Introduction: Pond / Watergarden Science
Finalist in the
Discover Green Science Fair for a Better Planet
Would you like to exert god-like control over an environment and its resources? Well, you should get a pond.
By adding even a small watergarden to your property, you can learn lots about the fragile balance of a vital ecosystem. To ensure a healthy biodiversity, you will need to monitor and manage many different variables.
Over time you will also develop positive personality traits like humility and patience, since nature works on its own timetable and to its own set of priorities.
Owning a pond can be a lot of work, but extremely rewarding.
Step 1: Lesson 1 - Biodiversity / Pond Residents
Once you add a pond or water feature to your property, you will be amazed at how quickly you become the popular neighborhood hot spot for critters. Everybody loves water.
However, with great gifts comes great responsibility. If you invite all of these creatures to your house, you'd better be ready to be a good host.
Step 2: Lesson 2 - Lifecycle / Spotlight on Fish
One pond resident that will take up the most of your attention is your fish.
For relatively small animals, they are needy, needy, needy. From day one, they demand your attention and care. Here are some considerations for the health and comfort of your fish.
FOOD - Pond fish are luckier than their aquarium brethren. There are lots of interesting things to eat just floating around: algae, plants, insect larva, etc. But you probably want your fish to have a better quality of nutrition. Also, a well-fed and healthy fish will be more resistant to disease, temperature changes and other natural hazards.
OXYGEN - Fish get oxygen from two sources: the surface and vegetation. If your fish are always at the surface "sipping" air, you need to put in more plants.
SHELTER - On the one hand, outdoor fish are particularly vulnerable to predation. On the other hand, a natural environment makes them frisky so that they breed. You need to give your fish some shelter for both reasons. Floating plants will provide shade and concealment from birds and fish-eating mammals, like raccoons. Submerged plants will give the fish somewhere to spawn and also protect the fry from being eaten by other pond residents.
SPACE - Fish will regulate their body temperature by finding warm and cool spots in your pond. If your pond is deep enough they can go to the bottom to hibernate through winter (here in zone 5, that's about 30-36" deep).
Oh, and one more thing about spaces. Think about the margins of your pond. Wading birds, like heron and egrets, love nice gentle sloping shorelines. They will stand ankle-deep and spear your pretty white and gold fish and thank you for making dinner so easy.
Step 3: Lesson 3 - Chemistry / Circle of Life
Your pond is like a petri-dish full of chemicals and critters-- all wound together in a tight cycle of interpendency.
You start the process when you toss your fish some food pellets.
They eat nearly all but some pellets drop to the bottom of your pond. The fish add their own droppings. Leaves blow in, and they sink to the bottom. Pretty soon the bottom of your pond is an icky mess of brown slurry.
Well, it looks bad to you but anaerobic bacteria think its yummy. They start converting all of the waste to ammonia compounds.
Wait. Is that a good thing? Does anyone like ammonia? Yes, as a matter of fact, more (aerobic) bacteria come along and convert the ammonia to nitrites. And more bacteria convert the nitrites to nitrates.
Thank goodness for bacteria. Because now the plants can convert those nitrates to oxygen. Some of the oxygen is absorbed by the fish and some dissipates at the surface.
Step 4: Experiment 1: Keep One Pond Resident Alive for a Year
Pick your favorite lifeform - animal or vegetable (minerals don't count for this one).
Pick an individual from your prefered species. This might be tough for frogs and fish since they move and grow. Biologists like to put tags on things for this reason. I've found that my fish don't enjoy being tagged, and furthermore, I try not to interfere with my study subjects. Look for some distinguishing marks, like peculiar spots or deformities.
Keep records on your pond environment and the appearance of your selected study subject.
Step 5: Experiment 2: Breed Another Generation
One excellent indicator of the vitality of an ecosystem is whether it encourages reproduction of healthy offspring.
Frogs are fairly overt breeders and so make better study subjects for this activity. Here are some signs of breeding activity that you should be alert for.
BREEDING CALLS -- I always mark the start of spring from when I first hear the Peepers shrilly singing. A month later, the toads can be heard trilling. The bullfrogs are always the last to come to the party with their deep banjo-twanging and creaking.
VISIBLE MATING -- Like I said, overt. Toads will do it in broad daylight, and even let you take pictures and post them on the internet. Shameless.
EGGS -- Toad eggs come in strings, like in the picture. Frog eggs appear in masses.
TADPOLES -- Some shallow water is good for tadpoles, who like the warmth, the safety from swimming predators, and the availability of oxygen.
YOUNG -- One day all of the tadpoles disappear. They they don't call and they don't write. But if you look very carefully, you may notice very tiny creatures hopping around the margins of your pond. The ones in the picture are about the size of a housefly.
Step 6: Experiment 3 - Get Certified
The National Wildlife Federation (nwf) will help you learn more about how to establish a sustainable ecosystem in your backyard by providing food, water, and shelter for animals.
Step 7: Experiment 4 - Save the World
It seems like a lot of people (and governments) have a hard time with sustaining the environment. Ferilizer run-off from farms contaminates streams, top predators are hunted to extinction and we put concrete and glass on the top of our most fertile real estate.
Think about how hard it is to keep one small pond in complete ecological balance all the time. Too many fish lead to too much waste and too much ammonia and your fish all die. Or maybe there's too much nitrates and you get an algae bloom that turns all of your water cloudy and green. Is cloudy water a problem for the fish or does it just offend your aesthetic nature? You fix one problem and it creates another problem.
What is your local government doing that is helping or harming the ecosystem that you live in? How does that affect other neighborhoods?
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