- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

More than a decade ago, when District resident Robert Owens decided to build a fish pond in his back yard, he figured he would start small. So he made his way down to the nursery, picked out the smallest pond kit he could find and enlisted a couple of his brothers to help him dig.

Three hours later, he had his own special oasis in the middle of Northwest.

“The initial motivation was my wife,” says Mr. Owens. “She likes the sound of water trickling down. It’s so soothing and relaxing. Now we all love it.”

Water gardens have been gaining in popularity in the last decade.

Depending upon the size of your pocketbook, you can come up with your backyard oasis from your own inexpensive do-it-yourself project or hire a landscape architect and pull out all the stops in your design scheme (and your wallet.)

Either way, you’ll find that you have created a backyard getaway with an added bonus: A backyard water garden may add to the value of your home.

“I’ve built water features for people who are selling their homes just so they could sell their house,” says Steve Shinholser, owner of Burtonsville-based Premier Ponds. “There’s a Zen-like quality to moving water that’s akin to a bonfire in the middle of winter. Everyone is drawn to it.”

According to figures provided by the National Gardening Association, 14 million Americans participated in water gardening in 2004.

That’s up from 7 million just five years earlier.

Water gardens for the NGA survey include everything from water-in-a-barrel-type gardens to sophisticated designs featuring massive plantings, carefully arranged boulders and, of course, fish.

Most water gardeners don’t stop at just one. These days, Mr. Owens is working on his fifth iteration of the backyard pond, complete with separate water features and plenty of koi — Japanese carp. He’s got a fountain and a waterfall, and lots of carefully planned landscaping around the edge.

“It’s from the biggest kit in the store,” he says. “So we may have to stop at this one.”

Once the bugbear of the backyard gardener, pond maintenance is easier and less expensive than ever, says Mr. Shinholser, who builds roughly 30 ponds a year in the greater Washington area.

New equipment runs more efficiently and is easier to hide. A well-maintained pond can be a great destination spot for friends and neighbors, or just a place to come to let the cares of the day roll away.

That can be an important selling point if your home is on the market.

“If it adds to curb appeal and aesthetics, it can make it easier to sell a home if all things are equal,” says Walt Molony, a spokesman for the National Association of Realtors.

But before you start searching for the spade, consider this. Beauty, even something as beautiful as the backyard fishpond or water garden, is always in the eye of the beholder. And that’s something to keep in mind when it comes time to sell.

“The perception of the buyer can vary,” Mr. Molony says. “Not everyone is cut out for labor and maintenance.”

Despite advances in efficiency and ease, pond maintenance may be a bit more than some home buyers are prepared to handle. And some folks are actually put off by ponds, particularly if they have young children.

“Anything that involves water and young people can be a liability,” says Ellen Levy, an associate broker with RE/MAX Allegiance in Washington. “If it’s vestigial or neglected, you’ll want to take it out immediately.”

If you do decide you want to create that backyard oasis for your own, it’s important to plan, prepare and maintain it well enough so that you can enjoy it for years, even if, like Mr. Owens, you find yourself trading up in just a couple.

Be careful, though, where you situate your water garden. One of the most far-reaching mistakes a homeowner can make is to dig a pond on land that is, well, less than flat.

“I had one which was causing the damp basement in the house,” says Mrs. Levy. “The ground was probably sloping a little toward the house. And wet ground and wet wood often equals termites.”

Consider your site in relation to your neighbor. You don’t want to have their runoff in your garden.

Most pond lovers like to be able to catch a glimpse of their creation from afar, so situate your water garden where it can be seen from a porch or high window. And you’ll also want to get up close and personal with your garden, so be careful how you place the landscaping. Nobody likes traipsing through flower beds to get to see the fish.

You’ll need to keep the water moving. No one, particularly a prospective home buyer, likes a pond covered with scum, which is what will happen if you don’t install a pump. And remember, if you want the pump to do other things, like power a fountain or water feature, you’ll need something stronger. Filters will also help screen the algae and other material that might fall into the pond.

“The pond collects debris,” says Mr. Owens, who changes his filters about four times a year. “Whatever nature gives off is likely to end up there.”

You’ll also need to create a balanced ecological system in your pond.

Plants alone won’t work. You’ll need fish and scavengers like tadpoles or snails to clean out debris. Meanwhile, submerged plants like Myriophyllum will help to starve out the algae and oxygenate the water.

Many backyard enthusiasts like to stock their ponds with koi, the Japanese carp that can live for up to 60 years. Some exotic koi cost up to $100,000.

“You don’t want vegetation where the koi are,” says Floyd Broussard, a member of the Mid-Atlantic Koi Club. “The water needs to be crystal clear.”

Although most koi lovers probably don’t regularly shell out $100,000 on a single fish, raising koi is serious work, not for the faint of heart or pocketbook.

“Koi can live for 60 years with proper care,” Mr. Broussard says. “People should not get into this hobby for the short-term.”

Ponds with koi require special consideration, Mr. Broussard says, including a filtration system that can make short work of the ammonia and other excrement the not-so-little fish (they can grow up to 28 to 32 inches) give out.

Don’t make your pond too small; larger environments are actually easier to keep in balance.

“Koi grow fast,” Mr. Broussard says, “and the bigger they get the more filtration is necessary.”

If you do a lot of the work yourself, Mr. Broussard says, $4,000 to $10,000 will get you a nice koi pond.

Many pond enthusiasts note that it is better to think of your pond as a kind of outdoor aquarium rather than a piece of the landscape. Your fish will live longer.

Fish also help to keep down the mosquito population, which can be particularly problematic in standing water. It’s one reason many home buyers are put off by older, less maintained ponds, Mrs. Levy says.

“It could very well be a breeding ground for mosquitoes,” she says. “And that’s a good reason to remove it.”

Many pond lovers in the Washington area make use of a combination of fish and a nontoxic pesticide floating “dunk” to kill the larvae.

Algae can also put off potential customers. Although a little algae can be a boon for the ecosystem of your pond, in our area, it’s easy and quick to get too much of a good thing.

Pond depth is also a factor in pool construction. Mr. Owens favors an 18-inch depth so his pond won’t freeze in a solid block during Washington winters. If safety is a concern, it is possible to install underwater grids. Virtually invisible, they can make a deep pond more shallow.

Designing it yourself? It’s a good idea to start with a plan on graph paper. Be sure to note the location of buried sewer or gas lines.

Indicate the extent of the shade canopy, taking into consideration how much your younger trees will grow during the years to come. Remember, you don’t want twigs, leaves and fruit dropping into your pond. And, if you are planning to light your garden at night, remember to include the wiring on your schema.

Can’t deal with fish and all the maintenance? Consider a “pondless waterfall,” which is virtually maintenance free, and you don’t have to worry about your children — and your neighbor’s children — falling in.

But for those who like to see a pool of water as well as hear it trickle down, nothing beats a good water garden.

“After I cut the lawn it’s good to sit down by the pond,” says Mr. Owens. “It’s a great feeling to look around and see what you’ve done.”

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