Dressing for success

I didn’t exactly find a wet suit under the Christmas tree but, rather, a set of dive booties and a box containing a picture of a wet suit. I knew this signified Steve had shopped around and found a place we could buy me some gear that would help me work in the pond in winter.

The booties

So a week after Boxing Day we drove to the South Coast Surf Shop, a block north of Crystal Pier. A friendly sales guy directed me to the O’Neill wet suit Steve had earlier targeted, and I wriggled into one. I’ve owned a wet suit before, decades ago when we were playing around with scuba diving. Mercifully, the O’Neill was not quite as bulky and awkward to get into, but rather a thinner variety (3/2 mm) of the sort favored by surfers. That salesman assured us it should allow me to comfortably spend an hour or two in the wintry water.

It was raining that morning, as it has so often in the past few weeks. That’s been disastrous for many Californians, but the parade of storms hasn’t walloped San Diego too hard (yet). In fact, the rains have been wonderful for us. Early in December Steve figured out a way to channel all the rain from our main roof directly into the pond. We have that roof connected to a 55-gallon rain barrel, but more than 10 times that amount can run off our roof in a good storm. Rather than waiting until after a storm and then tapping the water in the barrel, Steve connected a garden hose to the barrel at the start of the first storm to capture all the flow throughout it. By the end of December, the pond was full to the point of overflowing (except that it has an overflow drain to prevent that from happening.)

We got a break from the rain last weekend, and the sun shone brightly — a perfect day to test out the new gear. Santa also had given me an inflatable chair I hoped would be a better work platform than the blow-up raft I got last spring. To complete my rig, Steve figured out a way to hang a scissors around my neck, which we hoped could prevent me from losing them.

I won’t lie. When I gingerly stepped down from the former swimming pool stairs, I gasped. But I reminded myself that any woman who can plunge into the Baltic Sea in October should be able to handle 60 degrees in sunny Southern California.

Indeed, within minutes I was reasonably comfortable and able to concentrate on cleaning up the flora while Steve toiled at using a long net to scoop out some of the gunk that accumulates at the bottom of the pond.

I learned some things as I worked. In the shallow end, the chair turned out to be more trouble than just standing, but in the deeper water, it worked better than the raft. I’m still figuring out the best thing to do with the detritus I collect. On this foray, it turned out to be easier just to make my way over to the side and dump it there, rather than trying to stuff it into a portable bag. What ultimately drove me out of the water was my fingers, which tend to lose circulation and turn white under the best of conditions. But they were okay for about an hour. Gloves might help in the future, but I’m afraid they would impair my ability to feel what I’m pruning and gathering.

So I consider this experience a success. I removed a lot of the worst decay and algae, and within days the water looked much more clear.

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I’ll happily don my suit and repeat the exercise on another warm, sunny day. We may have to wait a while for one of those, however.

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The winter pond

Our experiments in Ignoring the Pond continue. It looked great for a few weeks after I ventured into the water and did some cleanup on that hot day in early November. In the clearer water that flowed on succeeding days, the fish seemed exuberant in their abundance. But fewer water lily blooms were appearing, a portent.

As we moved past Thanksgiving, the plants looked more and more listless. Our pond mentor, David Curtright, assured us we need not take the lilies out of the water. All “semi-hardy” varieties, they could survive submerged in their pots. But any signs of their presence would gradually disappear until the water warmed up in the spring, when they would begin to grow and bloom again. David stopped by in early December to install new water hawthorns, the lovely flowering plants that enchanted visitors to our water garden throughout last spring. They continued to look great until the beginning of summer, when we pulled their five pots out of the pond and stored the bulbs in a bag of damp mulch.

On December 2, we dumped those out of their bag under David’s supervision and were disappointed to find no sign of roots on three of the five bulbs. We’d have to toss them, David advised, unsure of why they hadn’t made it. Out in his truck, he repotted the two survivors, along with three other bulbs from his nursery.

Valiant as always, he slipped into the cold water to position the new pots. (I forgot to take his picture doing this.) Water hawthorns don’t grow as vigorously as lilies, but they again surprised me (as they did last year). Just a week after David’s visit, one or two already were approaching the surface.

Like this one.

As they insinuated their way skyward, the plants around the hawthorns continued to decay. Christmas and the New Year were barreling toward us, and the water in the pond had dropped to around 60 degrees — too cold for me to brave, even if I’d had the time. And I rather enjoyed the genteel degeneration, the shriveled foliage somehow emblematic of the death of another year.

Only when we’d gotten through New Year’s Day, breathed deeply, and taken a good look at the pond was it clear some action was essential.

Not a single lily bloom remained, just brown and moldering pads. The pickerel beds that in early November had looked like this:

…by last week were a jumble of brown broken stems.

Dense green string algae choked most of the beds and snaked out into the clear areas.

The water hawthorns were thriving, but you could almost overlook them amidst their messy surroundings.

Happily, I have a new tool in my water-garden arsenal. In my next post I’ll report on what it was like to wiggle into it and get into the water.

Winter is coming (and autumn is here)

I haven’t written anything about the pond for more than two months, not because nothing has been happening. In a way, we were testing one of the most immediate questions we had two years ago, when we first considered turning our swimming pool into a pond: would doing so limit our ability to travel? (a high priority for us at the moment.) Steve and I left September 7 on some extended adventures — a family wedding in Ohio, followed by a three-week trip to Europe, followed by a road trip that included our son’s wedding in Reno and quick visit to Yosemite. For five weeks, the pond was on autopilot. And when we finished stowing away the suitcases and took a long look, the fish and plants clearly had survived. This is what it looked like October 20.

Things have deteriorated more since then, due not so much to neglect but rather to the changing of the seasons. From the high-70s, the water temperature now is nearing the mid-60s. I still haven’t gotten a wetsuit (as I intend to do), so it’s been hard to get into the water. Beds that were resplendent just a few weeks ago now look bedraggled, and a murky green algae has begun twisting its way through some of them.

Wearing a long-sleeve t-shirt and my jeans, I did wade in one day recently to do as much cleanup as I could, but all too soon my fingers began turning white from the cold.

Nature inflicted other insults. I took our puppy out one recent morning, and he went crazy sniffing something around the pond edge. It soon became clear that a raccoon had visited during the night and apparently thrashed around in some of the plantings, looking for snails or worms or whatever else he thought might be tasty. Our “bog” looked particularly beat up. (It may be hard to see in the photo below, but many of the plants looked flattened and shredded.)

The recent wind and rainstorms also haven’t been kind. Twice my pot of dwarf papyrus was blown off its shelf. I could just barely see it sitting on the bottom in the shallow end (where it had to be fished out in order to survive.)

Two of our water lilies have now shrunk to having just a few pads on the surface (the small red more distant ones and the closer green ones the photo below.) Soon, those will disappear altogether, according to our pond mentor, David Curtright. He says that’s their normal response to the falling water and air temperatures.

Happily, David stopped by yesterday and gave us advise about clean-up we can do in the next week or two. When he returns in about three weeks, he’ll help us further prepare for the winter.

In the meantime, I’m still savoring the sight of the pond, even if it has the decadent look of a maple in the fall.

It’s been almost exactly one year since the workers first showed up to start the transformation. Life in our backyard has been much more interesting since.

An unexpected pleasure

I’ve been waiting for the kind of weather we got this past weekend — muggy heat so oppressive it would make anyone with a swimming pool want to spend all day in it. Heat that would be the ultimate test of whether Steve and I blew it when we turned our pool into a pond.

Now I can report: the pond passed the test. Saturday I grabbed my new mask and snorkel, climbed in the water, and spent a full hour there. That’s a lot more time than I used to spend in the dog days of past summers, when my dips lasted no more than 10 or 15 minutes max.

Back then the water was often near 90 — what I thought was my ideal. Now the pond has been hovering in the 80- to 82-degree range. I don’t understand why, but I’ve found it no harder to climb into — and far easier to hang out in.

My new mask and snorkel make a huge difference. I first tried them out a few weeks ago and was dazzled by the experience. I’m entranced by the shift in perspective from looking at the plants and fish underwater, rather than from the surface. I float and move lazily from one section of the pond to another, and time slows down.

A couple of weeks ago, our pond consultant David Curtright came by and repotted two of the water lilies he originally installed back in March (the varieties known as Attraction and Mangkala Ubol).

When Dave pulled them out it, we could see how their root systems had developed into dense, heavy thickets. Left to their own devices, they would eventually break open their pots. Instead David split the plant mass into a number of sections. He repotted one piece of each plant in new soil amended with his special blend of waterlily-loving fertilizer, then repositioned both pots in the water. He gave us two additional pieces of each to take to contribute to the plant exchange at last month’s water-garden society meeting.

One of the repotted plants (Attraction, in the foreground) is already producing new flowers, and when I’m snorkeling I can see blooms from the Mangkala Ubol approaching the surface too. With this kind of attention, both plants should continue to bloom for at least another month or two, David says.

I’m delighted to report that while spending all the recent time in the pond, I have seen no sign of the dreaded apple snails. Could our young bounty-hunting friend have discovered them all in early August? Time will tell.

What also surprises me is that I don’t feel squeamish at all, even though the water has been a bit murky, I think because of all the heat and plant growth. When I climbed out of the water Saturday, my body was covered with little black things that Steve said looked like leeches.

They’re not leeches, but rather tiny bits of decaying ferns. I find them endearing.

Backyard bounty hunter

We had some family members staying with us last week, including soon-to-be 14-year-old Nicolas, who has spent happy hours in our pool before its reincarnation as a pond. Upon his arrival, I had a brainstorm: maybe Nicolas could help us hunt down the dreaded apple snails, whom we recently learned have invaded our watery paradise. We would pay him a bounty, we announced: a dollar for every egg cluster and every adult snail he found.

Nicolas accepted the challenge and proved to be excellent at the mission. The first day he bagged no less than 7 egg clusters and one fat grownup.

Those are some of the bright pink egg clusters he spotted and removed.
And here’s one of the snails.

We wondered if perhaps he got them all, but the next day, cruising around on the inflatable raft, he eventually snagged another egg cluster. Then he caught a glimpse of something on the bottom of the deep end. He managed to dive down to it and brought up another large adult. A while later he found another.

The next day brought another big haul: 5 snails and 2 egg clusters. But then Nicolas found no more for the remaining days of the visit. When he departed at the end of last week, we owed him $18.

We were happy to pay it. Since then Steve and I have continued to be on the alert. I was alarmed to find these two over the weekend:

But Steve reassured me they were not apple snails. He had also found some and emailed a photo to our pond mentor, David Curtright, who replied they are harmless “rams horn” snails.

It would probably be naive to assume Nicolas got every single apple snail in the water; each of the hundreds of eggs in those clusters are pretty tiny. But we feel encouraged that with some moderate vigilance, we can keep the population under control.

Also encouraging was our first experience with cleaning the bio filter installed by David, through which we’ve been running the pond water all this year. David had warned us we would periodically have to flush it out, but we had no idea if this would be a monthly task or something we’d need to do less often. Steve peered into the tank a few times over the past few months, but everything has looked pretty clean.

We finally decided to try out the cleaning procedures. First Steve removed the basket from the skimmer, knocked out the (fairly minimal) gunk, then gave the basket a good rinse.

He unscrewed the top from the flowmeter and found more brown slime, but this was also easy to rinse clean.

Next he attached a long wide hose to the bottom of the filtering tank, then ran that down to the lower yard, positioning the end under the avocado tree.

Finally he went to open the valve at the top of the tank, the one that was supposed to channel all the water in the tank out the bottom (and through the hose).

That’s when something bad happened: the valve got stuck. Nothing Steve tried could budge it. He texted David for advice and learned too late that he was supposed to turn the pump off before trying to change the valve position.

This actually should have been obvious from the words of warning on the valve handle, but in fairness to Steve, it’s dim in the pump shed.

Happily, Steve was able to remove and repair the recalcitrant handle, reattach it, and with the pump turned off, redirect the water. I captured the following image as it gushed out — looking remarkably pure.

It was a relief. I could almost imagine that keeping the pond water clean might even turn out to be easier than tending to pool water.

Maintenance

A few weeks ago a friend asked with some concern about the maintenance required by the pond. “Are you pretty much out there working on it every day?”

I burst out laughing. It’s not like we’ve done nothing. We’ve tried to follow the advice of our pond mentor, David Curtright, when he has paid one of his occasional visits. We’ve used our net to scoop out string algae when it appeared in the spring (though it’s largely disappeared more recently.) I’ve deadheaded the marsh monkeyflower from time to time. But we’ve done such things every few weeks, not daily.

We’ve got a lot more going on in the pond now, however, and two weeks ago we were looking forward to hosting another meeting of the Water Garden Society. I wanted our pond to look its best, but it needed spiffing up.

Spent blooms were detracting from the ones still glorifying our cannas, and the parrot’s feather around it had grown long and leggy.
The clusters of pickerels called out to be thinned.
Although our water lilies were producing breathtaking flowers, some of the older pads had turned yellow. So on the day before the meeting, I put on my bathing suit and pulled out the inflatable raft I bought online a few weeks ago. (You can see it in the next photo, leaned up against the bench.)

I didn’t need it in the shallow end, where I could walk around easily, snipping off the scruffy stuff. As before on the occasion or two in which I’ve previously entered the pond, the warmth surprised me. It’s been a cloudy summer so far, but the water has reached the low 80s, and somehow it has felt warmer to me than it did in its incarnation as a swimming pool. The thin layer of moss and slime built up on the bottom didn’t repulse me either. Even the fish didn’t bother me, though I yipped occasionally when one nibbled me a bit aggressively.

Beyond the cluster of lilies, the pond bottom slopes downward; the water is about 9 feet in the deepest part. So I climbed aboard my little barge. It’s meant to be lain upon, but I’ve discovered it to be reasonably stable when I sit upright in the middle of it.

Just by paddling my hands gently I can move it where I want to go. I was able to clean up the lilies in the deep end pretty easily.

I did discover one surprise: a snail almost as big as a doorknob clinging to one spot just above the water. It slipped away and tumbled into the depths before I could grab it. But I wondered where in the world it had come from.

I got an answer at the water garden society meeting, when someone spotted a neon pink object on the underside of one of the pickerel leaves. We showed it to David (the group’s president) and he told us it was a cluster of apple-snail eggs.

Up close, it looked a bit like a weirdly shaped raspberry, but it truth it was hundreds of snail eggs.

David identified it as an apple snail, a freshwater mollusk that’s part of the family Ampullariidae and one of the largest snails on the planet. They have a form of both gills and lungs, so they can adjust to changing water levels, surviving both on land and in aquatic environments. Outside their origins in Brazil, they’re bad news in most of the places they’ve spread because they’re such voracious eaters, today threatening rice fields in Southeast Asia, taro plantations in Hawaii — and backyard ponds in Southern California (among other things.) David ruefully said some eggs probably reached our backyard by hitching a ride on lilies he brought us. Now we’re on alert for both the snails and their eggs. Left unchecked, they apparently could utterly decimate our little ecosystem.

We haven’t found any more eggs since then. If we do, we can just toss the whole cluster in the water, where the fish apparently will find them to be delicious. I did spot one of the snails last weekend, however, when I did a bit more cleanup. Steve smashed it, but not until I grabbed my phone and got this photo:

It might look almost beautiful if it weren’t so menacing.

Here be dragons

Early in the spring, I saw a dragonfly next to the pond. We had been warned by some of the other folks who’ve transformed their pools that dragon- and damselflies would show up at some point and we should welcome them. They’re voracious consumers of mosquitos and their larva. So my early sighting delighted me. But I’ve seen no further sign of anything similar until Monday morning. Then this visitor caught my eye.

My photos don’t do justice to his or her electric blue color. Even more eye-popping was this even larger insect comrade:

Resting on the tip of leaves extending out over the water, he or she looked like another exotic blossom.

Because both Mr. Orange and Ms. Blue appeared to be resting with their wings outstretched (rather than folded up behind them), I guess they’re likely to be dragonflies. (That’s based on my 5-minute immersion in the murky waters of Internet Info.) I would love to learn more. I would love to see more. But I’ve only glimpsed them a few times since my Monday sighting.

I’ve also been a bit distracted by developments within the pond’s flora community. Last Sunday afternoon, Steve and I attended the monthly meeting of the San Diego Water Garden Society, and we returned home both with actual plants and some inspiration for other additions. The plants came from the raffle that’s a regular fixture of the meetings. Two of the tickets I purchased were pulled from the bowl, and I chose some water hyacinths…

…along with a lovely pot of “star grass,” a sedge native to the southeastern U.S. Above you see the star grass, sitting on one of the steps in the shallow end. Up close they look like this:

Inspired by some of the other plants we saw in the meeting hosts’ pond, I made a run to Walter Anderson’s Monday and came home with some dwarf papyrus…

…as well as two cannas. I’ve got the tall one with black leaves sitting on one of the stairs:

With the other, I’ve rigged a way to suspend it from the bridge. Steve thinks it clutters up the lines, but I’m hopeful it will soon add to the general lushness.

None of these plants are a big deal, but they’re the very first we’ve acquired and installed on our own. David Curtright, our pond guru, has been tied up with other things recently. We trust he will continue to advise us in the coming months. But if we want eventually to become the master and mistress of our backyard water garden, I figure it’s time we start dipping our own toes into the water.

Steve puts on his big-pond pants

For Christmas, I bought Steve a pair of waders, an item of clothing traditionally associated with fishing. He doesn’t fish, but we knew at some point our pond would require maintenance, and we thought the waders might be useful.

Not long after Christmas, our pond mentor, David Curtright, told us he considers waders to be dangerous. Were they accidentally to fill up with water, the hapless person wearing them in a former swimming pool might drown. So it was with some trepidation that Steve donned the waders for the first time last weekend, with the intention of at least trying them out.

We were impressed that the need for maintenance had taken as long as it did to materialize. When David installed the water hawthorns back in December, he had warned they would deteriorate in the late spring and would have to be pulled out. But by May 12, when Steve and I departed on our travels to Turkey, the hawthorns still looked lovely.

When we got back, the water was delightfully clear, and the water lilies appeared to be flourishing. But four of the five hawthorns looked pretty bedraggled.

David emailed us instructions on how to store them until next winter, so Steve suited up and gingerly lowered himself into the shallow end.

He bent down and immediately realized that getting low enough to pick up the first pot would cause the chilly water to flow in over the top of his outfit. I got the cultivator hoe from the garage, and it proved the perfect tool for hooking the edges of the pots and elevating them enough for Steve to grab them. One by one we hauled them up, then Steve pulled out some of the more battered lily pads and other detritus.

He also repositioned the one pot of hawthorns that still looked pretty good. Then he climbed out and stripped off the waders — revealing all his clothes to be as dry as before he got in. The other four pots of hawthorns are now resting in the shade of our fig tree. Once they’ve wilted down to nothing, we will follow the rest of David’s instructions: clean them and stow them in a bag of lightly dampened peat. Come the fall, they’ll go back in the water, to beautify the pond again throughout the winter and early spring. At least that’s the plan.

Now I couldn’t be happier with the way the pond looks. The three pots of lilies every day give me fresh insights into why people become besotted with them. Even the fish look happy to be sharing their space with such loveliness.

Flora and fauna

This past week brought floral and faunal developments.

Our pond is currently home to three hardy water lilies. Two of the three had already bloomed, but we were waiting for the third, a plant with the delightful name of Detective Erika. Its first flower reached the surface and opened up a few days ago, rewarding us with this starburst of intense purple:

Both the other lilies have also joined the recent celebrations. It’s been a delicious taste of what the summer may bring.

In the bog, other things are blooming, including this shy but pretty thing…

Even the water cress has burst out in frilly delicate white petals.

On the animal side, David Curtright stopped by last Friday to introduce some new members to the fish community: more rosy barbs to join the sole member of that species in the pond. Compared to him (or her) I was surprised by how small the newcomers are.

David released them into their watery paradise. He says they’ll grow.

Since then, I’ve been happy to spot them darting among the established crew. They look energetic. Sometimes two or three of them appeared to be playing a watery form of tag.

It will be interesting to see if they get bigger and more aggressive as time goes by. We’ll miss any early action. Steve and I are taking off for Turkey today; I’ll be reporting on our travels in my travel blog (athomeandabroad.net). While we’re gone, I’m expecting the pond to entertain our houseguests. There should be much to look forward to upon our return.

Ichthyology

My relationship with the piscine members of our pond community is developing. I try to feed them every afternoon, and as friends advised, I splash and slap the concrete when I start doing this. Initially it took several minutes for the fish to begin to congregate, but now they race over and mill about almost as soon as I get my hands in the water.

The most beautiful are the paradise fish, with their neon-blue edging, flamboyant tails, and complex stripes.

They’re clearly the most comfortable at the water’s surface, understandable since they routinely surface to breathe air. It didn’t take them long to feel relaxed about eating fish food from my fingers. They seem very enthusiastic about this.
I enjoy it too, but just watching them mill about with their fellows and the other species in the pond can be mesmerizing, I have discovered.

The non-paradise-fish include platys and American flag fish, but I have to confess to being pretty confused about who’s who among these.

Only occasionally do I spot one or two of the shubunkin goldfish I bought and introduced several weeks ago. I don’t know if they’re still making themselves at home or are just naturally more inclined to hang out under plants that conceal them. Or something else.
Will I see more of them as they grow larger? I hope so!

Sightings of my three high-fin sharks have also been rare. Here’s one:

Far easier to identify is our solitary rosy barb. I’m hoping to add more of his (or her) type soon, both because I find them beautiful and also because I’ve read that they like to school and tend to feel stressed out when they can’t, for lack of comrades. You can see our solitary current representative at the upper left of the photo below.

My brother Lee, who loves fish, has suggested I get an underwater drone and camera. It’s tempting but probably overkill, at least for now. At the moment, I’m finding the view from the surface to be quite diverting.