By LInda DeGraf
One morning as I began to rise from the depths of sleep, my husband called to me from our big glass sliding doors, “Come quick. You’re not gonna believe this!” Standing over the little pond in our yard was a four-foot-tall great blue heron! It was evidently eyeing the frogs as a possibility for breakfast before it took off for larger waters. That was an unexpected encounter with a wild one, but it was a welcome moment of wonder.
Adding a water feature to your yard or garden area nurtures a host of wildlife visitors, and provides a home for frogs and other aquatic lovers. Everyone needs water, whether to live in, breed in, hover over for a fly-by sipping, wash and splash in, or just sit by and feel renewed.
Having built our strawbale house on ground with a significant slope, we needed to bring in someone with a backhoe for some serious re-grading. What a fine time to scoop out a few more bucket loads for a pond. How big though and how deep? Everyone says to make it as big as you have space for because as soon as you put it in you’ll wish it were bigger! But we also wanted it to be manageable, simple, and affordable, so we made a modest, irregular shape roughly ten feet across.
How deep depends in part on what you want to do with your pond. If you hope, for example, that critters will be able to overwinter, you need at least some part of your pond to extend below the freeze line. In this area that means about three feet deep.
We dug out a shelf around parts of the perimeter to hold plants we got from a nearby pond, and used field stones to secure the pond liner. Stones placed in natural curves down to the water’s edge provide varying levels for wildlife to enter and exit the water, as well as plenty of nooks and crannies to hide from predators. We barely finished preparing the space before a huge rainstorm filled it with water. For the long term, we ran a downspout from our roof into the side of the pond, and created a spot on the lower slope for overflow. We added a few oxygenating plants, so we’re about to enter the third summer without the need for a pump. (There is plenty of information online for those who want more active circulation.)
Being surrounded by woods, we decided not to stock our pond, but to just wait and see who chose to come. Had we put in fish, they would have eaten most of the smaller critters and altered the native ecosystem we wanted to nurture. Within weeks we had hundreds of tadpoles! We have counted up to two dozen green frogs at a time basking on rocks or launching themselves into wrestling matches. Last summer four pairs of American toads held a three-day breeding marathon, trailing their black, jellied egg necklaces around and around the irises.
Once a shy wood frog peeked out from under a rock and pickerel frogs appear from time to time. In the spring, the choruses of tree frogs and greens resound throughout the evening. Last summer a painted turtle came and stayed for a few months. A ribbon snake spent hours weaving in and out of rock crevices and gliding sinuously across the water in vain attempts to snag a frog or two. One morning we watched a dragonfly emerging slowly from its old nymph exoskeleton. We see little goldfinches sipping water and hummingbirds gathering nectar from the irises.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of our wildlife habitat improvement project has been the delight of all the children that rediscover their own wildness at the edge of this one little pond. To bear witness to our two-year-old granddaughter’s squeals of joy and magnetic draw toward “ogs!” is to remember the wonder of the natural world.
Experiencing the intricacies of life cycles and biodiversity reconnects us with our own inner child and instills in all of us that the earth’s caretaking is our sacred trust. Watching that instinctive bond between children and their wild home is pure magic.
Linda DeGraf is an artist and educator of young children who lives at the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community near Shannondale Springs. The PVAS Backyard Naturalist program encourages people to connect with the wildlife in their own backyards. To learn how to provide quality backyard habitat, see www.potomacaudubon.org/bynhabitats.