Valerie with bottle of fertilizer.

by Stan Cutler

Valerie, my wife, views the annual departure of the frogs as a personal insult. Every summer, over the past five years, she brought a few tadpoles home from the pet store and put them in the pond. She watched through Summer and Fall as their tails shrank and their bodies swelled; waited through winter as they slept in the muck at the bottom of the pond. Every spring, she was thrilled to catch quick glimpses of new frogs hiding in the pond plants.  And every year the ungrateful little amphibians depart for parts unknown. Valerie takes this personally.  

We don’t get enough sunlight. Frogs need the sun’s energy to warm their blood. The plants that attract the insects that sustain the frogs need sunlight.  The two mature, red maples that canopy the patio also overhang the pond. Valerie adores those trees, each with multiple gray trunks that rise from the earth like muscles. The heavy layer of leaves above changes color slowly through the seasons, from brilliant scarlet to deep red to green and finally to a dark rusty hue before they drop. Contemplating pruning, she studies each limb, hoping to find the ones she can remove to help the pond while doing no harm to the trees. She may have given up on the frog idea. I’ll let you know next October.

The toads do much better. Valerie likes the toads because they eat garden slugs. In early spring, the little brown lumps come out of their winter burrows and dive into the pond. The pond gets a lot of sun in April and May because the maples have yet to leaf out. The toads sing about their discovery of water deep enough, warm enough and still enough to satisfy their needs. By the time they climb out of the pond, the most successful couples, whose sex lives were a delight to behold, have deposited thin, meter-long gelatinous strands of albumen stitched with tiny black eggs.  Black tadpoles, hardly bigger than sand grains, emerge from the eggs in about a week. At first, there are hundreds of them. By August most are gone, dead from insufficient sunlight or eaten by the goldfish. Whether any mature enough to become land-living toads is doubtful. We do have toads in the garden, but we don’t know whether any of them were born in the pond.

Some of the goldfish were. We started with four, now we have a stable population of fifteen. The pond is too small to sustain more. Most of the fish are just a couple of inches long. The matriarch is about four inches. If we overfeed the fish, which are sustained primarily by algae and insect eggs, we would have to feed them more, then more and more as they grew larger. I throw a few pinches of dried pet store feed onto the surface, perhaps once a week, as a supplement. The fish devour it in minutes, then go back to slow cruising through the plant roots, nibbling at the algae.  

 You have to filter pond water and keep it moving, otherwise you risk mosquitos and algae overgrowth. When you decide you want a pond, you have to figure out the kind of pump system you want. We use a very small submersible pump that operates inside a plastic box that has a perforated top and two layers of foam filters inside. A tube connects the pump to the fountain.  A couple of times each Summer, after the fountain spout has diminished to a trickle, I turn off the electrical circuit that drives the pump and carefully haul the box up from the bottom for cleaning. There is a huge bonus associated with this chore. I squeeze out the dark brown sludge in the filters into a bucket that’s half-full with the water from the box. The gunk doesn’t smell bad, almost odorless, because it isn’t decayed. Then I transfer the bucketful to plastic jugs. I harvest more than enough plant food to feed Valerie’s orchids and houseplants for many months. Because she keeps hundreds of green things alive through the winters, she needs a lot of fish poop.

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