The dragonfly pond represents an intersection between two stories. The first story started in 2001, when we purchased our home. The second story started decades later, with an impulse purchase of marked-down water plants. These two stories converge on my obsessive fascination with dragonflies.
My fondness for dragonflies snapped into obsession when I learned to photograph them. (See previous posts and photos here, here, here, and almost anywhere else in this blog….)
More than simply adding beauty to my life and the yard and the world in general, dragonflies eat the mosquitoes and other biting-type nuisances that flock particularly to me each summer.
Video with multiple clips of dragonflies launching from and returning to a perch of dried vegetation. On each return, the dragonflies are eating prey captured in flight.
When we purchased our home in 2001, the back yard was dominated by a large deck that we envisioned as a convenient space for relaxing and entertaining. As we adjusted to home ownership, I began to see the deck as a massive, expensive, time-devouring inconvenience. (My husband continued to see the deck as a bonus feature in the yard for many long years. Our early heated disagreements cooled to intermittent disgruntlement over time, as we allowed each other room to like and dislike according to our different experiences and preferences.)
Already painted by the previous homeowner, the deck needed regular (yearly or every-other-year) paint and repairs. The paint faded and peeled; the boards warped, split, and rotted; and a slow parade of deck furnishings marched from side to side as we fought for and over the deck’s various features.
Rabbits died under the deck and spiders flourished. It was a pretty enough feature, with enough time and money invested, but I never loved it enough to stop resenting the expense and labor.
The Water Gardens
Somewhere along my journey of frustration with the deck, I paused at a marked-down display of water plants in my favorite greenhouse. Over our years of home ownership, I had wanted a pond or a fountain or some kind of water in the yard, but there was never enough room. (There was only room for that gigantic deck… grumble grumble grumble….) So the birds and squirrels and rabbits made do with plant saucers of water. But here were water lilies, marginal plants, oxygenators, and water garden tubs all on sale with detailed instructions. I didn’t consult my husband or our bank account, I simply dove in.
The next week I invested more, buying a large barrel planter, a pond liner, and some rope at the nearby big-box store. My second, this time do-it-yourself, water garden gave me space for more oxygenators and water lilies. I let the water gardens settle their chemistry for several weeks, then purchased ten feeder-tank rosy red minnows at the pet store, five for each garden. (Rosy red minnows are a color morph of the widely introduced, but not necessarily widely native, fathead minnow.) The minnows and plants thrived. The whole set-up was lovely and fun, and the yard had water lily blooms. For the first two winters, I heaped cut ginger lily stalks around the water gardens, to provide a bit of cold protection, and enjoyed watching as the minnows grew (though they did not breed).
During the second winter, I discovered an anxious flaw in my designs. The pond liner set-up was clearly more secure for the minnows than the plastic tub. What would happen when the plastic fractured, as plastic always does, under the stresses of seasonal temperature fluctuations? I fretted over visions of sudden water garden collapse, minnows spilling onto the grass during the night or some afternoon when I was away and unable to save them.
It’s often difficult to judge if my fretting-level anxieties are based in logical concern or OCD, but over weeks of internal and open debate, my husband conceded that the logic was sound enough to warrant replacing the plastic tub. But, with what? The barrel and pond liner option had flaws, too. The barrel was already showing signs of deterioration. Metal tubs exist, but they are of uncertain reliability and chemistry.
As I fretted over the water gardens, the deck’s yearly repair cycle began. COVID-19 made securing boards and other materials difficult for our immunosuppressed household. Additionally, ground settling under the deck had created a depression over the years, and this depression now collected water each time it rained. For days after rainfall, if we poured water onto the deck, the water draining between boards splashed audibly into a significant area of standing water. Paired with an uptick in mosquitos, this required some sort of remedy. The final straw was a pair of deteriorated support boards under the steps. The deck needed major reconstruction.
I mapped out a plan to take down the deck, rebuild either a smaller deck or a simple set of steps for the back door, and install a dragonfly pond based on instructions from the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership. The minnows and water lilies and other water garden inhabitants would have a safe and rather more permanent home. My husband agreed, out came the saw and sledgehammer, and down came the massive, expensive, time-consuming deck.
After having the yard marked for utility lines, we began digging. I splurged on a thicker pond liner and made trip after trip to the big-box store, where they bemusedly loaded bag after bag of dirt and rocks into the trunk of my car via contactless curbside pickup. (We had to build up one end of the pond, as the yard has a significant slope. We also added several inches of topsoil to the entire area that had been under the deck, leveling and stabilizing the soft, sandy soil.)
So many rocks! I was not prepared for the sheer volume of rocks I would need to stabilize and finish the pond’s sides and edges. (I confess that I probably didn’t need all of those rocks. I liked them. I like how rocks feel, especially rounded and worn rocks. And I liked creating caves for the minnows in the bottom of the pond and up all of the sides.)
A few weeks later, the pond was ready for minnows. And dragonflies.
Within a month, the minnows were happy enough to begin breeding.
Damselflies had been breeding in the water gardens all along, but I had not seen dragonflies laying eggs or emerging.
After transferring the minnows and plants into the pond, I combed through the sludge at the bottom of the water gardens, trying not to leave behind any damselfly larvae. (The water gardens had a thick layer of debris in the bottom, and I didn’t want to dump it all into the pond. In retrospect, I should have simply dumped it. I would have saved more larvae in less time, and the pond built its own layer of debris so quickly that the water garden debris wouldn’t have made a difference.) Scattered among the damselflies were dragonfly larvae.
All went into the pond, where I now sat each afternoon and watched over our creation as if I had, actually, created it all.
Months and years later
Now the pond is a busy and central feature in our yard. Rabbits, squirrels, birds, snakes, wasps, bees, spiders (arachnophobia alert! spider photo to follow…), and other insects drink from it; birds bathe in it; the minnows, damselflies, and dragonflies breed in it; and frogs overwinter in it.
Somehow that feels like enough photos of frogs, but I have so many more! Some of the bullfrogs have lingered in the pond until they are quite large, though none have ever stayed to spawn. (I’m eagerly awaiting the first tadpoles. There must be tadpoles at some point!)
The frogs, no doubt, eat the minnows. Especially the younger minnows. But the minnows reproduce quickly, and the pond’s minnow population has never dropped below twenty or thirty adults. At the height of summer, I’ve estimated as many as a hundred adult or near-adult minnows in good body condition and seemingly healthy.
The pond is, by now, its own vigorously alive ecosystem. I interfere for my own purposes: removing sheets of algae to provide easier swimming for the minnows, cutting back the water lily blooms as they wilt so that the water lilies won’t re-seed and overcrowd, feeding the minnows flaked fish food because I like to watch them eat, and adding water (which I treat with tap water conditioner and let sit for a day before I add it) when the water level gets low during dry periods. My husband purchased a pond heater for the minnows, and for me, to keep ice from closing off the surface exchange of oxygen and other gases during freezes.
The pond is too small, intentionally, for the charismatic megafauna of park ponds. Mallards visit briefly each spring, but we discourage them from staying as they foul the water. They don’t seem to mind moving on, though one youngster made a confused mistake on the steps before agreeing that this was the wrong place to nest.
We enjoyed a few weeks, one spring, when a hatchling pond turtle wandered up the drive and happily adopted the pond as his nursery. He didn’t stay, probably deciding that such a small pond didn’t suit his needs, but he was fun to watch and photograph.
Snakes (Ophidiophobia alert!)
I’ve seen more snakes in the yard, since installing the pond. (Ophidiophobia alert! Snake photos to follow!) As I quite like snakes, and as none of them have been venomous, these visitors make me happy.
A black racer moved into the yard last summer and stayed. It roamed between our house and the two neighboring houses, even exploring our garage. It visited the pond for a drink daily, though I never managed to see it drinking when I had my camera (or even my phone camera) ready.
While I hope the black racer is somewhere in our yard or under our garage, hibernating for the winter, I am certain that the young brown water snake that arrived last fall is hibernating in the irises at the foot of the pond.
I also spotted a very small (less than 6 inches long) baby snake last year that didn’t stay in view long enough for a thorough identification. I suspect it is a young ring-necked snake. (I would appreciate verification or correction, if anyone wishes to comment…)
I don’t know if the snakes came because of the pond, nor if any of the yard’s other visitors come because of the pond. I hope they all know they are welcome, and that the pond might serve as some form of official notification to any creature passing through or opting to stay. They are welcome to have a drink or a dip as needed. (Unless they are venomous or otherwise dangerous to ourselves and/or our neighbors. The black and brown widows seem to be getting the message. No one else has tested the system.)
Too long, don’t have time to read? Here’s the summary…
A few years ago, we gave up on our aging, deteriorating, massive, expensive, time-consuming deck. We tore it down and replaced it with two simple wide steps leading up to our back door. At the same time, I had begun worrying about the safety of ten rosy red minnows that were living in my two water gardens alongside water lilies, oxygenator plants, and marginal plants such as a Louisiana iris, spiral grass, and a small pitcher plant. I feared the water garden containers, especially the plastic tub, might break or collapse. So we installed a dragonfly/minnow pond at one end of the area previously occupied by the massive, expensive, time-consuming deck. The completed pond is now home to the minnows, damselflies, dragonflies, and plants that inhabited the water gardens, but also to frogs and the occasional turtle or snake. A huge variety of small mammals, birds, and insects visit the pond. It’s a beautiful and functional addition to the yard. I don’t miss the deck.
I like to imagine that the dragonflies understand how the pond was meant for them. I like to imagine that they are thanking me, when they perch on my hand for a moment as I putter in the pollinator beds.
I like to imagine that the yard, and the yard’s inhabitants, wanted the pond all along. I know that I certainly did.
As usual, I want to acknowledge the immense and unearned privilege that allows me the resources and time to have a yard at all, to be able to tear down decks and build ponds, to be able to photograph my yard and pond and post the photos on this blog. I am trying to exercise as little control as is practical over the tiny patch of Earth that my colonizing ancestors (they were all colonizers, as far as I know) taught me to call a “yard”. I know full well that this patch of Earth wants to be something other than my yard.
Here are a few articles that are more interesting and important than my dragonfly pond:
- “Many try to return to normal from COVID, but disabled people face a different reality.” by Shruti Rajkumar at NPR
- “Blood abnormalities found in people with Long Covid: Study implicates lack of key hormone, battle-weary immune cells, and reawakened viruses.” by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel at Science Insider
- “Creatures of Possibility.” by Riley Black at Atmos
- “Misdiagnosed and Misunderstood: Steve Silberman on the Mysteries of Autism.” by Mark Leviton at The Sun
- “‘Is sex worth the risk?’ Monkeypox just the latest virus to threaten gay intimacy.” by Steven W. Thrasher, PhD at The Guardian
- “If You’re Thinking COVID is Over… Here’s What I Wish You Knew.” by Ann Mallen at Huffpost Personal
- “Painted Lady migration secrets unveiled.” at the University of York
- “Coming Out Autistic: Transgender or gender-fluid people are more likely to be neurodivergent, and vice versa. Here’s what that’s like.” by Brandy Schillace at Scientific American