Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Wisconsin goldfish pond--tricks for pondkeeping

The goldfish pond around here used to get disgusting in mid-summer.  Several years of experiments have finally led to a method which works to keep the fish healthy and the pond not-disgusting.  Here's the rundown on goldfish-keeping which I wish I'd been able to find when we first set out to have a goldfish pond in our Wisconsin garden.

The "pond" is a 1700 gallon circular tank, made of some black plastic-type material--polyethylene, I think.  It is about the same size as the one at this link.  It was chosen to be too deep and too steep-sided for raccoons to get at the fish.  Raccoons do not jump in to catch fish, but rather, station themselves on the edge, or in very shallow water. In fact, our research indicated that shallower, or slope-sided pre-formed tanks sold to the unsuspecting as fish-ponds are known to landscape professionals as "raccoon dinner plates."

Another reason we chose a plastic tank is that, in Wisconsin, a concrete-sided pond would soon crack with our winter freeze-thaw cycle, while a metal tank might split its seams or rust if set into the ground.

Leveling the tank and setting it in the ground was quite a challenge.  The hole it needed was too narrow and too deep to dig with a bob-cat, so the hole was dug by two (quite wonderful!) garden helpers, A.H. and W.O., with shovels. Luckily, our soil is that deep with no rocks. (The weather is a caution, the mosquitoes enormous, but yes, gardening in the Midwest also comes with certain advantages!)

A.H and W.O. did a fantastic job of digging the tank in level.  After all these years of freeze-thaw cycles, there's still not even a quarter of an inch difference from side to side. Today, however, I believe I would call for a professional landscaper with a mini-excavator to dig a hole this big.

The tank is set about a foot above the ground level.  This leaves enough of the tank below ground-level so there is unfrozen water, no matter how cold it gets.  However, a thick layer of ice does form on top every year (I mean, this is Wisconsin...)

There is no gravel on the bottom--the tank is bare. This makes clean up much easier.

Around the protruding foot or so of the tank,  a few layers of limestone wall-stone, maybe 6 or so inches high has been dry-laid.  This matches exactly with the surrounding raised beds made of the same material. The rim of the tank is hung with limestone L-shaped veneer stone of the type mortared onto concrete-block chimneys and fences to make them look like they are made of field-stone. A local stone yard had these piled up (among the waist-high weeds and the wasp nests) in their returns/bargain area. The narrow end of the "L" is hooked over the rim, facing the water, the long end hangs nearly to the ground.  Arranged this way, the veneer covers the (quite narrow) edge of the plastic tank, and hangs just below the edge of the dry-laid limestone, so that the entire foot of black plastic sticking up above ground level is completely hidden with stone.

Our pond was originally stocked with 12 goldfish, bought from Wal-Mart for a few cents apiece. Not having any idea what we were doing, we bought fan-tails for pretty.  Later we read that fan-tails are not a good variety for outdoor ponds, because their tails are so fragile and hinder mobility.  Well, what can I say? Many of the fish have survived for years (this is their fourth summer) and they've grown and had babies, which are fan-tails too.  When we first saw the babies, we thought we were in for a population explosion but life outdoors is evidently hard: we now have 14 fish (although last summer, there were 16).

If we wanted to keep koi, I think we would have to be a lot more careful and particular, and that many of these tricks would not work. However, we are content with goldfish-keeping (and the fantails are truly beautiful fish!)

We installed the tank near an outdoor GFI outlet, as electrical filtration was our plan. Originally, we tried all kinds of filters, pressurized, in-pond, in ground, with built-in UV lights, with free-standing UV lights--you name it, we tried it, and boy was it expensive. We  also tried growing pond-plants as natural aerators.  Every combination of filter and light we tried, failed. The pond was scummy with algae, and the fish ate every part of every plant they could get at.  So, we gave up trying to filter the water, and gave up on plants, too.  Instead, we concentrated on aeration.

In our current system, air bubbles through the tank from a special "deep pond" aerator, which is hooked up, via a 12-line harness, to 12 airstones.  The airstones are scattered all over the pond bottom. The pond surface bubbles strongly when the aerator is on. Every year, I mean to buy weighted air-line, but I always forget.  In order that the air-line not float to the surface, the airstones and the harness are weighted with rocks.

The electrical outlet and the pump--which is not submersible-- are hidden under a "hollow rock" of the type designed to cover well-heads. The main trunk of the air-line is buried in the ground between the pump and pond-side.  At that point, the air-line emerges from the ground, goes over the edge and disappears into the depths.

We've tried many different kinds, and settled on Wardley's floating fish pellets. These seem to float long enough for the fish to eat them all, unlike flakes, which seem to start settling very quickly.

 To feed the fish, we turn off the aerator--the fish have learned this means food is to follow shortly, and they come to the surface as soon as the aerator is unplugged. After waiting for the water to become still, we feed the fish 2-4 times, 10 or so minutes apart, a table-spoon or two in each feeding, the number of feedings depending on whether the fish seem hungry for more. (Test=whether the fish rise to the surface and start "gobbling" when we come near.)  The 14 fish we have this year--the original survivors maybe 6" long and their various sized babies--cost several dollars a week in food.

After trying various combinations of UV lights, and even chemicals, we were at wits' end to control algae.  A visit to (the wonderful!!) Longwood Gardens gave us the solution.  The lily-pond patio featured a display of water plants with goldfish. The water was dyed a dark black with "pond colorant."  We adopted this approach for our fish pond--adding colorant to the water. The goldfish did not seem to mind.  We have since researched this issue and learned that goldfish are adapted to live in muddy water, which is also opaque.

On the downside, the initial expense was a bit high--$30.00.  On the upside, the jug we got, the only one at our local landscape supply, will probably last forever.  The stuff is highly concentrated, and packaged in quantities meant to color natural lakes. Another downside: we can no longer see the fish except when they come to the surface at feeding time. The water surface is utterly opaque. The best upside: no algae.  None.

Although we originally brought the fish into the house for the winter, the fish got too darn big--too big even to keep over the winter in a 70 gallon stock-tank.  With some trepidation, we started leaving them outside two winters ago, and they have now survived through two winters, including last year's never-ending polar-vortex event.

Once the weather gets very cold and the fish stop coming to the surface, we turn off the aerator and remove the airstone and line.  Before the surface freezes over, we drop in a gas diffuser, called a "pond breather."   This item does not keep a hole melted in the ice, rather, it draws water from below the freeze line and circulates it above the ice, then back down below the freeze line, allowing gas exchange to occur. It is designed to work with ice up to 15" thick.  Sometimes, the ice (with snow on top) gets thicker than that.  Then, the breather quits working for a while. However, even with our worst weather, this only lasts for a day or two.  As soon as the weather improves marginally, the breather starts up again.

In the spring, we wait until all the ice is gone, and the fish start coming to the surface. This is also when we start feeding the fish.  Two or so weeks later, when the fish are active all day long and eating regularly, all the fish are netted and put into a stock tank with an aquarium-sized aerator going--this is enough for the 1/2 day that the fish will be in the stock tank.  This is the only time of the year we get see the fish individually and close-up, to count them, to see who survived and how many new baby fish there are.

Once the fish are out, we pump the tank out using a submersible self-priming sump-pump designed to handle small solids. The water is pumped into a nearby bog garden.  With the water out, we clean the tank of all the leaves that fell in during the late fall and winter.  The fish-muck at the bottom we carefully dole out among the plants in the surrounding perennial gardens. Cleanup is a two person job, one to climb the ladder down into the tank (wearing hi-top rain boots) carrying a broom, snow-shovel and a pail, and another person to steady the ladder and receive the muck (swept with the broom into the shovel, then transferred from the shovel to the pail) which remains after the sump-pump has gotten out all it can.

At this time, we also re-lay the airline and the airstones.  Most of the airstones can be reused, but the air-line has to be completely replaced with new.

The tank is then refilled with city water from the hose-end.  It is conditioned with whatever de-chlorinator chemicals the local big-box store is carrying.  We also add barley extract.  We put the fish directly into this fresh new water. They seem very happy to go--not at all discombobulated from the change of water.

Despite the aeration and the lack of algae due to the colorant, the pond water gets thick with particulates in the summer.  The fish are large and active, and eat a lot of fish-food. So, several times a summer, we pump out 1/2 the water and refill with fresh hose water.  The pumped out water (with all its fishy nutrients!) goes to water the plants in perennial gardens and the bog garden. When we start running fresh water in with a hose, we also add the de-chlorinator chemical--the chemical is added over maybe a couple of minutes to the stream of running water.

The water is pumped out once in June, twice in July and twice in August--that's the theory, anyhow.

A bird net is arched over the tank in fall, in an attempt to keep leaves out of the water. The net is held off the surface with PVC water-supply pipe.  This pipe, which is very flexible, is made into arches by slipping it over 18" long rebar pounded in around the pond-edge. The 1" square bird-netting is laid over these arches, the L-shaped veneer stone hanging from the tank-edge weights the edges to keep it taut.

There are no small children around here, and no legal requirement to fence a decorative fish pond. We thought that installing the pond with a good foot or so sticking out of the ground, and the water surface so far above the ground surface, would prevent anyone falling in. This worked well in general, until one day, a friend came over with her dog. The dog jumped in and paddled around very happily, but was unable to get out again. That dog is now a constant visitor, so we put up a chicken-wire fence--ugly, ugly, ugly. I have to admit that fencing is one part of the pond-keeping art that we still have to figure out.  We are cogitating on it, though, so hopefully,  there will be another post (in a year or four) saying what we did to get rid of the chicken wire.

It certainly was expensive to try out all the different filter systems.   Also, it something of a disappointment that there are no plants: the original vision was to have water plants in the pond, but the fish were voracious and ate every plant we tried, from water lilies to floating plants, to little floating plant-islands.

Yet, despite the plant-less nature of the pond, I think it does add an element of liveliness with its mysterious bubbling black surface, and the occasional flashes of gold as the fish come to the surface.  At feeding time, the fish are plainly visible at the surface, and having the pond does add a focus to garden walks. In the end, although it was very expensive to figure it all out, and although the pond isn't quite what I first imagined, I do think the answer has to be "yes," it is worth having a pond.

That time I took the peppers in over the winter

Posts dated October 14 and October 24, 2012 detailed an experiment of bringing peppers into the house for the winter.  I cut back existing Gypsy pepper plants to a small root and a bare stem, then plant these in the house.

The plants took root, and actually grew in the house all winter, under plant lights. When the time came to plant these out, the plants grew anew and made peppers a second year. Sounds like a successful project, no?

Well, no. The biggest problem: these plants were plagued all winter with ever-increasing numbers of whiteflies.  When the plants came into the house, whitefly eggs came too, probably on the small rootball of soil left at the bottom of each plant.

If I had to do this again, I would trim the plants back to a small root and a bare stem, same as before.  However, this time, I'd wash all the dirt off the roots and even soak the bare assembly in water, maybe even with a drop or two of bleach in the water, maybe as long as overnight.

Yet, even knowing what to try differently next time, it's unlikely that I'd try overwintering peppers again. For one thing,  it's not clear that the the plants would survive the proposed trimming and soaking.  But more importantly, the effort was not worth the end result.

Although in the spring of 2013, these plants made peppers before the 2013 seedling pepper plants did, the 2013 seedling plants soon outstripped the overwintered peppers in production.  From the middle of the summer of 2013 on, the overwintered plants lost vitality. They hung on, grimly, but the younger plants did far better. Plus, the overwintered plants only beat out the 2013 seedling plants by a week or so in the matter of pepper production. When you add into the equation, the amount of electricity and care to bring overwintered plants through a (long) Wisconsin winter, starting new seedlings makes more sense.

This endeth another garden experiment--TK

Friday, July 18, 2014

Channeling the dead, garden edition

Going around the garden, it is my eyes which see the volunteer bluebells, but it is my friend J's mother (a woman I never met) who chimes in that "those damned bluebells" ought to be pulled out, for what kind of gardener allows a volunteer such pride of place? Several years ago, J told me this about her mother when I was admiring my bluebells.  Ever since, for the several weeks a year between blooming and deadheading, every time I see a bluebell, J's mother and I argue whether her approach can possibly be correct.

Harold Nicholson--the male half of the Sissinghurst Castle team--said that the famous garden was "made by doing impractical things we could not afford at the wrong time of year." Harold and I get a good chuckle out of that as we walk around my garden in spring together, looking at all of last year's projects which didn't quite make it through the winter.  Such as...that time when the nice fluffy very expensive sterile-medium top-dressing was put down just before the great tree-seed deluge.  Not to mention...the time when the fishpond water got changed just as the fry were hatching out. Impractical, expensive, mistimed? You and me both, Harold, buddy.

Stopping by my co-op the other day to do a spot of shopping, I showed Henry Mitchell the bindweed growing in the hedge outlining the driveway.  "Bindweed," said he. "Gardeners have been known to move away to avoid bindweed!"  So Henry and I went in and told the nice young person behind the counter that it would be great if the bindweed were removed from the hedge before the weed went to seed.  Had Henry been there in the flesh,  he might have impressed that young person more than I did: she looked at me as if I had two heads. Which, of course I did have: mine and Henry's.

I haven't had the heart to go back and see if the bindweed has been removed (to tell the truth, Henry and I pulled most of it before we ever went in--just the ones deep under the hedge roots kept avoiding us).  Yet the way Henry keeps fussing about the bindweed, page after page--the immortal bindweed, so discouraging to gardeners!  Henry says when I go and take a look, I should put a pair of knee pads and some gardening gloves in the car, just in case.

No-dig gardening: establishing paths and beds via sheet composting combined with a sterile medium such as Pro-mix (includes update on the sedum pathway)

A previous post (September 14, 2012) described how I established a little secondary path with no digging at all, directly over existing sod, by using cardboard, newspaper and sterile planting medium (pro-mix, wood bark) dotted with pavers, edged with limestone blocks and planted with Angelina sedum.

The path as first established in 2012-note sprigs
of Angelina sedum in sterile planting medium
The path today (two years later.)* The sedum is
fully established, and has lived through two winters.
This idea worked very well.  As predicted, a few weed seeds have blown in, and a few blades of grass poked up along the edges (in the cracks between where the newspaper/cardboard was laid and the limestone blocks which made up the path).  However, also as predicted, the sterile medium made pulling the weeds out very easy.

Based on the success of the path, this year, I established a new no-dig bed using the same system: composting the grass under cardboard, topped with a sterile planting medium and edged with limestone blocks.  This time, I planted forsythia bushes with an understory of perennials, as well as sedum.

As a first step, I closely mowed the grass under where the bed was to be. Next, I loosened the soil for the forsythia bushes using my favorite digging tool: a pick-ax** Next, I laid cardboard down, then laid limestone edging, same as in the sedum path, then laid pro-mix on that and heavily watered the entire assembly.  The next day,  I easily made holes in the still-wet cardboard over where the loosened native soil was, then planted the bushes in the ground, through these holes in the cardboard, just as I would do if planting in open ground.  The native soil and promix were somewhat mixed together, but the roots are mainly in the underlying soil, with the promix (which is, at most 2-3 inches deep) is mainly around the crown. (In the below photos, the bushes are surrounded by chicken wire to keep rabbits from gnawing the new plants).

Although the bush roots are in contact with the native soil through the holes in the cardboard, the perennials are simply planted into the pro-mix.  A capful of time-release osmocote with minerals, and a teaspoon of organic fertilizer was mixed into the promix by each perennial, as promix has essentially no nutrition in it.  As the underlying cardboard rots away, the perennials' roots will work their way through (the perennials will show they've reached that point by taking off in growth--this will probably occur next spring).  In the meanwhile, daily or every-other-day watering is needed, since pro-mix dries out easily.  Oh, I should mention that the pro-mix is covered with cocoa-hulls, as was the sedum pathway.

Using sterile planting medium in conjuction with cardboard and an edging makes it easy to create no-dig paths and beds directly over existing sod. The next post in this series addresses a different variation on this theme: top-dressing an existing bed with sterile planting medium. I'll put a link here when that post goes live.


*The pink flowers on the left belong to "lipstick" alpine strawberry plants,  a ground cover on the adjoining flower bed.
** Pick ax: much easier than a shovel for loosening soil.  Using the ax, not the pick, swing overhead to chop straight down, taking a wide stance.  Make others stand back--WAY the heck away from you. Make sure, too, that the ax head is seated before each swing, and that there is nothing overhead (tree branch) to tangle the swing of the ax. Search you-tube or ask someone who knows the correct use of a pick ax if at all unsure--a minimal goal for successful gardening is to go to bed with your skull intact, and the same number of toes as you woke up with.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Japanese beetle control in a Wisconsin garden, part II

Much delayed, here is a post on the continuing saga of Japanese beetles in my Wisconsin garden (part 1, written in 2011, is here).

In 2011, I had just planted some apple trees--very young, very tender, very expensive. The best Japanese Beetle control I found for these valuable plants was an item called Surround WP.  The WP stands for "wettable powder," and Surround is the brand name for a type of kaolin clay which has been specially treated to make it apply-able to growing plants.  Kaolin clay is simply a natural type of soil--a clay soil--which is composed of very fine particles (as are all clays) and is white in color.  The Surround is mixed with water in the instructed amounts, and then the milk-like result is applied --either by spray or by dipping--on whatever you want to protect.  In my case,  the young apple trees were being murdered by the Japanese beetles.  I've hunted through my photos, but can't seem to find the ones I took of the trees when treated, so here's a link to a photo found on the web--other than being much smaller, my trees looked identical once treated--dusty and gray, yet unquestionably alive and un-eaten.

Surround evidently clogs up the JB's pores (or something like that) in a purely mechanical (not chemical) manner.  It worked well, but has some drawbacks.
  • It has to be re-applied after a rain--any rain. 
  • As the tree grows and puts out new leaves, these have to be protected, so even with no rain, you have to spray regularly. 
  • It would only really work on quite small trees--the challenge of covering a full-gown birch or elm (JB favorites) with a powdery coating on every leaf would be impossible to meet. 
  • If you miss, the beetles will find that spot. 
  • You have to have the correct kind of sprayer.  
My first sprayer, not rated for wettable powders, clogged easily, then wore out. Even with a sprayer rated for wettable powders (as my second sprayer was) the Surround and water mix has to be kept agitated.  Commercial operations evidently get around this by using additives to keep the powder suspended but I had no access to such things, and had to keep stopping and shaking up the tank.  Also along these lines, you absolutely HAVE to clean out the entire mechanism with plain water (and spray, and spray, and spray until the water comes out clean) or the Surround will clump up and ruin the sprayer.

Bottom line: the Surround WP did protect my apple trees, even in the face of massive JB pressure, when nothing else on the face of the earth seemed to do the trick, but you have to keep it up. Without the Surround, the little apple trees would surely have died in their first season.

This summer (2014) the beetles have not been much of a problem (not yet, anyhow).  I believe this is for several reasons. The other day, I saw a flock of starlings working over some rose bushes, tearing at the petals.  I've never seen that behavior before in birds.  I finally figured out that the birds, now with enough years of exposure, have learned to eat JB's. Further, the very harsh winter we just had (polar vortexes and all that) have perhaps put a dent in the JB numbers. And, I think that once Wisconsin was no longer on the leading edge of the invasion, the numbers of beetles settled down.  The original invasion was very like a biblical plague, but the numbers now are much more manageable.  In other words, just wait, and the passage of time tends to smooth out most problems. (Although, if you have found this post because you are suddenly overwhelmed with JB's for the first time, the sad thing is that we are talking years, not weeks or months, until the situation simmers down.)

TRAP CROPS--Fine-line buckthorn bushes
The roses are staying: that's non-negotiable.  Yet, I've grubbed out pretty nearly every other major JB attractant (like guara--which was pathetically attacked) and relocated to the shade most other JB faves (such as rhubarb).

In the full-sun perennial beds live three fine-line buckthorns,* which are also a major attractant.  I didn't grub them out because I thought of trying a systemic insecticide.  Now, I don't much believe in chemical fixes, but my thinking was that my buckthorn don't flower (or at least, haven't yet) and the only way that a systemic insecticide would get loose into the ecosystem was if something was actually eating the plants.  In that case, I rationalized, the destructive creatures would get what they deserve (actually, rationality didn't much enter into it: "die, beetles, die!" was a lot closer to my exact thought).

However, daydreaming about this solution was one thing, and reality another: I never could bring myself to actually apply such a chemical in the garden here.  So, the buckthorns just got eaten to a tatter every year.

This year it finally occurred to me that the buckthorns are acting as a trap-crop.  The poor bushes get set back so far that they will never grow to full height, and they look awful: mangy and bitten.  Yet, being all-green (no flowers) even with a heavy load of JB's, they look less mangy than did a flowering attractant, such as the guara.  And the thing is, although the buckthorn are loaded with JB's, other plants growing nearby, even roses, have a much lesser load. See for yourself: these two photos, taken one minute apart, are of plants located quite near one another.

Buckthorn as a trap crop: Japanese Beetles on buckthorn
The buckthorn is acting as a trap crop, so there is little 
Japanese Beetle pressure
on roses growing nearby

Putting two and two together (for, as Gandalf said about Butterbur,  even slow thinkers will see through a brick wall in time) I've finally determined to stop fantasizing about rubbing out the JB's on the buckthorn via poisonous insecticides, while also accepting that the buckthorns must not be grubbed out, but are to remain: a trap crop sacrificed to protect other, more valuable, flowering plants.

YMMV: a different trap crop might work better in your area. The penny-drop is not that buckthorn is a good trap crop for roses (although that combo is working here in this garden) but that a plant much-infested with JB's might be seen as a good thing, if it is reducing pressure on other plants. 


* Although buckthorn is said to be invasive in certain areas, the "fine-line" variety I planted is said to be non-invasive (click linky above for description).