Valerie at our backyard pond.

By Stan Cutler

The disappearance of marshland is a terrible consequence of human devastation. Homo sapiens is the virus, mother earth is our victim. If you get off the AC expressway at the Ventnor exit, the road takes you through the salty shallows behind Absecon Island, a pathetic remnant of an ecosystem. Valerie looks forward to that last stretch of a trip to the beach. She was raised near Detroit, spent her childhood summers at a house on Lake Huron. For her, the Jersey Shore experience rarely equals her childhood memories. But she does love the fields of tall salt grass we pass on the final stretch. The little white herons scavenging in the green expanse make her smile.

There used to be a pond supply shop in Glenside. Even in the days when we lived in Germantown, years before we dug the pond in Chestnut Hill, Valerie would visit the eccentric store every Spring. She was determined that someday she would have a pond. She’s happy with the one we have now, the fourth iteration in our garden, each a little bigger than the previous.  The current version is vaguely shaped like an eight, ten-feet long, five-feet wide at the waist, three-and-a-half-feet deep at the low point.  She’s finally satisfied because the sides are tiered, with shelves on which she sets pots of plants that grow in shallow water. To her great delight, many of them produce flowers, like the iris pseudacorus on the left side of the picture.

One Spring, I think it was about six months after we moved into the Highland Avenue house, I went with her to the pond supply store and found the bronze fountain sculpture of a leaping Siamese fighting fish. We didn’t have a pond, but I wanted that little statue. Valerie encouraged me to buy it for around twenty-five dollars. My very own bronze statue! It doesn’t have a foundry mark, but I’ve always assumed that it was made in southeast Asia, probably Thailand. It is, after all, a Siamese fish.

Our first version of a pond was a black plastic tray, a little bigger than a litter box, the kind you use to mix cement. I bought a little submersible pump and some tubing to connect the pump to the fish’s tail pipe and aimed it so that it spit water back into the tray. Cute. I had a lot to learn – about ponds and about Valerie.

First, I learned that it’s well worth the effort required to install a feature of your garden that rewards the senses and attracts wildlife.  If you don’t have a lot of rocks in the ground, you can dig one the size of ours in a day. All you need is a shovel. This fourth version of our pond is lined with butyl rubber sheet over a sheet of that wooly stuff that you put under carpets. Our second and third ponds didn’t have anything between heavy black plastic and dirt walls. No good. Spend a little more for the butyl rubber instead of plastic and take the extra time to put the underlayment between the rubber and the dirt to prevent roots and pebbles from poking holes. Make sure you leave at least a foot of rubber above the pond to make a rim on the ground. That’s important because the water will escape at the lowest point of the rim. If you have enough material around the rim you can build up the low spots by piling dirt or sand under the rubber.

Different plants like to be at different depths, so the shelves vary from ten-inches to three-inches below the surface. In the picture, Valerie is kneeling by the shallowest shelf. A great variety of plants thrive in just a few inches of water.  The stone under the bronze fish is perched on a six-inch high metal stand placed on the deepest shelf.

Valerie wanted the pond to be deep enough for a water lily plant. You have to shovel a lot of dirt to get that deep. The lily pads at the far end in the picture are attached to the root system of a single plant on stems that like to be at least three feet long.  Water lily blossoms, if your plant likes your pond, are stunning. She would like a lotus plant, too. But I only made one area of the bottom deep enough, and that’s where the water lily lives.  I told her she can’t have everything. “Who says?” she replied.

Next week: Frogs, toads and fish

Stan Cutler is a local novelist, gardener’s helper and volunteer for the Friends of the Chestnut Hill Library.

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