The Cottage Smallholder

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Overhauling our ponds: part one – how we got to this point




We have two ponds at the cottage. One circular six foot pond that is called imaginatively “The Small Pond”. I actually installed this pond myself with the help of John Coe – he bedded it on sand as my attempt was a bit wobbly. The other pond is a semi circular pond 28’ by about 14’ at its biggest point. No prizes to guess its name – it’s called “The Big Pond”.

This was made when I’d been living in the cottage for about a year. Before I moved here I wasn’t very keen on ponds but there was a small pond in the garden. I secretly planned to get rid of it but didn’t tell the seller who was immensely proud of his hand dug pond and eclectic collection of fish.

I moved in and within a week or so I was hooked. Ponds are soothing, waterfalls diffuse irritating noise with their own particular sonorous splash. Fish turned out to be far more interesting than I ever thought possible. The next spring the old pond was choc a bloc like a rush hour train with fish. I decided to make a much bigger pond and that is how The Big Pond was born.

I didn’t dig TBP myself. A team of men arrived to dig it by hand as even a mini digger couldn’t access the back garden.  They dealt with the ants and the stones and they endlessly complained apart from the times when they were drinking freshly brewed tea and coffee.

The fish were contained in a makeshift pond made with straw bales and builder’s plastic. The water was moved from the old pond to the temporary home using the old cottage guttering that had been replaced. Magic. How I wish now that I’d kept that guttering – handy for peas and guttering on greenhouses, sheds and polytunnels.

I had no idea that ponds attract a vast swathe of wildlife. Birds bathe in the pond, swallows swim through the surface for a quick on the wing shower. Dragon and Damsel flies gestate in the murky depths. Frogs arrive in the spring to provide your garden with a new generation of slug and snail eating friends. If you are lucky, toads will move into your garden and of course there are my favourites – newts. Shy creatures that swim with ‘fingers’ extended like stars.  

Of course fish are interesting to observe. They hint for food and the older ones will fight like tigers not to be caught – sometimes a net has to be deployed if a fish is sick. That was the reason why I got The Small Pond – it’s cheaper to treat 100 litres of water than 22,000 litres.

The Big Pond was my pride and joy. A haven for wildlife. A place to relax and watch the fish schmoozing. And all the positive ions from the water fall. Perfect.

About five years ago a heron used our pond as a winter restaurant. Gradually he picked off every fish. It took some time. We believed that we had so many wily fishy friends that some would survive. But the next spring not a single fish appeared. Disaster.

Since then we’ve let the pond go wild. We still ate beside it on warm evenings. Pond plants and aerators gradually covered most of the surface. It became a deck for bathing birds. Coach loads of frogs and newts arrived to join the normal number of residents. Birds nested in the reeds. At the end of the summer the lawn was covered with teeny baby frogs that had hatched without the hordes of fish to deplete their numbers.

Last autumn we decided that in the spring we’d finally clean out the pond and introduce new fish, get the pump working again and cut back the irises that have taken over a third of the pond. February is the ideal time to tackle this job before the arrival of the frogs for their annual Bacchanal.

I’ve been clearing the silt from the bottom of the pond for three weeks now. This is marvellous compost for the garden. Two large two handled trugs of the stuff, lifted with a hefty net, fill the builder’s wheelbarrow. And then the wheelbarrow and I catapult down the garden at speed to sluice this on the borders. Dark, fen like goodness.

Then I started to get tired of this heavy work. If I drained a lot of the water the silt would not be so heavy to lift out as I could actually get in the pond with a bucket. The super duper pond pump was apparently dead. I found a tiny pump in the barn – it fizzled out after three hours – if it had been up to the mark it would have taken ten days to drain the pond! Perhaps it overheard me telling Danny about its prospective workload.

To be continued….

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  1. Ashley

    I have a large pond for fish and a smaller pond for wildlife.

    I would not use criss cross fishing line to deter Herons as they can get caught up in it and it is very distressing and a nightmare to free them… I found that the best option for our pond was to build a pergola next to the pond – Herons like to have clear access to the pond and be able to wade in. It is now ten years since added the pergola and big pots at strategic places and I have not had a single fish taken. I have watched the odd Heron land on the pergola but they never go down to the pond.

  2. I would keep the pond stocked with fish to attract the birds. One year in Cape Town we had two giant kingfishers taking our gold fish. Far more entertaining than fish.

  3. As you’ve noticed, ponds are great for wildlife. But fish don’t go well with wildlife – they do eat a lot of wildlife, especially tadpoles and the like. They can also uproot and eat the more delicate plants.
    If you want to enjoy ornamental fish, I would suggest you have some in the small pond (easier to protect from marauding herons), and keep the Big Pond for wildlife.

  4. We are home to frogs of the croaking variety that hide in the reeds of our pond, it drives the cats mad but occassionally they manage to get one and bring it into the house boy do they squeal!
    The baby frogs are so cute when they hatch no bigger than my thumb nail hiding in the grass in the rain and on damp evenings when the sprinklers are on the lawn, tiny little exact replicas of their parents, although viewed as tasty convienient mouth sized slimy snacks for the cats!!! Our fish bear the scares of battles with the heron slice scars down their flanks they swim proudly having won the battle for another year, hopefully too large now to be taken. I will miss our baby pond when we leave here this summer but take solace in the fact where we are going is an even larger one where some of favourite fish can enjoy a little more space.

  5. Tamar@StarvingofftheLand

    I want to hear the end of the story! But even the first half makes me the pond we live on (it’s a lake, really — 110 acres) was made by glaciers and not by man.

    We have frogs, turtles, fish, and bazillions of birds, and one season we had otters. But if had to maintain their pond, they’d all be out of luck.

  6. Looking forward to reading the rest of this article! We’re planning a couple of decent sized ponds but I must admit I hadn’t really thought about the clearance of it… 🙂

  7. Oh I want a pond! But then I’d give the damn raccoons a place to wash their stolen supper.

    You can keep herons off your pond by criss-crossing monofilament fishing line across it.

  8. Fiona we’ve just bought a dirty water pump from Lidl for a fraction of the price we’ve seen them elsewhere – about £45. We need it to pump out the flooded basement of the big barn, and to empty a permanently flooded ditch so we can fill it in. But I’m sure it would work for ponds too – if you have a Lidl anywhere near you it might be worth having a look. The instructions are even in English!

  9. At least you didn’t get a tractor stuck digging your pond like we did. They are addictive aren’t they! We now have three and the first things we go and inspect when we get to our land

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