Living Water

Sometimes you just get lucky.  When I started my first bonsai nursery, it was on a farm in central Virginia, tucked in the foothills on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  I had an exposed location on a terraced hillside, an old strawberry field, I was told.  The hill faced west, overlooking a bottom land cornfield and a small, winding river.  At the base of the hillside was an old farm pond, probably first dammed in the early 19th century, when the farm house was built.  About 15 years before I moved there, the pond had been cleaned and widened.  The man who helped was a retired Major League pitcher, so, of course, the new pond was of the shape and approximate size of a baseball infield.  Its sides dropped straight down about three feet and sloped to a depth of six feet in the center.

The pond was fed by a spring originating beneath a huge old White Oak, said to be over 350 years old, and requiring three or four people to hug it all the way ’round.  The spring flowed through a concrete trough under an old outbuilding and into a marshy bog, sort of the batter’s box around home plate, where the spring flowed into the pond.  A standpipe over by second base kept the pond level in check.  Turtles, newts, frogs, bream and bass were the most obvious residents, but closer inspection would turn up various insect nymphs, worms, crayfish, and the minutiae under a lens was impressive.  The mud bottomed pond had matured and become a self-sustaining aquatic ecosystem.

Since the spring supplied the farm house with water at low volume through an aging system, the farm pond was the obvious choice to draw the nursery’s water from.  An ancient piston-pump, rusting in a barn, was resurrected, re-belted, re-sealed and re-brushed to bring the water to the nursery on the hill.  Due to the pump’s preference to run steadily, rather than cut on and off at the whim of a hose, I put in a storage tank up on the hill as a reservoir to water from.  This also gave me a ready supply of water in case the electricity went off for a few days.

As my nursery grew larger, I put in a bigger reservoir; a round, twelve foot diameter, three foot deep swimming pool.  To offset its bright, metal and plastic presence, a board railing went around half of it, on which were perched my largest cascade bonsai, facing to the southeast.  The reflected glare of the water gave supplementary light to the underside of the cascading branches and helped to keep them from losing too much vitality, as cascades will do if treated too much like the other bonsai on the bench.  Several water lilies and lotus were grown in buckets in the pool and a school of koi was added.  I had a submersible pump with a pressure tank pulling water from the pool to water the bonsai with.  When the water dropped in the pool, it was replaced by water pumped up the hill from the pond.

Being originally from the suburbs, my bonsai had always been watered with “city water” from a tap.  I thought the bonsai would like this new, natural water supply, but I was ultimately astounded by their response.  Over the course of the first season on the farm, the trees gained a rich, vibrant color and grew more vigorously than before.  Insect pests became scarce.  Detrimental fungus was nowhere to be found, but beneficial fungus, the mycorhizzae on pine and hornbeam roots, thrived.  Trees became solidly anchored in their pots and a peek at their roots revealed growth all through the soil, not just in small zones like the edge of the soil next to the pot.  When I repotted trees the next spring, clumps of “dead soil” were rare.

At first, I happily accepted the wonderful growth and glowing health of the trees and really didn’t care what caused it.  After all, I had just moved a couple of states South and was out in the clean-air country with the Mountain Sun beaming on my bonsai.  I sure felt better being away from the cities’ congestion and pollution, so why shouldn’t my plants?  By the time my second season on the farm rolled around, I’d begun to suspect more than clear, clean air and a milder climate was at work, especially because the locally grown plants I’d started acquiring also perked up noticeably after a couple of weeks in the nursery.

About that time, I started noticing ads for  an apparently magical form of algae (at least it seemed to be to its pitch men) that would cure all your ills and might even make you become rich and famous.  I thought about the occasional blobs of slimy algae I had to pull off the pump’s intake.  I realized then that the farm pond’s water was “alive” with numerous plant and animal life forms.  Food was readily available to these organisms in the form of fish, animal and plant wastes and, of course, each other.  The pond’s ecosystem had been established long enough to mature and become balanced.  Animal and plant life had reached a maintainable balance and preyed upon and sustained each other within the confines of the farm pond.  This ecological balance passed through the pump, ascended the hill, and entered the holding tank, where it was maintained by the water lilies and the school of koi that lived there, along with the various other life forms that traveled up the pipe from the pond.  Whenever I examined the water with a hand lens or microscope, there was always quite a little show in progress; flat-worms, amoebas, algaes, daphnia and all sorts of tiny life-forms danced through the fluid that sustained them.

This ecological balance was then passed on to my bonsai when they were watered.  Dissolved fish wastes and all the small plant and animal life suspended in the water entered the confines of the bonsai pot and were absorbed by the trees as they were broken down in the soil to chemical components.  The bacteria, fungi, and other soil microbes thrived on their diet of pond water and became established, balanced colonies in each bonsai container.  Thus, the entire nursery came into a balance; pot by pot, bench by bench, growing area by growing area.  As long as there was no influx of new material too large for the system to handle, this balance was maintained, almost automatically.

Metaphysically, I visualized this balance contained in the farm pond’s living water as a luminescent, swirling, blob of energy that was pulled out of the pond to journey up the hill to the pool, where it joined with more energy and then passed into the bonsai.  This gave each bonsai an aura of good health and stability, and the whole nursery took on a subtle, interconnected glow.  An harmonious balance, an ecological stability had been achieved.

Depending on the size of your collection and aesthetic tastes, there are many ways to create a reservoir, or holding tank, ranging from a washtub to a lake in size.  Some factors to consider are:  the tank must be of a non-toxic material; its better to be visually pleasing, although not functionally necessary; there must be enough capacity to buffer the effects of constantly removing and replenishing the water; and permanency, will you take it along when you move, or are you in a place where you’ll stay.

Garden ponds have become very popular over the last decade and there are many books and articles on their construction, as well as many commercial installers.  If you own your home, its probably your best choice.  Since the water is surrounded by soil, its temperature is buffered from rapid changes, and it can become a major aesthetic asset to your overall bonsai garden design.  Bigger is better, especially if you’ll be filling it with treated “city water”.  It will be tough to impossible to create a balance in your pond if you use most of its water every day.  Ideally, build one which has the capacity to hold at least a week’s worth of water, according to the summer demands of your collection, and remember to allow for any expansion of your garden.  Measure the amount of water your collection needs by filling a five gallon bucket, transfer that to a watering can and add up the number of buckets it takes to thoroughly water everything and multiply by five (for number of gallons), then by fourteen (two waterings a day for seven days) to get a minimum gallon capacity for your pond.  For example, if it takes ten buckets to water your trees, that’s fifty gallons.  50×14= 700 gallons, which is not all that big of a pond.  The smaller the percentage of pond water you exchange daily, the easier it will be to create and maintain “living water”.  Any commercial pond installer (and many water gardening books) should be able to give you a mathematical formula to compute pond volumes so you can determine the minimum length, width and depth your pond should be.  Remember that the deeper your pond is, the more stable it’ll be.  Find a suitable, full-Sun spot and install it.

If your ideal water capacity isn’t practical for some reason, you can get away with a smaller volume, although it’ll take more understanding of the pond’s dynamics on your part.  In general, treated water will require more volume than well water, as well as a longer “settling period” to become acceptable to aquatic life.  Check with a local pond installer to find out what works for  “un-treating” your local water supply.  Moving water (i.e. a waterfall or fountain) will oxygenate the water and give your pond a larger surface area to help exchange gasses between water and air, which often allows you to get by with a smaller pond volume.  Read a few books on water gardening, find a knowledgeable local pond installer and let him know what you’re trying to do, and the different function of your pond, and listen to his suggestions.  Some things to keep in mind are: you want a pond which will balance and support plant and animal life; you will be drawing x-amount of water daily (in the growing season) to water your bonsai and replacing this water; and you will need to install additional plumbing (pump, pressure tank, and fittings) to water your plants with.  Also, by regularly removing and adding water you will be “cleaning” your pond more regularly than most, so you will need a major pond cleaning less often.  Depending on the size of your collection and the amount of water you need to pump at a watering, your submersible pump may be able to power your waterfall or fountain when you’re not watering.  A good pond person will be happy to thoughtfully consider your special needs and enjoy the challenge of meeting them.  The best pond people will thoroughly understand natural pond balance and use chemicals only in desperation.  Avoid the guy who immediately tries to sell you the in-stock “Special-of-the-Week” gadgetry, or tells you to nuke your pond regularly with this chemical or that “as a preventative measure”.  The best “preventative measure” is a healthy, balanced pond.

If an in-ground pond isn’t practical, consider other containers.  My “pond” was a kids’ swimming pool, 12′ diameter x 3′ depth, which held over 2000 gallons and watered a couple of thousand pre- and trained bonsai.  Smaller pools are available, and cattle watering troughs are available through feed stores in farming communities.  You can also build or scrounge many other types of water containers to suit your specific needs.  The traditional Japanese bonsai nurseries have various water basins scattered about to hold water, which is dipped out with watering cans.  By storing water in these containers, the water temperature is matched to the ambient air temperature to prevent thermal  shock, and the water is also “aged”.  These basins can be purchased and may have enough capacity to support a small collection of bonsai.  A few water plants and goldfish can survive in these basins if the summer water temperature does not get too high and will add an authentic touch to your garden.

Once your water reservoir is installed, be it small basin or large pond, it needs to be planted and stocked, and then balanced.  There are general rules in the pond business for how much fish flesh per gallon a pond will support, how much surface area should be shaded (usually with water lilies and/or lotus) to keep algae from running amok, how many oxygenating plants per sq. ft. of bottom area should be used, and so on.  Keep in mind that your pond will be different because of the relatively large volume of new water that will be running through it.  You can keep a larger amount  of fish, and algae will be less of a problem because of the water flow.  Dissolved wastes and organic matter which poison fish and feed algae will be diverted to your bonsai to be happily consumed.  Consult your pond guru for suggestions on which plants and how many and what size fish to add.  Balancing the pond will take time to achieve, possibly a whole season, but it is worth the effort.

Do not neglect the tiny life forms, either.  You can “innoculate” your pond with insect nymphs and various protozoans by gathering a bucket of bottom muck and water from a natural lake or pond.  Choose a natural body of water that is clear and relatively free of pollution.  Gather a small amount of decomposing leaf litter from a shallow cove with plant growth that extends right to the water’s edge, along with some water.  Hopefully you will have captured some damsel and/or dragon fly nymphs, mayfly larvae, flat-worms, daphnia (water fleas), fresh-water shrimp, amoeba, etc.  Add the water and muck to your pond.  Do this a couple of times a year, especially in the Spring.  You will eventually have a rich profusion of beneficial tiny animal life which will help keep your fish healthy and the adult insect forms, such as damsel flies, to enjoy as they buzz around your pond and  nursery.  Dragon and damsel flies, adults and larvae, also prey on mosquitoes and house flies.  Other aquatic insects mature and become airborne pollinators for your bonsai and garden plants.  And, don’t forget, every pond needs a frog, or three, so catch a few of those guys, too.  One of the interesting  things about balance is how many tiny, grasping things, insignificant by themselves, can  join together to keep a large object from toppling.

As your pond matures, so will your dealings with it.  You will learn what it takes to keep it healthy and what role each component plays; how the fish depend on the plants for oxygen and food, how the plants utilize the fishes’ wastes; carbon dioxide for respiration, solid wastes for fertilizer; how the insects feed on plant and animal detritus and become fish food themselves, and so on.  The insects will hatch from the pond and pollinate your bonsai and buzz and beautify the garden.  The frogs will croak at dusk in a pleasing, natural chorus.  Birds will be attracted to the pond and garden.  You will have your own little ecosystem to nurture and enjoy.  You will also learn what throws the system out of balance: pulling out and then adding too large a percentage of new water, especially treated water; using broad-spectrum chemicals that kill indiscriminately (beneficial organisms as well as destructive ones); using fertilizer meant for land plants on your waterlilies (it releases all at once and kills your fish); in short, don’t put more of anything into the pond than its natural buffering capabilities can handle.  Keep your pond balanced and it will be a very large factor in keeping your bonsai healthy.  The trees will thrive on its vitality.

The pond can add significantly to the overall beautification of your bonsai collection and garden, also.  Properly placed, it will be a focal point that draws immediate attention from your guests.  Use the soil excavated from the pond site, along with some rocks to create a hill next to the pond.  Plants used on the hill and around the pond can be pre-bonsai specimens doing their trunk-thickening time, as well as accent plants waiting their turn in a display pot.  Stock plants that supply cuttings and grafting scions may also fit in well here.  Of course, the pond itself will be beautiful, if kept balanced, and its occupants and the other life it attracts will interest you and your guests with its infinitely variable scenes.

One of the nicest bonsai displays I ever set up was in a pond in the courtyard of a posh restaurant.  I put several ceramic flue tiles in the pond so that they stuck up less than an inch from the water, then set a large piece of slate on each one.  On top of each slate an impressive bonsai was placed, mostly pines.  At night, with subtle, colored lighting in and around the pond, it appeared as though the bonsai and slate were floating on the pond.  Bonsai can also be placed on flat rocks on the hill or around the pond, or on stumps, timbers or monkey poles next to the pond.

If you’ve opted for an above ground pool, you can shield its sides with wooden construction and place a shelf or rail around its perimeter.  This shelf makes an ideal spot to keep cascade bonsai.  Place them so their hanging branch or trunk extends over the water, facing South, picking up extra sunlight and humidity.  Many upward growing species resent having their limbs bent downward and weaken accordingly.  By giving these branches the extra light and humidity from the water you may prevent  them from weakening and dying back.

The benefits brought to a collection of bonsai by “living water” are staggering.  I don’t know of any other factor, besides proper siting, that will impact your trees in a more positive way.  By creating a reservoir to draw your daily water from and stocking it with plant and animal life you can improve your trees every time you water them, and add a beautifying element to your garden as well.  Do it.

© Mike Kling, 1999