Fairchild’s tropical garden column

Water features create wildlife hotspots


Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

As a kid, I loved digging a hole during the summer, filling it with water and jumping in. I suppose I was easily amused. If you, too, do this, but without the jumping in, you will have begun to attract amphibians like toads and frogs to your garden.

Why would you want amphibians in your yard? They eat bugs — lots of bugs. Not enough to delete mosquitoes from our lives, but they certainly help keep things in balance (frogs devour June beetles too).

Amphibians also act as a kind of bellwether organism indicating a healthy environment, put a little bit of fertilizer back into the ground, aerate the soil (the ones that burrow) and are food themselves for many animals including birds of prey like owls. Plus, they are cool wildlife to have around; just look at a frog or toad, and you have to smile. I mean, toads look like an angry blob of clay someone threw at the ground!

Most amphibians need to start life in the water, so your first step is adding a permanent water feature to your yard.

Contrary to what you should logically assume, a backyard pond doesn’t necessarily harbor many mosquitoes. The key is keeping the water moving; larvae-eating predators help also. But wait, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

First off, determine your pond’s location. I like to provide my pond with both direct sunlight as well as shade. The latter can be created with plants, so pick somewhere with some sunlight exposure. Mine is placed in the southeast corner of my yard near a fence and receives midday to afternoon sun. Don’t place it where splashing water and extra humidity could be a problem, like directly up against your house.

You can buy a premolded pond form or pond liner to fill the hole you’ll need to dig — not an easy process in South Florida. But you don’t need to re-create Lake Okeechobee; even a very small outdoor fountain in a container garden helps wildlife. Your water feature doesn’t need to be something that is sunk into the ground.

Besides water and something to contain it, you don’t need much else. Provide plants that will lean over the pond to provide shade, shelter and a way in and out of the water. Miami oolite (aka coral rock) makes a nice, native surround. Water splashing on these porous rocks will encourage ferns and moss to grow.

Also consider buying a pump. These simply get submerged and plugged into an outdoor GFCI outlet. You can let the pump bubble water up like a natural spring, or get fancy with tubing and a waterfall feature. Keeping movement in the water will discourage mosquitoes, and the sound is tranquilizing. However even without a pump, my own pond hasn’t seen too many mosquitoes.

In no time, particularly in spring and summer, you’ll see frogspawn as black specks, each about the size of a tomato seed, suspended in a clear gelatinous mass on the water’s surface. Soon these will hatch into small, hungry tadpoles. They eat plants and algae for the most part, while some species can be predators. But it’s outdoors, so not for you to worry about.

Scoop some tadpoles out in a jar of pond water for kids (and yourself) to observe. It’s amazing to watch them go from purely aquatic to terrestrial animals as you observe them over a few weeks. The fish-like tadpoles will develop legs, and the tail will begin disappearing. They’ve now graduated to froglet. Soon thereafter they’ll leave the water, start eating bugs, and begin the process all over again.

My pond has seen mostly Cuban tree frogs — an invasive species — and marine toads. I also get tiny greenhouse frogs, but these are the rare amphibians that bypass the tadpole stage and hatch as adults from eggs in damp soil. Sadly, I’ve never seen a native amphibian in my yard, but I’m hopeful. I have watched painted buntings taking a quick bath, grackles looking for food and water and even a chimp taking a sip! OK, not the chimp.

You can stock your pond with fish, of course. Gambusia (mosquito fish) make a good deal of sense, since they’ll live up to their name and consume any mosquito larvae while keeping the tadpole population in check. Otherwise, I’ve had luck with feeder goldfish — those are the forlorn inhabitants of the tank at the pet store with no ornaments or decoration, destined to feed whatever eats goldfish. For less than a dollar each you can get fairly large, very pretty goldfish for your pond; feed them regular flake fish food. Their presence will definitely attract birds, and probably some cats.

One friendly way to keep your pond water clear is to use a pond pad. These are bales of dried plant matter — barley straw, according to the product label. I’m not sure how they work, but they do. They simply float in your pond, are cheap, natural, and in my experience keep the water gin clear.

If tadpoles or fish are present, be careful refilling your pond from the hose. I’ve done this, and it killed the tadpoles. Is our water that chlorinated? As with an indoor aquarium, you can let the water sit for a day to dissipate chlorine, or use a water conditioner made for tropical fish aquariums.

You will see dragonflies hovering around your pond, where they hunt for insects or lay eggs on nearby vegetation. These are good guys in the garden. They are also an indicator of water quality. I was amazed a couple years back to see dragonflies in Manhattan, something unimaginable to me as a kid. In addition to nearby plants, provide some large, flat rocks at the pond’s edge for the dragonflies to perch on and warm themselves.

Now you have the perfect excuse to buy some aquatic and semi-aquatic plants like dwarf papyrus, equisetum, carnivorous bladderworts or water lilies. Equisetum, or horsetail (see it in Fairchild’s Amphitheater Pool) is a primitive, spore-producing plant. Dragonflies love to perch on it, which to me looks like a scene out of the Carboniferous. All in your own backyard!

Kenneth Setzer is writer and editor at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

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