The Wildlife Pond

So, I’ve talked around it, and even talked about building it, but not specifically about the reasoning behind it – we now have a wildlife pond in our backyard.

I grew up in a place where ponds were large – a ¼ acre or more – and muddy and where one fished for catfish and where the cows drank. This is not that sort of pond.

Neither is it a koi pond, where exotic goldfish swim.

It is a pond designed for frogs. And dragonflies. And birds. It is, when all is said and done, a wildlife pond. No other project I have done has elicited so many comments and questions, so I will attempt to answer some of them here.

Why did I build a wildlife pond?

Amphibians are in trouble. Their habitat is in decline, and their populations are plummeting. So I decided to make them some habitat to go along with the habitat I am already building for birds. And speaking of birds – they are more drawn to water than they are to feeders, so that is a bonus. And since I’m building a habitat for all the animals that live on my property, of which I am one, the fact that I love moving water is not incidental to the decision.

There are a lot of resources out there if you want to build a fish pond in your backyard. There are a lot of resources if you want to build a fountain. But as I researched wildlife ponds, nearly every single thing I could find supposed you lived in the UK. Apparently, wildlife ponds are a big thing there. So I had to do a lot of translating as to climate and so on. This post is my attempt to explain how I did it, and my reasoning behind some of the decisions I made.

It’s six feet wide and ten feet long and is 4 inches deep at its shallowest point and 18 inches deep at its deepest. Much like a swimming pool, there is a shallow end and a deep end. Your pond needs to be deep enough so that in hot climates (like mine) the water will stay cool in the deep parts. If you had fish, it would need to be deeper, but I don’t have fish, nor do I plan to add them. But more on that later.

The shallow end is for birds – it slopes from zero to 4 inches deep, with rocks here and there in the shallow end for the birds to light on. The robins, doves, and finches use it daily for bathing. The slope is also important for frogs and other critters to get in and out of the water – like a beach of sorts. Almost all the frog spawn we get is in the shallow end.

I dug the whole pond in an afternoon after it had rained and the ground was soft. We have clay here, so it was a pain, but the hole held its shape. I don’t know how one manages in sandy soil. It’s important that the perimeter of the hole be level – this meant I took some of the soil I dug up and used it to build a berm on the low side.

After digging the hole and tamping it firm with a tamper, I put down pond liner underlayment and then a 45 mil EPDM liner. This was by far the most expensive part of the build. There are cheaper liners than EPDM, but it is the one that professionals use and is reliable and durable. It has a 50-year life expectancy, which is 20 years longer than mine at current rates, so we should be good.

Some places will tell you to use old carpet or sand as underlayment, but underlayment is cheap, and this is part you don’t want to get wrong. The underlayment protects the liner, and I don’t want to deal with punctures.

After the liner is in – a pain, and you can probably use another person’s help here – you just add water, and then the weight of the water will press the liner into the creases of the hole. You will want to get in the hole as it fills, so you can shift things around as it fills. What sort of water you use is a matter of choice – I used tap water from the hose, but if you do this, know you need to let it sit a few days to let the chlorine dissipate before you add plants or anything. Some people just let the rainwater fill the pond, which is probably best, but I would still fill it the first time with tap water to set the liner. You could then siphon the water out and let it fill with rainwater if that is important to you.

At this point, you want to take a break anyway. Let the chlorine dissipate, and let the liner get settled. You can use this time to order your plants and find a source for rocks.

When we lived in North Carolina, rocks were everywhere – for free. I planted an apple tree once and unearthed five or six bowling-ball-sized rocks in the process. But this land was once prairie, and any rocks here were transported here. So, I went to the expensive landscape rock place and looked at rocks that cost $700 a ton. Then I went to the place that sells gravel and bought limestone rip-rap for $45 a ton instead. I ended up using a ton and a half of limestone rocks, ranging in size from roughly an apple to two or three the size of a duffle bag.

There are lots of ways to edge a pond, but I like rocks, and since this was close to the house, I liked that rocks were clean and easy to do and that they would create hiding places for amphibians and the green anole lizards we have everywhere here.

Placing the rocks is more art than science: Trim the liner to about six inches beyond the hole’s edge, then place rocks around the inside of the hole against the walls, as if you are lining the hole with rocks. This creates pockets where tadpoles will hide. Then place rocks around the perimeter to mark the transition and to hold the liner in place. Big rocks first, then smaller ones, then finally get some bags of gravel to fill in the remaining spaces. My liner is invisible because it’s completely covered with rocks. This keeps the liner from getting UV damaged, keeps the pond cooler, and also looks much more natural.

Everyone asks about mosquitos since we don’t have fish, and we use a 3-part strategy to prevent them: We have moving water, we plant for dragonflies, and as a failsafe, we use mosquito dunks. Mosquitos need still water, so we bought a simple pump and spitter that turns all the water in the pond over once per hour. This also makes for lovely sounds and is visually interesting.

Dragonflies showed up on the second day, and have been here ever since. They eat tons of mosquitos. And dunks are floating cakes made of bacteria that kill mosquito larvae and nothing else – we replace them monthly and they cost pennies.

We don’t have fish because they eat amphibian eggs and they poop – a lot. The nitrogen in the poop causes all sorts of filtration problems. People who have koi ponds spend thousands of dollars and lots of time filtering the poop out of their ponds. And koi are not endangered, but frogs are. So no fish.

A wildlife pond needs plants – preferably native ones. You want 60% of the surface of the pond to be covered with plants. This is a goal – right now I have swampwort and watercress and rush and papyrus and Louisiana Iris and water lilies growing in the pond, and canna and daylilies growing on the edges. I have ordered some more plants – If there is a downside, it is that pond plants are hard to find in most nurseries. Had I planned ahead, I could have had the plants lined up in advance.

The plants provide shade, habitat for the wildlife, food for the wildlife, and also make it look nice, which is also important to me. A pond is a whole new ecosystem, and it all plays a role.

I built a small landing pad patio beside the pond, so I can sit next to it in the afternoon and watch the birds bathe and hear the soothing sounds of the water. At night, the frogs sing, and I have hundreds of tadpoles zipping about in the water. Lizards sun themselves on the rocks, and in the morning, I walk the edges, looking for frog eggs that were laid overnight. And watching the birds bathe is pure joy.

It’s my favorite addition to my garden, and I wish I had done it years ago. The total cost was around $800, and it took a month of nights and weekends to do, but I probably could have done the whole thing in 3 days with planning.

If you have any questions, put them in the comments and I will try to answer them.

In progress

I hate to share in-progress pictures. Partly that’s because many of my projects are done in budget-sized increments, and how do I decide when I’m really “done”? But I also recognize that sharing progress pictures makes things seem more doable. And I tend to think most things are doable. Or at least, more things than most people think are.

So here is what’s been occupying my time after work for the last few weeks. It’s a picture of the back of our house, as seen from the new birdfeeder I installed in the backyard (more about that in a sec). The deck I built in 2020 with The Boy, but the stairs by the chimney and the short walkway I just added last week.

The reason for adding them was that below the chimney, I am putting in a water feature – a shallow pond (from 4-16 inches deep) for the wildlife and birds, with a small bubble fountain in it to make the birds happy. There are wetland plants that will go there as well, and to the right of the chimney, out of the shot, will be a small sitting area, where the red chairs that are currently on the deck will go, so I can sit in the shade of the afternoon and watch the fountain.

Ok, so that’s out of the way – let’s see what is blooming this week:

I love common yarrow. It’s evergreen (here, anyway – your mileage may vary), the pollinators love it, and the ferny texture fills in well. Every garden I have will have some yarrow in it.

And coneflowers! A native (well, this yellow variety is a nativar – don’t @ me, people), also beloved by pollinators, and nearly bulletproof. I just loved the juxtaposition of the yellow with the purple verbena – also a native plant, also bulletproof and beloved by pollinators.

The magnolia is still blooming, proof that God loves me and wants me to be happy.

This is the native “species” purple coneflower – lovely as can be. Surprisingly hard to find in nurseries, as people live the colored nativars. But I like this one best.

This is elderberry. Also native, it’s an aggressive bush here. I understand people pay for elderberry plants, but there’s no need. If you cut a branch off around the size of a pencil and then stick it in the ground, it will root. It fills in quickly and spreads, so it’s ideal in a place where you need quick screening. But the birds love the cover AND the berries, and the butterflies love the flowers. A great wildlife plant.

I wanted a bird feeder out in the yard, away from the house. The feeder by the house – really just a saucer on the deck rail – you can see it on the far left of the deck in the back of the house picture – is really only drawing Cardinals and Thrashers. I figured a feeder further from the house might draw more.

And it’s working – here are some Chickadees and a Tufted Titmouse that came to visit.

So Thursday evening I builta quick and dirty platform feeder: It’s just a 10-foot piece of ¾ inch EMT conduit driven in the ground as a post, then I drilled a 15/16 hole in a 2×2 for the crosspiece. It’s held in place by a 10d nail that goes through both the crosspiece and the 2×2, so it makes it easy to remove if needed. The platform feeder itself is just some 1×2 from which I made an overlapping double frame that sandwiches a piece of 2×4 fencing for support and a piece of window screen for drainage. On the right, you see the Blink camera. I hung the hanging feeder under it to balance out the weight, else it tends to lean a bit. Were I to do this over, I would use a piece of 1-inch EMT instead of the 3/4.

The squirrel baffle is just a piece of 4-inch PVC that is 2 feet long. I put the top of it six feet off the ground, and then drilled a hole through both it and the EMT and ran a piece of coathanger wire through it to hold it in place. Thus far, no squirrels have attempted it. We will see how it works.

Building a Birdcam

Over the last few weeks, I have been pretty focused on building a camera set up so I can monitor the wildlife that visits my yard.

I have a pretty exacting set of criteria.

It needs to be affordable. I know affordable is a squishy term because what may be affordable to me may not be to you. But I really wanted this to be a less than $100 project, at least to start out. I am a big believer in starting a new project with the minimum viable setup, and then, if we decide it’s worth pursuing further, then I can spend some money. But to start, less than $100.

Then it needs to be simple. I didn’t want to run wires, set up networks, or learn new technologies to set this up. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them is that just like I didn’t want a large upfront investment of cash, neither did I want a large upfront investment of time. I was willing to spend an afternoon setting this up, at least to get started.

And then, what result did I desire? I wanted to be able to have videos of the animals that visited my yard that I could download and share on social media. A bonus would be still photos, but if I had video, I could always capture stills from that. I knew these wouldn’t be award-winning photos, but I wanted to have proof of concept before I figured out something better.

And I wanted to not have to go out to the camera and retrieve an SD card from the camera like I would if I used a trail cam. I should be able to do this over the internet.

I could do almost all of this with a simple trail cam, like this one. The two big things I didn’t like about the trail cam idea is that I had no idea what I had taken pictures of until I pulled the SD card and took it inside to my computer. The other is that the video quality wasn’t all that great. (I’m aware that higher dollar cameras have solutions to both of those issues, but not under $100.)

In the end, I bought a Blink outdoor security camera. With the required sync module included, I paid around $75, but the price fluctuates on this all the time between $50 and $125. They go on a huge sale on Amazon Prime days as well. The camera is small – about 3×3 inches. It’s battery-powered and uses wifi, so no cables are needed.

The Blink outdoor camera is designed to be a security camera, so it’s motion-activated. I have it clamped to a board in front of a saucer of sunflower seeds, and so when a bird (or lizard or squirrel) gets in the saucer, it automatically records up to 60 seconds of HD video and then uploads it to the cloud. From there I can review it when I want, download it to edit elsewhere, or share it on social media directly from the app.

Each day it syncs with the sync module and downloads the day’s history, so I also have a local copy of all the videos recorded that day.

It’s not a perfect system. I almost went nuts until I figured out how to urn off the notifications. It says you will get 2 years of use from a pair of AA lithium batteries, but by the 3rd day, I got a warning that I was using it more than planned and my battery life would be shorter. The stills are not as good as I would like, and the framerate is a little slow for my purposes.

But overall, I’m really happy. I have begun to upload some of the more interesting ones to YouTube. I’m investigating feeder types, to attract even more birds. I’m putting in a water feature over the next few weeks, because birds love moving water, especially in our heat. I’m going to set up a solar collector, to get around the battery life issue.

And, God help me, I’m looking into setting up an always-on livestream on YouTube. Which does involve cables and money and new technologies.

But wherever this ends up, it all started with $75 and an afternoon.

The Half-Acre Habitat

I know how to get six-pack abs. I have had them – for about 2 weeks. But since I like to eat, that is hard for me to sustain over time. But in terms of what is sustainable over time, things like being flexible, having good cardiovascular health, and good blood pressure and glucose readings are far more sustainable markers of health.

When you see people who have defined abs, cut muscle striations, and low body fat, what you see are people who went to extreme lengths to look that way. That’s fine if that’s your goal. I don’t want to harsh anyone’s thing. But it’s not mine. I have better things to do with my time than to calculate protein grams and intermittently fast and figure out if this is the day I spend 3 hours in the gym or the day I spend 2 hours in the gym.

For most people, such a life is attainable – but not sustainable. I want both. And not just in my health goals, but in my whole life.

That’s also my approach to my yard. I do not have a manicured lawn. I do not have a raked lawn. I don’t even have a lawn – I have a yard. It’s mostly green. Its primary use is as a habitat for the creatures who live here – including us.

So I have vegetables and greens we like to eat. I have flowers for the bees and butterflies. I have plants that grow food for the chickens, which then provide us with eggs. There are plants here that exist for no other reason than bugs like to eat them, and the birds like to eat the bugs, and I like birds.

I haven’t really talked about my yard here much. When we lived in NC, I had a raucous, out-of-control cottage garden on a fifth of an acre that was in bloom 10 months out of the year.

We moved here and bought a house on a half-acre lot, which makes gardening harder, not easier. Then there were two years of foster parenting, two years of the pandemic, a bunch of people I love died, and a long year of pretty deep depression (all of which overlapped at various points), and so, we are 3.5 years in our new home and it’s nowhere near where I had planned for it to be at this point.

In the old house, we lived there for a bit over five years, and at the end of our time there, the one thing I wish I had done was document it more. What flowers are these? When did I plant the peach trees? What was I thinking when I planted those? How long did that mulch last? Are these plum blossoms early this year, compared to last year?

Since this blog is, at its core, about how to live a good life, and I need plants for me to have a good life, I plan to do a walk around the property each Saturday and take photos of what’s in bloom, as well as things that catch my eye. I might tell you about a thing I’m working on, or I might just let the pictures speak for themselves.

Anyway – welcome to my little half-acre habitat.

The Bird Project

Mr. Doc died when I was 10, and it was way before that. I was probably six or so when I first learned about birdwatching.

Mr. Doc was my elderly neighbor, the retired farmer who, along with his wife Monty, acted as my surrogate grandparents when I was growing up, and who often kept me after school. She was, without question, the best cook in the world – or at least, in my world, but he was the lord of all other domains.

When the clock on the table in the living room hit three, he and I would go outside to sit in the shade on the north side of the house, where it was far cooler than it was in their un-airconditioned small farmhouse. He wore a battered straw hat when we would go outside, to keep the sun out of his watery eyes, and he and I would sit in metal yard chairs that were old then, and the cool kids would powder coat and sell them on eBay as “retro” now.

The fencerow on that side of the house – the one that separated their lot from the 3 acre field that was always strawberries in the spring and then black eyed peas in the late summer – had a hedge made of wild plums, from which Monty made jelly each summer, and overhead, a power line that ran along it to the yard light that illuminated their backyard. And nearly every day of my life, on that power line, sat mockingbirds.

We would sit out there in the shade of the late afternoon, him and I, and watch the mockingbirds and listen to their songs. Sometimes the blackbirds or the blue jays would come and try to chase them off, but the mockingbirds would not have it – no sir.

When I told my Aunt Louise about the mockingbirds, she told me there were people called birdwatchers, who went to faraway places to look at birds through binoculars and write it down in their notebooks. Wasn’t I lucky, she said, that I didn’t have to go anywhere at all but the north side of Mr. Doc’s house.

We didn’t have any binoculars, but she did have an old pair of opera glasses she let me borrow, and I would take them to Doc and Monty’s and sit in that yard chair and look at the different birds, giving them names and making up stories about them. Mr. Doc would show me how to bust up dried corn on a flat rock with a claw hammer, and then I would make piles of it on the ground, far enough away for the birds to feel safe from me, and they would fly down, skittish and fearful, and eat.

We were rich as lords.

I haven’t done any birdwatching in at least 40 years. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love birds, and I plant my yard heavily in their favor. Sometimes we will sit on the yard swing and watch the cardinals in the magnolia tree, and the deck I built in 2020 is always a haven for grackles and cedar waxwings, and we get hummingbirds in the salvia I planted just for them. But I don’t go looking for them. They are something like happy accidents I sorta planned for.

But last week I came across a German woman who lives in Michigan and who takes pictures of the birds that show up at her birdfeeder. It’s pretty stunning. And faster than you can say hyperfocus, I have spent literally every spare hour researching how to do this.

I mean, it ties in with a lot of my existing projects, like building a yard that supports wildlife, and I figure I can share the pictures on my sadly neglected Instagram account, which I think a subset of you would also appreciate, and then maybe periodically give updates on the project itself, which gives me things to talk about on my blog, and plus, I know the names of like six different kinds of birds. It would be a chance to learn new things.

I like learning new things.

So, stand by for bird updates. This is how ADHD works, y’all. Despite the fact that 7 days ago I had zero interest in birds in any specific way, I spent the afternoon today researching feeding setups and action cameras. I don’t make the rules – it’s just how my brain works. You can fight it, but 49 years of owning this brain have taught me to hang on and see where it shakes out.