It has been seven months since we began the process of healing the rawness around the newly excavated pond. It was early September, the optimum time to throw down the meadow seed, and the ground greened quickly to stabilise the slopes over the winter.
A pond at the bottom of a slope is not an easy thing to build and, by the time we had completed the work at the end of August, using the dry summer months for the dig, the weather was cooling and it was too late in the season to plant. So the pond lay waiting. An empty disk of sometimes silvery, sometimes inky-green water, reflecting the seasons as they came and went. In March we were surprised to see both frog and toad spawn, but despite our delight we were unsettled to see it without a haven as it drifted in March winds without an anchor or the shelter provided by planting. Life had begun against the odds.
With the order for pond plants already secured in January, just in case the suppliers ran short, we waited for the weather to warm. Aquatics only take well if they are planted in the summer months when there is warmth in the water, so the plants were held at the nursery until life was properly visible in the pots. They arrived this week as we move from spring to summer and, since I was away, Huw carefully unpacked the plants and put them in trugs and wheelbarrows filled with water as well as an old tin bath that my parents used to fill on the kitchen floor in their first home that still didn’t have a bathroom. Yesterday we trundled the sloshing vessels with their precious and delicate cargo down the hill to where the mayflies were already clouding over the water surface.
The alchemy of gardening all started with a pond that my father made in the orchard at the end of our garden. I was about five and I remember that summer vividly. The excavation, the marginal shelf that ran around three sides of the eight foot by five foot rectangle. The turf folded over the blue plastic liner to protect its edges and then the hours spent lying on the turf edge with my eyes hovering over the watery lens as the pond came to life. So yesterday, as I took off my boots and waded into the tepid mud, I was quite literally back where it all began. With that feeling of being part of an evolution, the smell of the mud and watermint and tadpoles and even a newt nibbling my toes.
To mark the occasion Create Academy returned to begin our second season of filming. This year, at the request of subscribers to the first course, we are looking more deeply into naturalistic planting design and how to plan for balance and layering. The process of planting the pond was a moment it was important to capture. Of anywhere here, the pond will have its own rhythm and energy so planting it correctly is key for it to be a self-sustaining environment.
In the greater part, I am just using natives so that the environment we are helping on its way sits well with the wetland of the ditch alongside it and doesn’t jar in the hollow at the bottom of the slopes. To make the layout straightforward, I divided the perennials into their main groups. The terrestrial plants that would be added to the banks that were seeded with a wetland mix, the plants that sit on the waterline and descend onto a marginal shelf and, finally, the submerged oxygenators that live in the deeper water and are essential for pumping oxygen into the system.
Already there is evidence of moisture loving perennials such as Devil’s Bit Scabious and Lady’s Smock in the wetland mix that I seeded along the margins last autumn. A knit of grasses and wildflowers that savour the damp where the water wicks up the banks. We added to this to fast track the process using 9cm pots or plugs to not disturb the ground more than necessary. Water Avens (Geum rivale), Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum) were added above the waterline, but only just, so they could get their feet into the wet.
Although rare in Britain, the Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) was added to the banks where the pond catches the shade in the afternoon and where the lush splay of fronds will spill onto the water as you enter from the bridge that crosses the nearby ditch. To the other end, where the spring water feeding the pond issues onto a splash stone, I’ve allowed myself one exotic. The magnificent Lysichiton x hortensis, a sterile cross between the American yellow skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus, now on the list of notifiable weeds list for having escaped into the wild in the UK) and the white-flowered but non-invasive L. camtschatcensis from Japan. The large, paddle-shaped leaves will provide an anchor to the splash stone and a scale change with the finer-leaved natives around it. The creamy spathes, like giant arum lilies, will sit amongst marsh marigold.
The marginal shelves lie at either end of the pond and grade from the bank to about a foot below the water surface before shelving off steeply. The dropping away into deeper water will curtail the reach of the marginal plants, but allow for a safe domain where the frogspawn can nestle and wildlife take refuge. Yellow Flag (Iris pseudacorus) and Lesser Reedmace (Typha angustifolia) are key components in these areas. Smaller than its vigorous cousin, the common bulrush, Typha angustifolia has all the grace and movement in its stems, but is considerably less invasive. I added Flowering Rush (Butomus umbellatus), Greater Spearwort (Ranunculus lingua) and Arrowhead (Sagittaria sagittifolia) amongst the verticals of the reeds and a mass of marsh marigold for the early awakening their golden cups brings to cold March water.
The steeper banks to the long sides of the pond will support less vegetation as they dip swiftly into deeper water. This is deliberate, since we want to be able to see into the water and not through a screen of vegetation that rises up in the summer. The sanctuary of the pond is as much for the good feeling and calm focus it brings to the land as it is to the other lives that share it with us, so we want to see the water where we can. Watermint, Devil’s Bit Scabious and Purple Loosetrife will break the line of meadow grasses.
We are still waiting for the oxygenating plants which photosynthesise underwater. The oxygen they produce dissolves in the water and is as useful for animal life as it is for the bacteria which help to keep the water sweet and clear. It is critical in the stocking of a pond to never introduce an invasive water weed such as Canadian pondweed (Elodea canadensis), which can choke a pond in a season, so we are waiting to add a non-invasive, native waterweed called Hornwort (Ceratophyllum dumersum).
The final decision is whether we have water lilies. There are plans to swim in the pond, so a run of deep water needs to be kept free and I want the pond to feel simple and not too ornamental. The right water lily, however, something white and matched in vigour to the depth of the water so that it doesn’t rear its leaves above the surface, is calling me to think again. But I will take a little more time. The summer is just young and there is no point in rushing an evolution.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 14 May 2022