By Polly Keary, Editor
In a long, sky-lit greenhouse in back of Monroe’s Falling Water Gardens, known not only for spectacular garden creations but also for an extensive collection of exotic fish, long shallow rectangles of water glimmer in the soft light.
Then a slash and a flash of orange, and the head of a koi peeks out of the water at the edge of one of the concrete pools, hoping for food.
To feed it would be to kill it, though; the brilliant creature isn’t mean to eat in the winter months, so owner Rick Perry lets the fish go disappointed.
Exotic fish can literally bring a garden to life, but caring for them requires some specialized knowledge. With proper care, though, goldfish and koi can add interest and even personality to a garden for decades.
“Koi and goldfish make a wonderful addition to your pond or water feature,” said Perry last week from the Seattle Convention Center, where Falling Water Gardens was showing off another elaborate garden installation. “Their movement through the pond adds interest and can become mesmerizing.”
The fish can also add to the health of a garden.
“They eat mosquito larvae and other critters in the pond so you won’t have to worry about mosquitoes,” Perry added.
If you have some yard space and you’re interested in what it would take to add a fish pond, here are the steps to take.
Design the pond
One main threat to decorative fish is predators, and the best way to protect your fish is to design the pond well.
“People often ask about eagles and/or their cats but these aren’t usually a problem,” said Perry. “Cats don’t like to walk across a wet lawn, let alone dip their paw into your pond. And while they may stare for hours at your fish swimming in the pond, they aren’t very effective at swatting a fish out of the pond. Unless your pond is very large and in a very open area, it is unlikely that an eagle is going to have enough room to swoop down and catch the fish and keep flying away, which is how they fish.”
The predators you should fear instead are herons and raccoons. Falling Water Gardens has some products that can help deter them, but the best strategy is to create a safe pond.
“If your pond is at least 16 to 24 inches deep, and has very straight sides without a beach or planting shelves, you will keep the raccoons out,” Perry explained. “They don’t want to swim but just wade into your pond, so they can use their front paws to catch your fish and mess with your plants. If you design your pond with straight sides, they come to the edge but can’t get into the pond without swimming; so they will go to the neighbor’s pond and bother their fish instead.”
Dig even deeper to save your fish from heron.
“Herons fish by standing knee-deep in your pond and waiting for your fish to swim by,” said Perry. “A heron will not stand in a pond that is three feet deep and they don’t like to try and fish from the edge of the pond; so if you just make it three feet deep you won’t have to worry about herons. If your pond is shallower than that, you can build a little underwater cave for the fish to hide in when the heron comes and it will save some, but not all of your fish.”
Make sure the water is clean
To keep fish alive and healthy, fish need PH balanced water, free of chlorine and low on ammonia.
“Chlorine will burn your fish’s gills, and if it doesn’t kill them outright it will be like giving them asthma for the rest of their life, so it’s important to make sure there is no chlorine in the water,” said Perry. “Chlorine is a gas, and it leaves the water after 24 hours; so if your pond has been up and running for a day or two, you can add your fish right to the pond. You should always have a bottle of dechlorinator; so if you have to do a water change, you can take the chlorine out of the water. You just pour the dechlorinator into the pond as the pond is filling and it instantly removes the chlorine.”
Fish like PH balanced water, meaning neither acidic nor alkali. You can get a PH test kit at any outdoor store for a few dollars, and you can balance the water fairly easy with household products.
The biggest threat to your fish is ammonia.
“Every time the fish breaths, her gills take oxygen from the water, and instead of giving off carbon dioxide she gives off ammonia,” Perry said. “Fish waste and decomposing vegetative matter on the bottom of the pond also contribute ammonia to the water. Too much ammonia in the water will kill your fish faster than anything else, so we want to get the ammonia out of the water.”
Another inexpensive kit can help you stay on top of ammonia levels. There are several easy ways to get ammonia out of the water, according to the following tips from Perry:
- • Move the water: Waterfalls, fountain heads, cute spitters – anything that breaks the surface of the water and splashes it around – will help the ammonia leave the pond and oxygen get into the pond.
- • Add aquatic plants: Aquatic plants use the ammonia as fertilizer, growing bigger and creating oxygen in the pond. When you add plants to the pond we call it “naturally balancing” your pond. It is usually safe to have one inch of fish for every square foot of surface area of your pond. If your pond is 7×10 sq. feet, you have 70 square feet of surface area, so you can have about 70 inches of total fish length, if you have enough plants in the pond to keep the ammonia low and the fish healthy. Whenever we are measuring fish we are talking about from their nose to where their tail starts, or the length of their body without counting their tail fins.
- • Use a filter: Most people with koi eventually add a biological filter. A biological filter grows microscopic bacteria in it. The bacteria happen to want to eat ammonia for food; so if you get a filter the bacteria will eat up all the ammonia; and you don’t have to worry about plants in the pond; and you can actually add many more fish to your pond.
Select your fish
If you just want a serene pond with bright flashes of living color, and you want to keep expenses down, you might decided on goldfish. But if you can spend a little more and want fish that might outlive you, as well as adding personality to your garden, consider koi.
“I tell people that goldfish are like cats, while koi are like dogs,” said Perry. “Your dog quickly learns that, if you’re in the kitchen and he comes to your feet, you may break down and give him a treat or scraps from the dinner.”
But goldfish are more aloof. “Even if you’ve been on a long vacation and haven’t seen your cat in two weeks, she may just as well hang out in the living room and completely ignore you even though you want to see her,” said Perry. “Koi very quickly learn that if they follow you around the edge of the pond you may throw them some food, while goldfish never quite figure that out and are just as likely to swim to the opposite side of the pond. It is really quite fun to see your fish notice you as you approach the side of the pond, and swim over because they know you’re going to feed them.”
Goldfish, which may grow to eight inches in length, tops, and live up to 20 years, start at about $6 at Falling Water Gardens, while koi, which get up to two feet long and can live 70 years, start at about $12.
The two blend quite well in ponds, too.
Feed them properly
You don’t actually need to feed your fish, but you can, said Perry.
“They will eat bugs and algae off the side of the pond, but most people enjoy feeding their fish, so they do,” he said. “When you feed them they learn to come to you and you will get more enjoyment from them.”
But you must never feed them in the cold months.
“You don’t feed your fish at all when the water temperature is below 50, so from about October until April the fish are almost hibernating at the bottom of the pond,” Perry explained. “Their metabolism is slowed and they are not usually eating, but living off the fat they stored on their bodies all summer.”
They can be given spring food once the water warms past 50, and in the summer they can take a high-protein food, then switch back to spring food when the temperature drops below 60 again.
The eating habits of fish make them either a fun, interactive pet or a very low-maintenance pet, indeed.
“If you choose to feed your fish, you can feed them small meals as many as five times a day, but you can also go on a vacation for two weeks and your fish will get along just fine without being fed while you’re gone,” said Perry.
To learn more about goldfish and koi including where to get accessories, plants, water spitters and especially the fish themselves, or even to discuss the expert creation and design of a pond for your yard, call (206) 323-2873, or visit www.FallingWaterGardens.com.
But the best way to get information is to see the fish and all the fun extras yourself, by taking a trip out to Falling Water Gardens, just south of Monroe in the Tualco Valley on S.R. 203.