Pond Reflections

30 Sep 2021

A backyard water garden beckons to where the goldfish swirl

Story and Photos By Christine Hall

On most days, in the stillness of morning, our small, backyard pond beckons me to walk to where the goldfish swirl. I love to sit near the water’s edge, coffee in hand, to take in the sights and sounds. In the evenings, the croak of a frog or trill of a cricket will draw me back. The reflections in the moonlight dance as I unwind, quieting my thoughts.

Our garden pond has proven to be a leading feature in our backyard. It acts as a natural focal point where we can entertain, play, and rest. And it introduces a powerful mix of mood and movement that I have found unmatched on dry land.

Digging In

Our pond was built with our own hands and began as a project request from our nature-loving daughters. They had strong interest in building an aquatic habitat to attract frogs, snails, and other wildlife they encountered in the yard. Loving to spend time outdoors myself and imagining a Monet-inspired water garden complete with running water and floating lilies, I had surprised them that day with a resounding “Yes!”

I remember the excavation and building process well – particularly the role our dogs played in the disruption of the dirt piles. With a rather full garden already, we had difficulty choosing a suitable space. Ultimately, an 8’x6’ area in front of our foundation shrubs, near a crepe myrtle for shade, and not too far from our backdoor, was deemed perfect.

It was not long into our digging endeavors before we realized we needed to do some more research. Was our liner large enough? How much space should we leave around the edges? Which ground medium was going to work best?

Aquatic Paradise Found

A visit to Star Ridge Aquatics in Carthage for advice and supplies was next on our list. When we arrived at the nursery, we were reminded of why pond installations are typically left for highly trained professionals. The on-site water features were stocked with beautiful, large goldfish and koi swimming in pristine pools. The waterlilies and lotus flowers stood tall with blooms perfuming the air. Waterfalls flowed over rocks and through streams. “I want a pond like this,” I remember our daughter whispering.

Joe Granato is the owner and operator of Star Ridge Aquatics LLC, which is situated on six acres of former tobacco farmland off Star Ridge Road. Granato is a walking encyclopedia of information about how all things should operate in and around water – from the largest of plants to the smallest of fish.

“The success of any pond relies on the amount of forethought you put into it. If you equip yourself with the right tools and knowledge you can be successful in anything you do,” he states. “But there are many facets to consider before you get to where you need to be.” We certainly found this wisdom to be true as we embarked on our own pond adventure.

Granato’s interest in building his own water garden business began after graduating in 1993 from the Landscape Gardening Program at Sandhills Community College in Southern Pines. “I always had a passion for fish and water plants,” he says. “So, I enrolled to pursue a career in landscaping, specializing in water gardens.” At the time of his enrollment, Sandhills Community College was ranked No. 2 in the nation for its accredited program. “We worked about 30 acres of grounds that served as our living laboratory, and our class helped with several of the water features you see today at the Horticultural Gardens,”
Granato says.

Graduation was followed by a formal apprenticeship in Maryland with LilyPons Water Gardens, a leading aquatic garden center in the Green Industry at the time. Upon completion, Granato determined he would return to the Sandhills to start his own business. It was then that he began the arduous yet rewarding process of propagating his own aquatic plants.

Exploring the Grounds

In addition to the ponds of potted tropical plants, stands of waterlilies, and greenhouses filled with propagations, there is a sales office to answer client calls, help with the purchase of plants, fish, and supplies, and test water samples. Staff are also available for aquatic emergencies businesses or residents may encounter, including farmer discoveries of fish belly-up in their ponds or algae infiltrating residential water gardens.

“One of the most important things I tell people is this: Before you start planning, it is critical to determine what your goals are,” Granato says. “A pond can be a rewarding addition to your garden, but the success of any feature relies on the amount of forethought you put into it,”
he underlines.

After visiting Star Ridge Aquatics and meeting Joe Granato, we implemented a few changes into our plans, and over the course of a weekend, our daughters had the complete mini pond of their dreams. During our adventure, however,
we learned a few key elements to a successful project.  

Rookie Mistakes:

Positioning under a tree.

While having a canopy of shade for fish or wildlife sounds appealing, the build-up of decomposing leaves can harm your pond and fish. Choose instead to place your water feature near a tree or natural area of shade, but not in a place where leaves will continuously fall. The most important factor is to choose a site that gets shade in the afternoon, so that the water does not become too overheated.

Not leaving enough workspace.

For close enjoyment, monitoring, and cleaning you will want any pumps and filters to be easily accessible, which includes around the perimeter of the pond. If rocks or plantings become too obtrusive you will not be able to reach certain areas without trampling plants or climbing through rocks. A 2-feet-wide walking area is ideal.

Wasting a fertilizing source.

Pond water can be a great fertilizing source in your garden so use it to your advantage. If you need to pump any water or transfer any out of the pond for cleaning, be sure to dump some in your flower gardens or shrubs for the beneficial bacteria.

Combining koi with water plants.

In their natural environment, koi love digging in mineral-rich clay for food. When gardeners place sunken potted plants or plant baskets in their ponds, koi often uproot the plant, causing it to float to the top where they will eat the leaves. Goldfish do not have this same tendency. Most aquatic plants also need sun, whereas koi enjoy some shade due to being subject to sunburn.

Worrying about the water bill.

Granato argues that for anyone concerned about the amount of water a pond may require, consider this perspective: “Watering flower gardens often takes more water per square foot than a water garden or pond. And that same space in a water garden has sound, movement, and life, and is exponentially more sensory positive,” he says.

While Granato continues to serve the Sandhills’ aquatic garden needs as he has for the past few decades, he and his wife, Rebekah, are looking to use their horticultural expertise to raise fruits and vegetables on their land. “We have already planted blueberries, muscadines, blackberries, and raspberries,” he says. “We envision returning to farming the land with crops like peppers and tomatoes, maintaining honeybee hives, and producing jams and jellies. A pick-your-own field to serve the community is our dream.”

Like skipping rocks on a pond, sometimes our dreams build off each other and create a positive rippling effect. I hope that to be the case for your aquatic gardening adventures.

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