Wednesday, 31 July 2019

The Peace of Wild Things

Well, I said I didn’t want a pond, would never want a pond, had zero interest in having a pond.

We have a pond! 

And I’m completely obsessed with it. I don’t get anything done anymore, I just sit and watch the frogs. It’s been a bit of a transformation for the lawn so here’s the journey in pictures, complete with montage video (aren’t I high-tech)!

The pond that was here when we moved in was about 2 square metres, burst, and full of rubbish.

The original pond

It would turn into a little puddle in heavy rain, getting the frogs all excited, and then drain away again. They seemed determined not to move out of the garden though.

Frog in a burst pond
For the new pond we used the same site but dug it much bigger and deeper. And we had to shape the sides to level the pond (the garden is sloped), make a shallow ‘beach’ so the wildlife can get in and out, and shelves for the plant pots to sit on.


We then lined it with old carpet to protect the liner from anything sharp in the soil. Our soil is full of glass and rubble so this was especially necessary. 

If you gave us one of these carpets, thank you!

Then we put the liner in. It’s a butyl rubber firestone liner, which is the thickest you can get and cost about £150. This plus the aquatic plants (about £130) and pebbles (about £30) for the 'beach' was the only money we spent on the pond. I even made a pond net for scooping up fallen leaves from an old broom handle, a wire coat hanger and a bit of old net curtain. Nothing gets wasted in this house.

The liner has to be big enough to cover the whole pond, draping the shelves and extending out over the edges.

The 'Um... how do you do this?' moment
When it’s in, you can add the water. 

Just needs a bikini

Pond life and plants prefer rainwater. You can use tap water but you have to leave it a couple of days for the chemicals to evaporate off before you plant into it.

The wildlife obviously hadn’t heard of this rule though because we had a frog jumping into the pond before we even started filling it with water. 

Wet your hands before you pick them up apparently

I knew absolutely nothing about aquatic plants and the labels on them don’t give you much info so I read a little RHS book about ponds. Apparently there are 2 types of aquatic plants: marginals and oxygenators. 

They both live under water in pots but they have different functions. Marginals are decorative and give frogs etc a place to shelter. Oxygenators produce oxygen which keeps the water healthy and prevents algae growing too thickly. So you need a mixture of both. They also like to live in different depths of water, which is why you need shelves. 

All official advice will tell you to buy special aquatic baskets and aquatic compost for your plants. You do need the aquatic compost. It’s low in nutrients, which is good for the pond because nutrients feed algae and make it grow. 

The plants themselves need very few nutrients, they get all they need from the water. Anything that falls into your pond – leaves, grass, dead insects etc – will turn into nutrients that feed the plants. You don’t want to add to that with nutrient-rich compost. However, you can also use subsoil from your garden instead of special aquatic compost because it’s low in nutrients. 

The reason for the aquatic baskets is to allow water to get to the plant roots. However, these aren’t strictly necessary. I read an article on a pond-owners-club website (there are clubs!) that pointed out that in a natural pond, the plant roots would be buried underground in the bottom of the pond and water wouldn’t be flowing around them. That was good enough for me to not spend a hundred quid on special baskets so I used pots I already had and the plants seem to be doing fine. 

You can line them with hessian and top them with gravel to stop compost escaping from the drainage holes and floating away from the top of the pot. 

The pond is about 2m x 3m with a maximum depth of about 80cm. Having a deep area is important for deep water plants as well as to keep the pond healthy. It regulates the temperature of the water, so it doesn’t get too hot in summer or freeze in winter.

Plants in position!
We don't have fish. If you have fish in your pond then you’re going to need filters and pumps because fish poo is essentially nutrients which will encourage algae and you have to clean it out. In a wildlife pond you actually want still water, which frogs etc prefer. So fish aren’t really ideal for a wildlife pond and they’re much more maintenance. 

People often edge their ponds with stones, mainly to hold the liner in place and hide the edge of it. But I wanted a more ‘wildlife-y’ look so instead we used the turf that we were lifting from the front garden and laid it around the pond. 

The grass roots hold the soil in place and the turf holds the liner in place. And this grass was already full of clover and buttercups and other weeds that people try to eradicate in their lawns but I thought it looked much more natural than freshly sown new grass. The clover has grown over one edge already to hide the liner quite well. 

Grass all laid

Clover along one edge

Because the garden is on a slope, we had to build one end of the pond up so the top was level. This made a slope down one end of it which I've planted up. 

Plants going in

Two months later

Hard landscaping wasn’t really an option in this garden because:

  1. It’s expensive
  2. It’s heavy – we have no access for machinery so everything has to be carted in and out by hand. We deal with this by trying to reuse everything we find in the garden.
So all the paths had to be grass, and we used the (many) bricks that we dug up in the garden to edge it.

This little sloped area above the pond was almost entirely rubble, which I dug out.

Why do people bury rubble in their gardens!

And all the stone that was edging the old pond had to be dealt with. So we used it to build a little drystone wall which would hold up the sloped soil and make a little frog-watching seat. 

I’ve planted up the slope with butterfly friendly plants to encourage wildlife and planted chamomile and Mexican daisies in the cracks in the wall and they should self seed and spread to fill other cracks. You can see Mexican daisy (Erigeron) smothering the steps at the top of the Italian Garden at Mount Stewart. It’s absolutely beautiful and flowers all summer long.

Butterfly bed, newly planted

Two months of summer growth later, it looks like this.
My frog-watching seat

And the planting around the pond now looks like this:

The rest of the lawn is now flower beds. It started out looking like this.


And then I gradually dug up the grass to make beds.

By the time I got around to the part below the pond, the grass was like this:

Which is actually quite pretty, and very good for wildlife. Long grass and wildflower areas are essential for insects. Butterflies need them to lay their eggs in, and there’s no point planting butterfly friendly plants if you don’t give them somewhere to breed. If you leave a small area of your garden to go wild it looks really pretty and it’s very easy maintenance.

After I'd dug it up, I didn’t have enough plants for this area but I had packets of wildflower and other seeds so I chucked them down and this was the result!

This is very low maintenance gardening for a stunning effect.

I've been gradually planting up the rest of the beds since last year. Most of the plants were grown from cuttings and seeds, which made things much cheaper.

Placing the plants last year
This year:

All my cut flowers now come from the garden
I also put down grass seed for the main path.

Which now looks like this!

And that’s it, sit back and enjoy! 

The Froggery!

The big test was having 6 small children over for the pond party. They ALL managed to see some frogs and they all managed not to throw sharp things, or themselves, in the water, so I think that was a huge success.

Since we put in the pond we have loads of frogs. At twilight you can watch them hop out of the pond and go hunting for snails and slugs. I’ve also noticed a lot more birds, including ones I’ve never seen in the garden before – goldcrests, goldfinches, jays and chaffinches - not to mention all the waterboatmen, water beetles, butterflies and other insects. It's definitely worth doing if you're interested in attracting wildlife. Apparently the UK has lost 98% of its wild meadows since WWII. We have lots of farm land and green fields that look very 'rural' but the truth is, those fields don't actually support any life except grass and sheep. But our gardens cover a vast area of the UK and if everyone made their garden a bit more wildlife friendly by:
  1. Having some water (even a mini pond in a sunken barrel or an old tyre is good)
  2. Having a wild area of long grass
  3. Not using chemicals to kill pests (the frogs and birds will kill them if you just leave things alone)
then we can make a huge difference to our wildlife. And you get a lovely garden to sit in!

And if that doesn't convince you, here's a poem by Wendell Berry:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Size isn't everything

Our first trip away this year! Only a weekend in Dublin and Wicklow but we managed to pack in 2 gardens and a comedy gig. 

The comedy gig was not Gerda trying to negotiate the Dublin ring road, though that was funny in a heart stopping kind of way, it was Foil, Arms and Hog at Vicar Street Theatre in Dublin and it was very good despite Michael freaking out in case he got pulled out of the audience (we were sitting quite near the front). 

Also quite funny. Our neighbours at the campsite.

We stayed at a Camac Valley campsite near Dublin, which was very nice and right beside Corkagh Park. Our neighbours were dutch and their motorhome was bigger than Ireland. It gave birth to a small car while we watched.

But ours is cuter.

On Saturday we went to Powerscourt to see the garden. I’d never been before but I can’t think why because it was beautiful. I’d highly recommend it for a day trip.

The inside of the house seems to be mostly shops now and there's a huge garden centre.

The main garden is incredibly grand and has a view out to the Wicklow mountains.

Lowering the tone

Shiny silver horses guarding the lake

Boathouse under the bridge

There's also a Japanese garden. Japanese gardens really aren't my thing, but I think that's because when people do a 'Japanese style garden' it generally means some sand, a rock and a lonely maple and I can't imagine anything more depressing. But this was a proper Japanese garden. It was designed a hundred years ago and it's stunning.

It's full of greenery, water, moss, ferns, steps and bridges. 

This was a little grotto filled with moss. They love moss in Japan apparently.

This was a whole bed of marestail, which you normally attack in your garden with a mixture of Glyphosate and black magic but here it just looked beautifully soft and lush. There's a place for every plant apparently.

And they have the longest herbaceous border in Ireland! I do love a herbaceous border. Herbaceous plants are ones that have soft green stems that disappear in winter and come back next year (if they're perannial), rather than woody stems (like shrubs) that just go bare in winter or are evergreen. They grow quite quickly and can go from nothing to flowering in one season.

Can't resist glasshouses. Obvs it's not as nice as mine but it's was OK.

And they have a pet cemetery! The deceased included Eugenie the Jersey Cow, Princess the Aberdeen Angus, Kilfane the wolfhound, Tommy the pony and his wife, Magic.

We stayed in a tiny campsite which was basically in someone’s back garden just down the road from Powerscourt. It was very relaxed. And on Sunday we stopped at Killruddery House and Gardens which is quite nearby. 


Killruddery is one of very few remaining 17th century gardens in Britain/Ireland and it was designed by a guy who trained with the gardener who designed Versailles.

This leads into...


There are two of these long ponds side by side

They're famous for their Orangery, which you can get married in now if you're so inclined. Apparently the stonework around the top is shaped like a tiara because the family sold a tiara to pay for it. 

Inside the Orangery. No oranges but there's a bath!

The purple plant is nepeta, or catmint, which someone told us is also known as Irish Lavender because it will grow in crappy weather, which Lavender won't. 

We went on a tour of the gardens and had lunch in the extremely cute cafe.

There’s still a family living at the house but it’s open to tourists and they do weddings and have a farm shop. They’re also restoring the huge walled garden and keeping pigs, chickens and growing veg for the cafĂ©.

So that's as far as we've got so far this summer but we might get away again in September when the schools go back. Can't be doing with children having fun when we're busy drinking wine and eating our body weight in cheese.