Pond Love

 

Since last year I have been fighting a battle with Algae (blanket weed) in the pond. The pond sits in sun and the lilies don’t shade enough of the surface water to stop the dreaded blanket weed from thriving. High levels of nutrients within the pond from the tap water used to initially fill it only add to the problem.

During the last month of sunshine and drought I have had to fill the pond with yet more tap water and, in the sunlight, great big green bubbling carpets of slime have been menacingly clouding the water.

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For some reason I have taken this very personally. Having thought about this I have come to the conclusion that the pond being “clean” and “beautiful” for me is a symbol for the beautiful organic haven I am trying to nurse this derelict brownfield site back to. And so the Blanketweed has become a very personal failure.

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As I dredge the endless green tresses out, although the pond is teaming with life, all I see is a comment on my failure to manage this little kingdom and give a home to nature.

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As a sealed ecosystem the pond is fascinating and getting it “right” has become something of an ecological crusade. I am arrogantly trying to “naturalise” a completely man-made artificial habitat. I have sited the pond in a place where my designer’s eye would like it, but in reality a space that still water would never collect. The pond sits surrounded by intensively farmed fields of rapeseed and wheat. Although it appears a picturesque pastoral scene, – it is in fact industrial farming and my pond is suffering from all the fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides that drift in.Ponds are closed systems, so, any pollution or change in “balance” immediately affects the life within it and can be seen noticeably. They are the most amazing barometers of how chemical-free and balanced your environment actually is.

IMG_2355I wanted a pond primarily because I want my garden to be a modern wildlife garden. When we arrived here the land had been mauled and scarred by two centuries of industrial farming and misuse. In 1800 earth was moved and clay imported to make the canal. Then in 1860 the railway line was carved out of the land and piled high with ballast and all the requisite pollution that a railway brings. Then there was the dairy farm itself with its cesspit and concrete slurry yard. The industry was gradually abandoned and from the 1980s onwards buddlejah, bramble, birds and badgers gradually reclaimed the land. Then we arrived, one hot day in May 2011, and I fell in love with this place. IMG_3300

My first memories are of land: the rolling pastures of the Exe valley. My father’s family stems from there: living in the same thatched cottage that my grandfather, his father and his father lived. A lineage of landworkers: my illiterate great grandfather was a Warrener (rabbit catcher). My grandfather was a rural science teacher and my guide…. We would go for long walks along the river exe spotting kingfishers and otter evidence… as we walked he talked and wove tales about the place and us, us and the place, binding me to the landscape. And as a young child I looked at the red soil of the riverside and the tall waving heads of grass and the skies full of screaming swallows and my sprit took root… this was when I became an environmentalist.

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This is the cottage that my father, grandfather, great grandfather and great great grandfather lived in, this picture was taken in June 2002 just before it was sold.

My depression about the pond is a symptom of more troubling worries about the state of our world and the environmental catastrophe that we are living in and my complicity in it. We are all of us living from nature in an economy that doesn’t value it whatsoever. The endless cleaning of the pond seems like an apposite purgatory, – a neverending backbreaking penance.

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So this is why the garden has to be beautiful and the pond has to thrive because they are my token effort at rebalancing and a deep expression of love, care, and respect for the natural world.

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I am desperate for this image conscious world to see that beauty, particularly natural beauty, needs to be deep in order to be meaningful… deep, transparent, and full of love….Right to the bottom of the pond.

Update: The 24th of May was a hot day and the emperor dragonfly nymphs hatched into dragonflies in their droves…

IMG_3362I counted 25 discarded skin casts on these Pontederia alone.

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Why are ponds so essential for habitat and wildlife?

Since 1950, over half of the UK’s ponds have been lost along with all the wildlife that depended on them. This is due to large- scale drainage schemes, chemical pollution and neglect through disuse. Great Crested Newts have declined by 50% since 1966. Since 1970, 10% of breeding dragonfly species have become extinct.

As well as aquatic species, ponds are also wonderful for our terrestrial wildlife. They provide drinking water during dry weather, a supply of insect and plant-based food, and shelter among the emergent and surrounding plants and trees. This is especially important in environments which are otherwise lacking in places for wildlife; a rich tapestry of ponds across an intensive agricultural landscape provides a much needed refuge for birds, mammals, amphibians (which will cross even large fields to get to a pond), reptiles, and flying insects.

Gardening is a political act… Don’t do it in a bubble.

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Garden,  April 2017

Henk Gerrritsen was a brilliant garden designer who never got to see his full potential. His gardens are about the battle between man and nature; a battle that man should enjoy losing. In his gardens he lets weeds takeover: Hogweed; Bindweed and Hemlock… because their beauty and their terrifying triphid-like features mesmerized him …I would have loved to meet him… A bold, brave man who was ahead of his time.

The other day I attended a gardening course taught by a well-known old skool gardening guru… I knew she wasn’t organic or eco… but nothing quite prepared me for the utter ignorance and exclusion of all things environmental. This was gardening in a bubble and, to my horror; the middle class and middle-aged audience were lapping it up. I felt as if I was in some sickening seventies time warp as a woman with a variegated Cornus that was suffering on the edge of a riverbank (that often flooded) was told to give it a “good feed…some meat and two veg… Nothing organic… Lots of nitrogen.”…My inner “swampy’ took up arms and wailed like a banshee demanding a justice my British politeness was unable to dispense.

So, I bunked off the rest of the class and walked back to the car through the churchyard….IMG_1528

Once my blood pressure was restored by the primroses I spent the rest of the journey home having imaginary out-quipping conversations.

Here’s a breakdown of my argument:

A Cornus is a dogwood – a native shrub that grows by riverbeds and in our hedgerows, it is often grown for its colourful stems. Firstly, I have a problem with variegation. Variegation is an anomaly in a plant, it normally occurs because the plant has genetically mutated and then the nursery trade grows it on as a cultivar…. Variegation immediately puts stress onto a plant as its leaves have less green chlorophyll to photosynthesize and get energy with. By keeping a variegated leaved plant you will always be fighting nature’s instinct to revert back AND you will have to feed it (AND it looks wrong). –What’s the point?

Nitrogen is needed by all plants in order to grow and thrive. It is very soluble, and so, when crop yield is low or an area of land has poor soil or has been flooded, it is normally the nitrogen that has gone from the soil. But what makes nitrogen “work” is the bacteria in the soil that process or “fix” atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, which plants need in order to grow. Fertilizers used by the agricultural and horticultural industries tend to be liquid feeds containing Nitrogen. The problem is that we try and make every bit of soil “work’ and we are all using too much fertilizer and nitrogen (often because we aren’t giving our bacteria a fighting chance in the soil to produce more)… Because the nitrogen is soluble, the excess is running off the land into our watercourses causing huge amounts of devastating pollution and contributing greatly to climate change.

Of course, one woman feeding or not feeding Growmore to her Cornus isn’t going to change the world, but, I am desperate that she and all the gardeners like her understand the consequences of what they are doing when they ’manage’ their land or “break” the ecosystem by intervention. We are all responsible for our own little plots in this great beautiful planet of ours…. And that means educating ourselves on what is within them and what reactions your actions will create…

I don’t pretend to have all the answers… or to be an eco-paragon of virtue. What I would like to do is make you raise your head from your herbaceous border and vegetable bed and look around you… what you do and how you do it has consequences… good and bad and indifferent… what if you could make your garden a living metaphor for how the earth could be if we respected it? How much more beautiful would it be then?

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Garden,  April 2017 (first year after completion)

Pondlife

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The Pond, June 2016

We spent September, October and November 2015 digging a pond, making a terrace, and re-landscaping the garden around the house…. The rest of the garden is going to remain as the semi-wild naturalized space it always has been.

The Pond is the biggest venture so far. I’ve never water gardened, I have no idea about the plants or the maintenance, and, I have tried to design it so that we can use it as a natural swimming pool (it is really only suitable for a dip)….

What I have learnt so far is that the plants can be brute: so you need to chose your varieties carefully and manage their growth by ruthless yearly pruning. I’ve learnt that in order to keep the pond clean you have to balance three things; the oxygen level, the nitrogen level and the ammonia level…. This is done primarily with the planting, with pumps and UV filters stopping fluctuations in vegetation and seasons becoming imbalances…

I always wanted a body of water in this part of the garden…. What I never imagined was how much the water would “lift” the garden… This spot was a dark shaded place that divided us from the landscape beyond…. The pond completely reversed this: light is reflected back into the garden and draws the landscape beyond within.

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Pond is planted, June 2016

I’m hoping that the pond will add to the wildlife… All the machinery work and the dogs (all landscapers have dogs!!) have put them off… Please come back and let me give you a home.

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Water lilies, June 2016

 

When we first came the animals were bold. Owls hooted at us when we arrived back from the pub at 10 o’clock and talked too loudly as we opened the door. A badger interrupted a game of hockey with my 3-year-old son as it chased another boar off its patch. And every morning at 6 o’clock on the dot a barn owl would float across the cow meadow below us, skimming the top of the sunlit long grass in a stunning silence.

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Pond is filled, October 2015

Now, 6 months after the pond’s construction and with the planting in, the creatures are just starting to come back. Almost straight away there were tiny larvae and water fleas. Then, in May, there were tadpoles…. We hadn’t even noticed the frogspawn… then suddenly there were literally hundreds of black fishtailed dots bombing about the pond.

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Tadpoles, May 2016

Then in June we couldn’t mow the lawn for froglets.

IMG_2281Then the invertebrates started to show up: water boatmen; diving beetles; damselfly; dragonfly; and pondskaters. With the invertebrates came the birds: pied wagtails; yellow and grey wagtails; and the swallows, who have taken to using the pond as a ‘dipping’ pond. They circle and scream at each other, and then in a seemingly-impossible flying formation, take it in turns to “dip”.

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Dragonfly, very difficult to photograph!