Who knew pond life was noisy? I just love ponds and can happily spend hours sitting by ours watching the extraordinary drama played out by a vast cast of often bizarre looking animals. It had never occurred to me that under the water these characters were making the most extraordinary racket.
I stumbled across this recording from hydrophones dropped into a little Welsh pond last summer. It is absolutely astonishing.
I would love to know what was making which noise – it’s all very mysterious. Among the cacophany are apparently oxygenating plants, newts and all manner of invertebrates. Who knows? Fantastic. Forget the Big Blue – listen to the little one!
There are other fascinating underwater recordings from the British Library in this programme – do listen. They’re mainly not from exotic locations – they’re from the UK. This is exactly the sort of thing we need to engage people in the mysteries of our own natural world, just beyond their back doorsteps.
Spring is springing all over the place at Habitat Aid’s Somerset HQ. I suddenly feel terribly behind in the garden. The veg is ok but everything else – eek! We have a party of beekeepers coming to look around in a month or so, then we have a family wedding at the beginning of August – I’m a man under pressure! I’m seeding the last of the cornfield annuals to make a splash for the wedding, and finally sorting out the pond (see below). Rattle seedlings are appearing and the meadows are almost visibly growing. Queen bumblebees are buzzing about looking for nest sites and enjoying early blossom on our Cherry Plum and Almond trees. It’s just about time for me to see how our honey bees have over wintered.
Our bare root plant suppliers and planters have put their feet up at the end of a frantic season and are looking forward to a well deserved rest. I don’t know how many kilometres of native hedging we’ve put in this year, but it feels like it has been enough to get to the moon and back. It has been great for the charities we support too. We’re increasingly funding them through benefits in kind where we can, which over the last few weeks have included seed and plants for Butterfly Conservation and a display stand for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. Among smaller charities we’ve also helped out local environmental charity Carymoor and the Thorne and Hatfield Moors forum.
We’re now gearing up for seeding. April and May are good months to sow wildflowers, although try not to take any short cuts when it comes to prepping the seed bed. I’m always impatient in the garden, and it has disastrous consequences! If you run out of time, don’t be tempted. Keep working on the site and seed in September.
We have transformed our pond by planting the sides of the butyl liner with the pre-planted coir mats we sell. They’re a great answer to a perennial problem. Easy to install, and creating instant effect.
Pollen from crocuses is an important early food source for our honeybees in early spring. We’ve also planted hellebores and early flowering willow to help them at this critical time of year.
We used a butyl liner for our new pond, partly to see the difficulties it might cause. In the past we’ve used a really good product called Bentomat or just sealed ponds naturally, which – of course – have been easy to plant. Planting into plastic is more of a problem!
This is something people often phone about – how do you get a natural look with a plastic liner? They look really unattractive, particularly when new. The edges are hard to hide and they crease and bubble. I hate using pots in ponds, particularly those terrible plastic ones you can buy in garden centres, but until recently it was impossible to avoid if you wanted a more instant result than natural colonization.
Then some clever folk came up with a rather brilliant idea. Supposing you gave your pond plants a growing medium which could also provide them with structure under water? Grow them in coir, which would hold together until gradually naturally rotting down into the water, by which time he plants would be well established.
We sell these coir mats or rolls, preplanted with a mix of commonly found aquatic plants, and I was dying to try them out myself. The new plastic pond was an ideal opportunity.
Our coir mats arrived on a pallet, but couldn’t have been easier to put into position. They smelt lovely too – of water mint! We pegged them down around the pond edge or weighted them down with stones, covering unsightly plastic.The idea is that the range of plants will migrate to the drier or wetter sections of the mats, depending on what they prefer. As our pond is firmly focused on wildlife it has gently sloping sides and a shallow floor, which is ideal for the mats. As an unexpected bonus we imported lots of water snails and some dragonfly nymphs – and even a newt!
The pond is already looking a lot better, and I can’t wait to see it in three months’ time. I hope the new vegetation won’t just look good, but it should also bring other benefits – more fauna and an improvement in water quality. Our first generation of frogs, wriggling out of their spawn, should love it.
The landscaping around our new house has been coming along very nicely. The meadow areas have been very exciting this year and the forest garden is doing really well. We’ve got a great plan for a formal garden area and we’ve even had a good crop of potatoes in the veg patch. The wildflower roof has been going gang busters too. I’m pleased.
There has to be something going wrong, though, and it’s been the least likely component that’s been causing the most trouble. We’re in Somerset and we’re on solid clay, so you’d think the swales and ditches I’ve dug would fill up the ruddy great big hole they flow into. I was really excited at the size of the pond we could have, and confident this essential element of any wildlife friendly garden would be brimming with water in no time. The filling up bit isn’t the problem; it has filled regularly over the last 15 months, and then emptied. I have no clue why; it could be the banks aren’t big enough or we didn’t block the field drain we cut through well enough – who knows.
Anyway, we MUST have a pond. One of the charities we work with, The Freshwater Habitats Trust, have done a great job enthusing me about the benefits of a carefully designed pond. Within 6 months of putting one into our last garden we had dragonflies, mining bees, bats – all sorts of wildlife turned up. It was stunning too – our native flora (available at reasonable prices through Habitat Aid!) is exotic and attractive.
When we built our new house we applied for planning permission to dig a nice big pond, which we had to do because it is on agricultural land. We made our last pond using a Bentomat liner, which is a clever piece of kit but bulky and involves quite a lot of earth moving, which I couldn’t face. So this time we’re using a Greenseal liner from Gordon Low, a fellow corporate member of the Freshwater Habitats Trust. We’ve designed it following guidance from the Trust, and we’re now just waiting for some rain.
Tapwater – any water – rich in phosphates is hopeless for ponds. High levels of phosphates and nitrates will give you smelly de-oxygenated water and massive algal blooms. Not nice. The water quality of the vast majority of such ponds as we have left is very poor as they are polluted by, for example, run off from nearby agricultural land or roads. This is where ours is likely to have a problem, as some of the water from a nearby pasture runs off across our land and will get picked up in our ditches. We could try filtering it through a reed bed if it is problematic – let’s see.
While I can control my excitement enough not to fill the pond with a hose, I’m not sure I’ll be able to allow its flora to colonize naturally, which is the Trust’s preferred approach for ponds in rural settings. We sell native aquatic plants which are widespread throughout the UK, and I can see myself slipping several into the margins when no-one is looking. Don’t tell.
The Freshwater Habitats Trust is the new name for Pond Conservation. I went to their very jolly rebranding presentation on the Thames last week. The Thames is a good illustration of why we need the Trust; it’s terribly polluted. For a start, there’s London’s Victorian sewage system, which is regularly overwhelmed and discharges raw sewage directly into the river when it is.*
Like nearly all of our freshwaters, the Thames has also suffered from a relentless rise in nitrates over 140 years, when records were started. Nitrates run into the river from the agrochemicals used on surrounding land. Around half them wash into the river as surface run off and the other half arrive through ground aquifers, which takes time. This means there’s worse to come. And it’s not just nitrates; there’s ammonia, chlorine, magnesium, calcium… What happens when you have freshwater with high chemical levels? Just fill a pond up with tap water and you’ll soon find out! Any aggressive quick growing flora around (sometimes non-native) takes over and you end up with a monotony which is at best unattractive and at worst fetid.
The Thames isn’t unusual. The water quality in our ponds, streams and ditches is as bad as it is in our rivers. An estimated 95% of canal lengths have impacted water quality. There is only one lake in England and Wales classifed as “undamaged” (Source: Millenium Ecosystem Assessment 2005). Does this matter? Around 10% of ALL Biodiversity Action Plan species are found in ponds. It matters.
The Freshwater Habitats Trust is trying to put this right. There’s a lot to do, especially for such a small organization and in the face of so much official indifference. The Trust is focussing on smaller waterbodies, which have been particularly over-looked. They’re not only potentially rich in biodiversity themselves but also have a critical role to play in the broader landscape.
They also offer a chance to engage people, which Pond Conservation did through its Million Ponds project and the Freshwater Habitats Trust hopes to do with its People, Ponds and Water project from 2015. I think of all the things in our garden it’s our pond which has given me the greatest pleasure.
*This is when it rains heavily; we need more Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) as well as major infrastructure improvement to the sewage system.
Looking at our garden you’d never know it was spring. It’s a smidge ironic that global warming seems to have resulted in tempest and deluge in this corner of the globe over the last few years. We have been struggling to build a new house over the last year, and now the weather is making even the landscaping damn near impossible. That’s even with jolly wetland and pond features – swales and ditches and bogs and overflows.
The (heavy clay) soil is completely unworkable. Some of it has turned into Glastonbury gloop. Even where it hasn’t I can’t dig it manually, let alone get machines on it. I’m trying to sow green manure in the swamp that will be our back garden to improve things. Our wildflower seed has arrived for the (wetland) meadow areas. Ha ha. No chance of anything even germinating in these temperatures. Friends of mine locally are just giving up on their gardens. It’s probably sensible ahead of the spring proper, which when it does finally arrive will feature two months of drought before the cricket season starts in earnest. Cue Biblical downpours again.
I suppose this extreme weather is gratifying for us in a way, as we’re building a stunning new house to deal with it. In the garden, though, we need help. Perhaps it’s time for the gardening Press to scrap all those articles and programmes about Mediterranean planting and address the issues we’re actually confronted with as gardeners. If the weather here is getting more extreme rather than warmer as a result of global warming could we have some help in dealing with it? I have no idea how to tackle our land – no idea at all – and I can find no advice other than the helpful observation that roses like heavy clay. WTF? as the youth of today might say. In the meantime, here’s a cheery tune about the weather here for the youth of yesteryear. Perhaps it hasn’t hasn’t changed much over the last 60 years after all.
I had a lovely start to the day when I stumbled across this video on You Tube*. It’s a short French film released a while ago. Normally I’d just Tweet it or stick it on Facebook, but it’s really lovely. It’s a celebration of the microcosmos around us – a sort of Gallic David Attenborough documentary on our insect world without David Attenborough.
It well illustrates the profound delight that can be had from creating these kind of pulsating ecosystems in our own gardens and fields. This is one of the key messages we’re trying to get across. Enjoy.
There are lots of lessons to be learnt from Ash Tree dieback, not least about the way people source and plant woodland trees. We’ve always thought that proper planning and British provenance are important whether you’re planting native trees and hedges, aquatic plants, fruit trees or wildflowers.*
The arrival of this terrible disease is an opportunity to ram home this message to government, consumers and the retail sector, and we’re actively involved in doing that. We’ll have plenty more news on that front.
*As you’d expect, all the fruit trees and native plants, bulbs and seeds we sell are sourced and grown in the UK from British seed or cuttings.
New Charity Partners Ponds are particularly dear to my heart, so it’s a special pleasure to announce that we’ve become a corporate associate of Pond Conservation, another of those Cinderella charities which does great work on tiny resources. We already give money to the Amphibian and Reptile Groups’ 100% Fund, so this further strengthens our ties in this area.
We have also joined the Tree Council, and will be donating money to them too, from online sales of our native trees.
Christmas Presents We’ve posted the first recipe () on our blog, in which Caroline explains how to make a lovely present from pears. Or, of course, you could buy a pear tree as well, which we could get to you the week before Christmas.
There are plenty more ideas on the website, including gift vouchers.
School Projects Habitat Aid is involved in some great school meadow and pond projects in the South West, but we’d love to do more outside our region. Any ideas?
Thank you everyone for all your help and support this year. The progress we’ve made has been fantastic, and we couldn’t have done it without you.
Do remember you can follow us on Twitter or Facebook to keep up with our conservation and gardening news.
I’ve eulogized Pond Conservation and its director Jeremy Biggs before. They’re a tiny but good charity, punching above their weight and communicating sometimes unpalatable messages based on good science. In the freshwater line of things we already give money to the excellent Amphibian and Reptile Groups’ 100% fund, so we’ve just signed up as a Pond Conservation corporate associate too.
Charities explicitly working for habitats rather than animals are to be applauded It’s a difficult ask, as the now sadly defunct Grassland Trust found out; it’s much easier to appeal to people to preserve something loveable and fluffy. The fauna associated with ponds aren’t popular either, which makes pond and amphibian and reptile charities the Cinderellas of the conservation world. People love mammals and birds, and iconic species like bees and butterflies. They don’t like snakes and toads, and newts start them sniggering.
This would be ok if all was well in the world of herpetofauna*, but it isn’t. Perhaps surprisingly, given the good news stories about rivers we often seem to hear, such ponds as do still exist after all the drainage schemes of recent history have such poor water quality they’re pretty hopeless, ecologically speaking. Their high nutrient levels also support invasive plants, which hardly help. Pond Conservation hope their million pond project might help.
The other reason we’re supporting Pond Conservation is that I really, really just like ponds and their associated flora and fauna. We’ve put in several ponds for our courses and a lovely one at our previous house, and the landscaping project at our new house will include a lot of water (somewhat ironic, given the Somme-like state of the building site currently!). To my mind it’s the first step in creating any garden ecosystem; our ponds won’t just bring the obvious animals in, but also birds and bats. Not only that but, full of native aquatic plants, they will look stunning.
We’re knee deep in building our new house at the moment, and you can follow our project at www.hookgatecottage.com. I’m not just writing about the house build but also the landscaping, which is a vital part of the project. The garden will have to wait until the dust settles next year, but we’ve already started some mixed orchard planting in our field and I’m making first steps at getting some meadow areas going out there too (where our huge heap of spoil allows). Essentially there’ll be three areas; mixed orchard, pond, and meadow. The planting particularly in the orchard areas is going to be innovative and interesting, so stand by for developments!