Let me preface my remarks by stating that my views and opinions are influenced by the environmental, political and economic factors I face daily in the operation of my business. I clearly recognize that others face a different set of challenges and that may render my comments less applicable to your situation. But I do feel the topic l address has validity for any water garden installer, no matter what part of the country you work in or regardless of the differing economic and political situations your businesses face.

Green Friendly Pond Installation

by Joel Police, Indiana USA


As water gardening continues to gain popularity among the general public, it seems our "hobby" can no longer fly under the radar as it has in the past. Cities adopt new zoning regulations for safety reasons, insurance companies look closer at liability issues on the part of both water garden owners and installation companies, and consumers become more discriminating about products and services. While this has both positive and negative outcomes for consumers and commercial firms alike, increased scrutiny is a good thing if it yields better informed buyers and properly insured and trained installers eager to competently perform installations.

But one issue that seems to be overlooked centers around the big selling point of water gardens. Almost every water garden installer and equipment manufacturer in the marketplace today talks about how natural a water garden is and the benefits of having a little piece of nature in the landscape. The song and dance continues with descriptions of the pond ecosystem, the nitrogen cycle, and interactions between fish, plants and microscopic life until the consumer believes that Mother Nature herself might stop by and take part in the installation.

Now don't get me wrong . . . I am not arguing against properly educating consumers about the processes that operate in a healthy water garden. Nor am I denigrating essential closing techniques required to seal the deal with a customer. What I am pointing out is how the focus is on all the natural characteristics of water gardens, but then companies turn around and install a product that is far from green friendly in the critical aspect of water conservation.

For those of you living in regions of the country already dealing with water use restrictions (or in other more water conservation minded countries), you are obviously already tuned in to the issue of water conservation. As I gather information from reading articles, online content and visiting ponding forums, it seems some cities and states in water deficient areas maintain a dim view of water gardening. Understandably, it does not help matters when a pond company shows up to perform spring cleaning and thousands of gallons of water run into the storm sewer system so that the pond can be pressure washed or "boiled", depending on the cleaning procedure used. In the Midwest we have yet to be confronted with water rationing concerns but I still wince every time I fire up the drain pump to empty out a water garden in full view of the neighbors.

Why clean a pond in this manner? Unfortunately, it is the design of the pond and the construction techniques that dictate the cleaning process. Far too often in the quest to make water gardens appear natural, installers heap piles of rocks and gravel on the pond bottom. Now the minute I start a conversation about the pros and cons of ponds with rocks and gravel on the bottom (r&g ponds), I also start an argument. Inevitably it becomes a shouting match with r&g supporters questioning my own experience and knowledge of pond construction.

So let's suppose for a minute that I really am an ignorant hole digger with no true understanding of what makes a pond "work". Perhaps then the r&g savants can explain why in the area of the country where I work, the overwhelming majority of r&g ponds must be drained, thoroughly cleaned and refilled every year to avoid fish kills and water clarity issues? I often wonder if every r&g pond in the country (or world) needs similar treatment. While I cannot speak for what happens in other areas, I do know what goes on here every spring and it involves thousands upon thousands of gallons of water being wasted every spring to perform pond cleanings.

So what makes the ponds I construct different from the typical r&g pond? Simple . . . no rocks and gravel on the bottom. Just by eliminating the use of gravel or stone on the pond bottom, spring pond cleaning is limited to vacuuming up sediment and netting out large debris (in addition to the normal filter maintenance, pump inspections, etc.). Such an approach eliminates the dumping of all the pond water, the use of additional water for cleaning/pressure washing, the stress placed on plants and fish by totally draining the pond, destruction of bacteria cultures from the loss of bio-film and disruptions to other wildlife present (frogs and toads, dragon fly larvae, etc.).

The rebuttals to steering clear of the r&g approach often point out things like how much revenue a company bypasses by making pond cleanings less time consuming and therefore involving fewer billable hours. Others argue that even a partial water change still involves the dumping of, and by definition, the wasting of water. Finally, there are those customers who demand gravel on the bottom from an aesthetics standpoint. All reasonable and valid points but water conservation is not something we can continue to sacrifice in order to maximize profit margins. Furthermore, as water garden volumes grow with the advent of better pump and filter technology, I think few would resist the notion that a partial water change is preferable to a pump and dump approach every spring.

What makes water conservation in the water garden context even more paradoxical is the newest "innovation" in the pond world, that being rain water harvesting (apparently someone forgot to tell these companies rain barrels and cisterns have existed since antiquity so their "innovation" might be a bit dated). While using rain water to supply a water feature is green friendly and a good idea, it still doesn't address the loss of water due to yearly cleaning. A harvesting system works to offset evaporation and the need to top off the pond throughout the season but has no impact on the amount of water wasted each year on cleaning practices.

So as consumers become increasingly more green friendly and environmentally aware, are we as installers really meeting that need or are we selling them a bill of goods? Installers have mastered the art of using sales techniques to "educate" consumers about natural ponds, the nitrogen cycle and the need for a "system" to create a properly balanced installation. Instead, shouldn't we be educating consumers about water conservation and totally environmentally friendly water gardens? Consumers already recycle paper, plastic and glass because of public awareness campaigns and education programs and a growing proportion specifically choose to purchase green friendly products (organic foods, hybrid cars, green friendly building materials). So is it a stretch to think that potential water gardeners would be receptive to a gravel free pond if properly informed of the environmental benefits?

It appears to me that the major obstacle we face comes from within. As installers, we have become accustomed to building a certain way and change is a difficult process to undergo. Furthermore, manufacturers have successfully "convinced" installers that the r&g system and techniques are the only correct way of doing things. This adds up to an environment of advertising/marketing driven consumer demand coupled with installation companies looking for the path of least resistance in relation to maximizing profit margins.

In the end, we each have choices to make when it comes to the approach we take in pond building. I am not writing this to sit in judgment of companies that install r&g ponds but instead I am pointing out the fact that, in the future, we may not be given a choice anymore. The not too distant future could have a substantial impact on our industry if we continue current practices regarding water consumption and conservation in light of dramatic changes to our world. The question we need to ponder is whether our installations will be truly green friendly or will we just continue to install natural looking ponds that benefit our own bottom line? 

Read Joel Police's Series for Beginning Water Gardeners

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