‘Up-Close & Personal’ with a Water Feature

Published on December 28, 2020

Getting this close to a bullfrog sometimes can be hard without them jumping off and scampering away, but patience and a good camera lens will allow you to get a good photo.

Water gardening and the entire experience of having one can become a passion, if not an obsession. It can consume a person’s thinking to the point that some non-water gardeners might question the person’s sanity. (To be clear, we who have this passion would never question it!)

So, what makes the hobby so pleasurable? For some, it might be the sight and sound of the water. For others, it could be the excitement of watching and interacting with the fish. Then there is the lush beauty of the aquatic plants that is so inviting. Although for most it is a combination of all these factors, there is yet another component of the hobby that a lot of people may not think of. I call it the “up-close-and-personal” aspect of the experience. Let me explain.

Let’s say you have a water garden that is a fair distance from your home, where you can barely see it, let alone hear it. To enjoy it, you must specifically make a special trip to see it. Even though it is technically designed as a garden destination, just how often would you do this? Every day? Maybe so, right after installation, an upgrade or the addition of some new fish. But I can guarantee that in the long run, this trip will not happen as often. If you are going to invest time and money in something like a water garden, you might as well enable yourself to enjoy it every day.

So, positioning a water garden or feature is so critical during the design phase. Ideally, they all would be what I call up-close and personal — located in or right next to an outdoor living area like a deck or a patio, areas that you probably occupy on a daily basis anyway.

One could make the argument that if you placed a water feature in an area away from where you normally frequented, it might draw you to that location more often. Yes, maybe initially, but as time goes by, distant things tend to get less attention. Sure, you can always create an outdoor living area out in the back 40, like a sitting bench in a gazebo. But again, if you must make the journey to get there, it will not happen as often as time goes on.

Training koi to be handfed is truly a fun experience. It does take time to train them, but when you succeed, it’s hard to get much more personal than that.

The smaller the water feature, the closer it should be to where you always walk or enjoy the outdoors. This seems like a relatively simple concept, but it gets ignored way too often, in my view. For example, a tub water garden is best placed next to an entry door or next to a lounge chair on a deck.

As a lot of you may know from my previous writings, I like writing about critters and what goes on in the water on a scale that a lot of people may not think is interesting. I like to get right down to the water surface with my face and turn a stone over to observe what might be hiding under it. Some critters are easy to catch, and others are not so easy unless you are prepared with a net or jar. Of course, some critters attach to the rock itself, and those are the easiest to capture and observe. This is the experience water gardeners can totally miss, even with years of keeping a water garden.

Observing baby calico shubunkin goldfish that have just hatched from the green spawning mop is truly an amazing sight. You do have to have the right lighting and background (and the ability to get close to the water) to see this. You may remember the first time you saw even just one baby goldfish in a pond.

And if this is fun for us adults, how about the kids who might witness a newly hatched baby fish? How about observing a blood worm in its casting and lightly scratching it off to see the actual bright-red worm? If a fish is close by, they will immediately eat it if given a chance.

This is the web of life on a small scale. How fun is that?

The idea is to experience water gardening on a microscopic scale. Buy, beg for or borrow a dissecting scope or a microscope. You will open a whole new world of critter life that is absolutely amazing to discover and observe.

What kinds of critters might you see? The majority of them will be invertebrates, or animals without backbones — worms, insects in immature stages and protozoa of all kinds, for example. Remember the amoebas, euglenas and planaria you were taught about in high school biology class? If a healthy ecosystem exists, you should be able to find them in unbelievable numbers.
If you do find invertebrates in your water garden, that usually indicates that you have a healthy ecosystem. Of course, the water garden must be up and running for at least a year before you will find very many of them. If you don’t see them, keep looking. If none at all turn up, you may have a problem. If you really get into it, you can search for certain invertebrates that are more sensitive to pollution. Finding any of them would indicate very pure-quality water.

What an experience for our kids to be able to watch fish from such a close distance! Remember that it can be dangerous for children to do so unsupervised

With your face still at the water surface, observe the color of the water. Water that has a whitish cast to it can mean very low oxygen levels. This whiteness comes from microscopic dead critters that have died from low levels of O2. These guys tend to die before the fish do, so act quickly to provide more circulation.

Water that has a darker color to it could mean several things. The most likely cause would be tannins from decomposing leaves. Some leaves have more tannins than others. A small quantity of tannins is OK and natural for the ecosystem. A lot of tannins means the water has higher levels of dissolved organic matter in it. A lot of foam on the surface also indicates a high dissolved organic load. Dissolved organic matter can rob your ecosystem of oxygen if given the right conditions. When the organic load gets this high, it needs to be reduced by water changes or what they call a “foam fractionator.” Plant filters will remove tannins and organics as well.

Stop & Smell the Water

Finally, while you are that close to the water — smell it. It should smell of the earth, as I like to say, or similar to what you might experience during a rainstorm or after the ground is tilled. However, if it smells like rotten eggs, that is normally hydrogen sulfide gas, which comes from anaerobic microbial action (without oxygen). This gas is toxic to life. When this smell is discovered, provide more aeration immediately to supply the oxygen necessary to eliminate anaerobic conditions.

Bullfrogs will eat any critter that they can fit in their mouths. If you pay close attention, you will find them eating birds that came a little too close.

In summary, by locating a water garden close to outdoor living areas, you bring it up-close and personal, allowing you to experience the sights and sounds of water more easily on daily basis. You can even get closer and more personal by observing nature on a small scale, something that you might have never even thought about until now.

During these days of social distancing, you can still be up-close and personal — to a water garden! This is a healthy habit for you and your water garden, since your immersive investigative work may reveal potential problems with the feature. Above all, it is a real joy, and that is what water gardening is all about.

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