appropriate number of goldfish, they don’t even have to be fed because they’ll feast on pond “critters”/larva and algae. Avoid naming your fish … the Great Blue Heron resides and dines all over Tucson (remember those 10-pound Koi I used to have?).

Algae — you are guaranteed to have an annual algae bloom. It’s Mother Nature telling you spring is coming so celebrate it! There are many types of algae: What is called “side slime algae” is that which covers the sides of your pond, any pots (or rocks) and is a good algae as it provides 60 percent of the oxygen to your pond; algae that is disliked (I won’t call it “bad”) is either “green water” algae that prevents you from seeing down into your water or “string/hair algae,” which, when scooped out of the pond and wrung out looks like green string or hair. To prevent these types of algae, 60 to 70 percent of your water surface should be shaded by pond plants (or terrestrial plantings), and fish waste or plant debris should be kept to a minimum. The two things algae crave are sunlight and nutrients. Do not use chemicals or drain your pond to get rid of algae — all you’d be doing is creating an environment with fresh nutrients (from the water) to start the cycle over again. Over six weeks to six months, a new pond will “balance” itself, provided you haven’t overloaded it with fish, or underplanted it. Fall/winter is a great (cool) time to dig holes for ponds as the pond can establish itself over the cool months and have less of an algae bloom in spring. A word about non-waterplant shading: if you shade your watergarden with a cover or trees to prevent algae, you are also stunting the growth of waterplants that would naturally prevent algae.

• Mosquitos — They love stagnant water (another plus to having a pump and running, musical water). While goldfish will eat some mosquito larva, the aforementioned mosquito fish will eat much more. As an added precaution I also use Mosquito Dunks — which are a natural “Bti.” (Bacillus thuringienis ssp. Israelensis) that affect only mosquito larvae, killing them before they can hatch and bite. They resemble mini two-inch donuts or bagels, and can also be broken up for smaller areas such as pot saucers.

• RELAX — and enjoy your watergarden! I’ve gardened in Tucson for 32 years, have an English country garden in my back yard, a native garden in my front yard — and all 14 of my watergardens put together require much less work to maintain than the rest of my gardens! I’ve often said my garden is the music of my life … and the watergardens are the melody.

To learn more about watergardening, visit tucsonwatergardeners.org for photos, events (our plant sale in May is the best/cheapest source of waterplants in Tucson), tours (every September — “see before trying,” get ideas visiting local homeowners’ watergardens), free meetings, plant exchanges and articles. If you still have questions, give me a call (296-1074) or e-mail me by clicking on “questions” at the bottom of the website.

Gail M. Barnhill, aka “The Pond Lady,” is an executive assistant at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

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