The labels green, sustainable and eco-friendly are used to describe everything from vehicles to food … and countless items in between. They’ve been used so often that they’ve become meaningless. Thankfully, pond owners and many others are still interested in what can be done to help preserve our planet’s resources. They want to be individually responsible when it comes to conserving and protecting water, fuel, and other assets. Regrettably, these folks don’t know what to do when it comes to their own backyards.
Luckily our industry centers on authentic nature friendly objects – water gardens and ponds. In short, we are genuinely green. Now it is our job to explain why…to both the public and our customers. In these times of extended droughts, nature illiteracy, economic slumps, and green advertising malarkey, this is certainly a challenge. To devise clear explanations it helps to start with the basic physics of water. [Throughout this article ponds, water gardens and water features are used interchangeably.]
Three basic water movements in the hydrologic cycle are relevant to gardens and ponds: flow, evaporation, and precipitation. When water is applied to the earth it flows through and over the soil to the aquifer below or to lakes and rivers, with the soil type affecting its speed. When surface moisture meets the atmosphere it evaporates, with many factors (primarily humidity and wind) determining the rate. Precipitation may be in the form of rain, snow, or hail, depending upon the climate.
Rubber, plastic, and ceramic serve as the foundation of almost all ponds and water features. From small container water gardens to large koi ponds, all are constructed using non-porous materials to hold water. (Even disappearing fountains have an impervious underground reservoir.) These water bodies then become closed systems, where the liner or pot forms a barrier to normal water movement. The water is retained and does not flow downward into the soil; the same water recirculates over and over again. This is obvious to us but not to the general public, which includes potential customers and officials who establish water restrictions.
Very little of the water applied to lawns and gardens is utilized by the plants. Most passes by the roots and keeps on going. As a result, irrigation must be applied often, especially for lawns. The average American family applies 50% of their water usage on landscaping. Some experts estimate that more than 50% of that amount is wasted due to evaporation, runoff and unnecessary watering. Even xeriscape landscaping (xeros = dry) needs some water to keep native and drought-tolerant plants alive.
In contrast, ponds are closed aquatic systems that require water only to replace what’s lost by evaporation and not restored by rain. In general, ponds use about 50% less water than lawns and other gardens. Another benefit is that all water added to the aquatic system stays there. It doesn’t become runoff, carrying fertilizers and pesticides into the sewer systems, groundwater or waterways.
Of course every new water garden must be filled the first time around. Some ponds use more water than others. For example, those with large waterfalls or high spraying fountains have a greater loss rate than those without moving water. In drier or windier climates more water will be used, but much less than grass or other gardens in those same areas.
Hidden Environmental Benefits
Water gardens conserve additional natural resources besides water. Ponds are eco-friendly because they use little or no pesticides and fertilizers. Very few pests attack aquatic plants and they can be controlled with a squirt of water or biological controls. If fertilizer is needed, tablets are inserted around the roots. This keeps nutrients out of the pond water. In contrast, a pond occupies space that would otherwise be grass. Lawns require mowing, fertilizing, and pest control. They use gas, poisons, and time … as well as create noise and air pollution.
Aquatic plants would appear to be water guzzlers. However since they are sitting in a wet ecosystem they actually use far less water than terrestrial plants. Another resource they save is time, since aquatics never need to be watered.
A common misconception is that ponds breed mosquitoes. In fact, nothing is further from the truth. Any water garden fish will eat larvae, even tiny fish provided by mosquito control departments. Natural bacteria can also be used. The most beautiful control is by dragonflies, aka mosquito hawks. They are attracted to ponds to lay their eggs. So they hang around eating hundreds of the neighbor’s mosquitoes every day. In addition, dragonfly nymphs live underwater for years, consuming mosquito larvae. Then they crawl up stems to shed their skins and become adults.
Water features are magnets to people as well as birds, insects, and wildlife. A primary need of any wildlife sanctuary is a water source therefore it is required to get certification as a wildlife habitat from national or state wildlife federations. Water is also one of the best ways to support local fauna and encourage biodiversity. This is especially important in urbanized areas and to attract an increasingly endangered form of animal life – kids who play outdoors and experience nature firsthand.
Pond lining materials have the largest negative impact on the earth’s resources but unfortunately there are not many practical alternatives. The next highest impact results when chemicals are used to control the dreaded pond enemy – algae. Luckily there are several extremely effective biological controls, including biofilters, abundant plantings and other natural solutions. This is where we should minimize non-sustainable practices and provide extensive customer education about other options.
The Bottom Line
As astonishing as it seems to the general public, ponds save landscape water and also protect other natural resources. Water gardens are an ideal choice for today’s eco-friendly homeowners to improve their yards, add serenity to their homes and help wildlife. Educating people about these environmental benefits is both a responsibility and an opportunity for our industry. We can help the public understand ponds’ benefits while teaching ways to reduce a landscape’s impact on planetary resources. Wear your green expertise with pride. Demonstrate it to your customers. Become a local environmental leader.
Sidebar 1 – Rules of Nature in a Nut Shell
These simple rules clearly explain sustainability. Remember them in your business practices and all public education. They can put environmental responsibility in a context everyone can understand.
1) Everything is connected to everything else.
2) Anything that gets thrown away goes someplace else.
3) There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Sidebar 2 – How to Help Mother Nature: 12 Ways to Educate Customers
Ponds are closed systems that don’t waste water. Unfortunately this is counter-intuitive and needs lots of explaining. Use several strategies to relay how eco-friendly ponds really are. Make sure all your employees understand and can explain both concepts and details. Collect staff suggestions for phrases, signage, etc.
• Post informational signage using words AND pictures to show how ponds are sustainable.
• Include cutaway models throughout your facility.
• Place a few water gardens in the drought-resistant section of your garden center.
• Write articles for local media outlining untapped ways to save water and other resources.
• Add website, Facebook, and blog content with specifics about becoming more environmentally friendly.
• Obtain your wildlife habitat certification and help customers certify their yards.
• Become a save the environment role model. Partner with national associations; if Avon can do it, so can you.
• Educate customers about using water wisely in all areas of their landscapes.
• Showcase how your business is eco-friendly, both the obvious and hidden ways.
• Consult with government agencies, especially those crafting water restrictions.
• Teach about the overall ecosystem as well as individual components.
• Give presentations to local clubs, societies, and business groups.
Sidebar 3 – Ponds and Water Conservation — A Case Study
Tropical Aquaculture Laboratories (TAL) coined the term xeriscape ponds many years ago in Florida, where drought is an ongoing problem. As part of the agricultural extension service TAL wanted to demonstrate ponds’ water conservation qualities. They built a water garden attached to the front of their building. It depended entirely on rainwater from the roof and didn’t have any fountains, pumps, or filters. TAL relied on Mother Nature to provide the water, filtration (plants), and pest control (mosquito fish). Their xeriscape pond became the perfect teaching tool, seen by everyone who entered the building.