A sad reminder that life is hard for creatures of the garden

Elizabeth O’Connell


The ornamental ponds in our garden are my favorite places to watch wildlife, so I’m usually more than ready to get out in late winter and clean them up. But this year the clean-up is anything but pleasant since the frigid winter temperatures damaged the ponds’ fragile ecosystems.

Our pond problems started on New Year’s Eve. There had already been lots of reports of freeze-ups in natural waterways, so my husband had been vigilant, dragging the hose outside almost every day to keep the water levels high enough for the pond pump to feed the waterfall. But finally even these efforts couldn’t keep the water running. Overnight the water recirculation lines froze. We needed emergency measures for the first time in years. Heated floats went into the ponds to keep portions of the surfaces free of ice. This isn’t as good for the fish and other water creatures as moving water, but it helped.

Our smallest pond is in a full-sun area, and the water lines finally thawed 10 days ago after we got a series of sunny days with the temperatures above freezing. Going down to restart the pump, however, we were greeted by a frog floating belly-up in the stagnant water. It was heartbreaking. We invited the frogs and toads and insects into the garden when we created habitat for them in the ponds. We should be able to take better care of them, and this year we failed.

The frog was gently fished out of the water. We’ve learned the hard way that waterlogged bodies are rotten enough to break into pieces. The leaves that had been encased in the ice and dumped into the water as the ice melted were skimmed away. Even on a sunny day with all of this activity there wasn’t a sign of any of the resident goldfish. Now the water cascades over the rocks of the waterfall again and there’s a current carrying oxygen-rich water, but there are still no signs of bright orange in the water. I fear the population of the pond may be zero.

The larger pond in the back yard is shaded by aging spruces much of the day, so it is still locked in ice. It’s many times larger than the small pool in the front garden, so I have hope that something is alive there, but we won’t be able to find out until the weather warms up. With even more snow in the weekend forecast as I write this, it seems winter is very reluctant to retreat this year, so it may be some time before we can assess the damage there.

The raised water garden that we’ve always considered the most vulnerable to ice damage is chugging along just fine. It doesn’t have a waterfall but depends on a small bio-box fountain to aerate the water. It’s faithfully pumped away all winter, although, at times, ice covered the pond. But it only took a sunny day for open water to return. It’s easy to spot the goldfish sluggishly motoring around at the bottom of the pond. It seems odd we’ve never had a problem here when the water insulated by the soil freezes so easily.

I don’t need a water garden to remind me that life and death struggles go on in our yard every day. Life is hard for the birds and other creatures in the yard; I can find evidence of it even during the easy living days of summer. But it’s hard not to be discouraged by the brutal destruction in the ponds, and time to rethink our emergency winter pond strategies.



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