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Now we are two. August 18, 2013

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were thrilled yesterday to see that two frogs have now colonized our half-barrel deck water garden. And not just any two frogs, but two different species: a leopard frog and a green frog. The leopard frog floats on the surface of the water garden, while the green frog prefers to lurk, submerged, with just its eyes and nostrils protruding above the water’s surface.

We like to provide a diverse assortment of plants in our water garden: a towering papyrus, bulbous water hyacinths with their purple flower spikes and glossy foliage, watercress, water iris, and submerged vegetation (ferny anacharis, in our case). Some years, we’ll add water lettuce, water clover, parrot feather, and so on, but we try not to overcrowd. It may not look like it at the beginning of the season, but those plants will spread! We also like to add a handful of water snails to help with algae control.

Anyway, it’s always fun to enjoy the water garden even when there are no uninvited visitors. But what a thrill to see that frogs have discovered our water garden and are adding life and liveliness to its surface, not to mention providing mosquito control. We don’t know about you, but we’d rather look at frogs than those doughnut-shaped Bacillus thuringiensis mosquito “dunks” any day!

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The alien in the aquarium. May 16, 2012

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The other day, our friend Ben was cleaning our aquarium because a) it was finally warm enough to move some of the fast-growing anacharis (a floating oxygenating aquatic plant) to the deck water garden, and b) Silence Dogood and I wanted to add a little school of neon tetras to the tank. We figured the move would be traumatic enough for them without our messing around with the anacharis on top of it.

After extracting what seemed like endless ropes of anacharis and transferring them to the outdoor water garden, where they’ll add oxygen and protective cover for our goldfish, I cleaned the filter, wiped down the aquarium glass, and stepped back to admire the now much more brightly lit tank. That’s when I saw it.

There was a tiny, whitish creature scrambling around the upper part of one end of the aquarium. It wasn’t a snail (we have plenty of those, so I should know). It had a tail like a fish, but also seemed to have tiny legs like a shrimp. It definitely wasn’t something we’d put in the tank.

Occasionally, we get these surprises. One of our four corydoras catfish was born in the tank, unknown to us, and managed to avoid becoming somebody’s breakfast until it was large enough to put in an appearance. But it doesn’t happen often, and normally, at least we know what it is. This time, we seem to have an alien invader.

Our friend Ben is looking forward to seeing what it turns into. Let’s just hope it’s not the Loch Ness Monster.

Anticipation. April 29, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Spring is typically a time of anticipation. Our fellow garden bloggers are anticipating all kinds of wonderful things—a new home or deck, a potager or chicken coop, new lambs or kids, the arrival of the first hummingbird, the unfurling of beautiful leaves and flowers as their gardens return to life, new vegetable beds and the appearance of those tiny, precious seedlings from the sea of fresh-dug soil. It’s a delight to read blog posts and revel in the excitement and inspiring photos.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are experiencing a different sort of aniticipation here at Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. That’s because it finally got warm enough to reestablish our container water gardens this past weekend. We’d had them both filled with water for weeks so it could warm up, and had put the piece of clay pipe horizontally in the bottom of the deeper container so our fish would have a “tunnel” to hide in if they needed to escape from predators. We’d already put the oxygenator plant anacharis in the water, too (it grows like a weed in our indoor aquaria so we always have plenty to spare for our outdoor water gardens). It was going to be a hundred-degree weekend. It was time to get going.

So last Sunday, Silence and I trekked over to Aquatic Concepts and came back with three goldfish, six snails, a water lettuce, a water hyacinth, a variegated papyrus, a variegated cattail, and a pink-flowered arrowhead. Mind you, we already had water hyacinths, water lettuce, and papyrus overwintering in the container water garden in our greenhouse, so we’d assumed we were in great shape until a power failure occurred one frigid winter night and, by the time we woke up, the plants had departed for that big pond in the sky. Back to the drawing board.

Once home, we divided the plants and snails between the deep and shallow container gardens and floated the goldfish bag in the deep container until the water temperatures equalized, then released the goldfish into their new home. And here’s where the anticipation comes in.

For the past several years, we’ve had a raccoon come through here for a couple of weeks in the spring and a couple in the fall. It apparently considers Hawk’s Haven like a motel stop en route to wherever it’s ultimately going. While it’s here, it pulls down our tube feeders and eats the birdseed, empties the outdoor cats’ food dish, and fishes in our water gardens for goldfish and snails. (See our earlier post “Raccoon 1, gardeners 0” for more on this.) We have seen it at the cat-food dish and it is big. And it seems to have an unerring insinct as to when to arrive, since it inevitably appears about the second we’ve planted the water gardens.

Well, we’ve made it to Wednesday without an attack. (You can always tell because some plants are shredded and the water’s all muddy, even if you don’t see partially consumed fish floating on top or hurled to the ground nearby.) As always, we’re hard-pressed not to hope that this year we and our goldfish will be spared. But we once again bought inexpensive goldfish, having learned from bitter experience not to pay for the premium specimens early in the season. And now… anticipation. It’s making us late, it’s keeping us waiting.  And not in a good way.

Today’s pterodactyl. April 14, 2009

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Our friend Ben was being tortured—I mean, getting my teeth cleaned—yesterday. Between jabs with sharp metal implements, I asked my dental hygienist what was new in her family water garden. That’s when the topic of dinosaurs came up.

No, she hadn’t discovered a backyard-sized version of the Loch Ness Monster in her water garden. That idiot who’s trying to create living dinosaurs from chickens hadn’t made an unexpected appearance at her home. And alas, she wasn’t trying to tell our friend Ben that the world had finally been made safe for children now that she’d found Barney facedown at the bottom of her pond. Instead, she was referring to her husband’s arch-nemesis, the great blue heron.

Our friend Ben loves herons. I’m always thrilled to see a little green heron at a pond or to watch a great blue mincing around my neighbor’s water garden (our own container water gardens are too small to attract their notice) or flying overhead. But serious water gardeners don’t share my enthusiasm. That’s because herons come to their water gardens for one reason, and one reason only: to eat fish (and frogs, if they can find them). And some of those fish are very expensive.

My hygienist’s husband keeps koi, the royalty of water-garden fish. Koi are to goldfish as perfect deep-sea pearls are to freshwater pearls: Both are beautiful, but one will cost you a lot more than the other. Undisturbed, koi can live for a century, slowly getting bigger and more majestic. For the enthusiast, they’re a good investment. For the heron, they’re lunch. Worse, her husband is fond of his koi, giving them names and knowing every single one. So when he found one half-eaten on the ground beside the water garden and another floating, critically injured, on the water’s surface, it was war.

Fortunately, there’s an easy solution to this problem and my hygienist’s husband took it: He put netting over the surface of the water. Boom! No more heron. Our friend Ben isn’t sure if it’s too hard for the herons to fish through the netting, or if they’re concerned about becoming entangled, but whatever the case, it’s an effective deterrent.

So where does the dinosaur come in? Our friend Ben’s hygienist said that she hadn’t been home during any of the heron’s visits, so she hadn’t seen it herself, but her husband saw it taking off one day and “he said it looked just like a pterodactyl.”

Ha!!! Our friend Ben loves this description. Herons are amazing-looking birds, and great blues are huge amazing-looking birds. They can be almost 5 feet in size—that’s almost as tall as Silence Dogood. (Ouch!!! Ouch!!! Sorry, Silence! I really wasn’t trying to draw a comparison. Ouch!!!) And their wingspan is over 6 feet. With their long beaks, long necks, head crests, long, dangling legs, and abbreviated tails, not to mention those enormously long wings, there really is something pterodactyl-like, or at least strikingly primitive, about them.

If you’ve never seen a live great blue posing, statue-like, at a pond, or flying overhead with its legs trailing streamerlike behind, you’re missing a real treat. Unless, of course, you keep koi.

Raccoon 1, gardeners 0. May 26, 2008

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*&%$!!#@! raccoon. Our friend Ben discovered a goldfish (dead) and snail (mercifully unharmed) lying on the deck yesterday morning, and a muddy, ripped-up mess where the container water garden had been looking so lovely and serene. As feared (see my post on setting up the water garden, “A good day for gazing balls”), the wretched raccoon had discovered the all-you-can-eat buffet on our deck and bellied up for its dinner.

As the earth awakens from its winter rest and gardening season moves from a longed-for dream to a blister-inducing reality, raccoons emerge from hibernation, mate, and bear their young. By May and June, the females have hungry mouths to feed (including their own) and the males are footloose and fancy free. Just as your first crops are ripening, you’re likely to see these big, smart, adaptable omnivores casing your produce or pet food—or worse, see the path of nocturnal destruction they’ve left in their wake.

We’re not the only ones who’ve suffered raccoon depredations in the past few weeks. Melissa at Zanthan Gardens (http://www.zanthan.com/gardens/gardenlog/) had a raccoon trash her water garden, too. And the Weed Whackin’ Wenches (http://www.weedwhackinwenches.blogspot.com/) had a very humorous encounter with a raccoon attempting to raid their garden and have since posted the formidable Diva Dog on guard duty to prevent any recurrences. Our good friend Edith had the ultimate horror, a family of raccoons in her attic. (Given the noise even a solitary squirrel makes overhead, our friend Ben shudders to think of the racket, not to mention what else might be going on. It probably sounded like boot camp in progress.)

From one end of the country to the other, the raccoons are active… and they’re hungry. Our friend Ben understands that they’ve even become naturalized in Europe, and are up to their usual tricks in urban and suburban areas there, too. Yikes!

What makes raccoons more of a menace than those other backyard marauders, groundhogs (aka woodchucks), bunnies, skunks, and ‘possums? (Note that I did not say deer. if you have a deer problem, you probably laugh at raccoons. But that is another story.) It’s a combination of intelligence, dexterity, omnivorous habits, and size. Did I mention that raccoons are big? A fullgrown male can weigh 35 pounds and be 36 inches—that’s 3 feet, folks—long, not counting the 10-inch tail. The largest raccoon on record weighed more than 50 pounds. It takes a fair amount of food to fill an animal that size, and the critter can do quite a lot of damage just waddling around among your plants.

Raccoons are dexterous because they really have hands rather than front paws, and they certainly know how to use them. And like us, raccoons are omnivorous. (Unlike us, they have a fondness for garbage cans, and have absolutely no trouble pulling off the lid so they can climb in and explore.) They’ve been known to open screen doors, climb in open windows, and squeeze through pet doors to get to the coveted kitchen, then open cabinets and refrigerators, removing choice treats from their wrappers and leaving a pile of wrappers and an open fridge door, much like a distracted teenager, in their wake. (Cheesecake is apparently a favorite; our friend Ben can sympathize.) The very word “raccoon” derives from a Virginia Algonquian word meaning “he scratches with his hands.”

Another famous thing raccoons do with their hands is wash their food before eating it—the Norwegian word for raccoon means “wash bear”—though scientists will hasten to assure you that they’re not actually trying to get the food clean. (Just what they are trying to do is still a matter of debate.) Unfortunately, this means that a water garden provides one-stop shopping: The raccoon can select its meal and wash it in one convenient location.

What to do? Putting netting over the water garden is reputedly effective at keeping raccoons (and other predators like herons) out, though it hardly enhances the water garden’s aesthetic appeal, which is surely the reason we have them to begin with. (Since most raccoons are nocturnal, I suppose you could net the water garden at night and remove the netting every morning, but what a pain.) Our friend Ben is hoping that a barricade of container plants will at least give our raccoon pause. (By contrast, our outdoor cats love them, lolling on the deck in the shade of the plants’ foliage and doubtless dreaming of the jungle.)

Incidentally, you may wonder how we know that it’s a raccoon and not the outdoor cats attacking the water garden. Fortunately, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out. While the cats do exhibit a preference for drinking the water in the container gardens rather than the fresh water in their own bowls (gross!!!), they don’t fish in them or tear up plants. Battered, knocked-around plants and muddy water are sure signs of raccoon feasting.

Here at Hawk’s Haven, we have two other things going in our fishes’ favor: First, we laid a section of clay pipe horizontally in the bottom of the water garden to provide the fish with a safe haven, then put in lots of plants for cover. And second, in past years this raccoon has appeared practically nightly for a couple of weeks, then moved on for the rest of the season. Maybe the other fish (and snails) will fare better. If not, our favorite water-garden store, Aquatic Concepts, is fortunately just a couple of miles down the road. We’ll just wait until there’s no further sign of depredation and restock.

For someone like our friend Ben who grew up with Sterling North’s heartwarming book Rascal, his real-life story of growing up with a beloved pet raccoon, to make the transition to viewing raccoons as pests isn’t easy. But one look at the helpless fish, the hapless snails, and the ravaged plants is enough to cause an attitude adjustment. Not to mention the very real threat of rabies to our outdoor cats—37.5% of reported rabies cases are in raccoons.

This morning, the water garden is once again unmolested. The water is clear, the plants are recovering, and I can see the two surviving fish swimming peacefully in the depths. But our friend Ben knows better than to assume that the worst is over. Once the raccoon has a chance to size up the situation, it will be raccoon 2, gardeners 0. It’s going to be a long couple of weeks.       

A good day for gazing balls (and water gardens). May 18, 2008

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The deadline-driven Ben was finally able to take a few hours off yesterday and head off with Silence Dogood and our good friend Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame to my favorite water-garden emporium, Aquatic Concepts near Kutztown, Pennsylvania. It was time to renovate the half-barrel water gardens here at Hawk’s Haven, and I was looking for plants, fish, and snails. Richard was looking for interesting marginals, as plants that grow along pond edges are called, for his in-ground water garden, and was yet again flirting with the idea of getting a couple of koi. And Silence was hoping to find a replacement for one of our silver gazing balls, which had a fatal encounter with high wind and rocks when we set it out last month. (See our earlier post, “Gazing ball grief,” for more on that.)

As always, Aquatic Concepts was a plant- and fish-lover’s bonanza. With two container water gardens to stock (we have a third in the greenhouse to hold tender water plants through the winter, but there’s no need to stock that), restraint is the major challenge for our friend Ben. After drooling over water lilies and lotuses, I ultimately selected a parrot feather, floating heart (which resembles a mini-water lily), water lettuce (just one, knowing they’ll spread like crazy), variegated cattail, and dwarf and standard papyrus. Richard found a fantastic variegated taro and added a variegated cattail and several variegated water iris to his haul.

Then it was time for the fish. After requesting seven snails to keep the water gardens clean and algae-free, our friend Ben looked with unabashed lust at the endless exquisite goldfish on offer. (And drooled uncontrollably at a goldfish-sized luminous lemon koi, but failed at pretending it wouldn’t grow to be a foot long.) After years of choosing the very loveliest of the goldfish and watching them fall to raccoon depradations, however, this year by some miracle our friend Ben had a rush of brains to the head (in the immortal words of a friend’s mother).

Our friend Ben has observed that, in years past, a brazen raccoon has appeared on the very deck of Hawk’s Haven in late spring and has helped him- or herself to both the outdoor cats’ food and to any unsuspecting goldfish (and even snails) in the half-barrel water garden in one corner of the deck. These depredations continue nightly for a couple of weeks, and then the raccoon moves on to wherever it’s going and that’s the last we see of it for another year.

So rather than sacrifice yet more expensive, exquisite goldfish to the raccoon, this time our friend Ben opted for three comets at $2.99 each. They were very attractive in their own right—brilliant red and white—and will make a nice show in the water garden if they survive. And if they don’t have the good sense to hide out in the section of clay pipe our friend Ben has positioned in the bottom of the water garden for their protection, well, our friend Ben will head out for replacements once the raccoon has moved on. Assuming, of course, that it shows up again this year. Perhaps a miracle will happen and it won’t, but our friend Ben is not counting on it. We can’t help but feel after all these years of depradation that it sees the raccoon equivalent of golden arches looming large over our deck door, and feels compelled to stop in for a “Big Rac” (or ten) on its way to its ultimate destination.

Now, our friend Ben and Poor Richard definitely “made out” (in the words of a local PA expression for getting a great deal that still stuns our friend Ben after all these years of living in the area, since in my native South making out has one meaning, and one meaning only) in terms of getting great plants and fish. But the real coup of the day was Silence’s. You may recall from “Gazing ball grief” that when our friend Ben headed out to find a replacement for the smashed gazing ball, I discovered to my horror that the price of these handmade lawn ornaments had risen to $60 for even the plainest silver ball. Gack!!! This seemed excessive, to say the least, and Silence and I resigned ourselves to doing without. But Silence remembered seeing gazing balls for sale at Aquatic Concepts in previous years, and obviously, she hadn’t entirely abandoned hope. As it turned out, she not only found a silver gazing ball, she found a silver gazing ball on sale for $22—and it was stainless steel, so even if wind blows it off the pedestal again, it’s safe from harm. Go Silence!!! 

Once Richard had rushed off to add his new plants to his own water garden, Silence went out and positioned her treasure on the seagreen pedestal while I set up our water gardens. I’d already hosed out the containers, positioned them on the deck and in the yard (coveniently masking the unsightly concrete septic-tank cap), and filled them with water from our well, allowing it to reach air temperature. (One great advantage of a well—no need to wait for chlorine and other toxins to evaporate in order to avoid fish death.) I’d positioned the section of clay pipe in the bottom of the deck water garden for the fishes’ protection. Then I harvested the extra anacharis from the indoor fishtanks and added it to the two outdoor water gardens. (Anacharis is an underwater oxygenator, providing both shelter and much-needed oxygen to the snails and goldfish. In an aquarium setting, it grows rapidly and frequently needs to be thinned out.)

Next, I postioned the dwarf papyrus’s pot on top of the clay pipe (which, I should note, is on its side in the bottom of the water garden), put the pots of parrot feather and floating heart on the bottom of the deck water garden and the variegated cattail and full-size papyrus in the second water garden, and added snails to both water gardens. I floated the water lettuce on the surface of the deck water garden (soon there will be offsets to add to the other water garden and share with Richard as well as our next-door neighbor Steve, who has a series of in-ground water gardens, and our good friend Delilah, whose water gardens are amazing). And I retrieved two clumps of dwarf water hyacinth from the greenhouse water garden and put one in each of our outdoor water gardens (soon enough, there will be plenty of those to share as well).

While all this was going on, I’d floated the plastic bag with the three goldfish in the deck water garden so the water temperature in the bag could gradually come to match the temperature of the water in the half-barrel. Once all the plants were in place, I opened the bag and let the goldfish swim out into their new home. That was it for the day! Everybody seemed happy and healthy. Our friend Ben enjoyed the happy scene before heading out to the veggie beds to harvest red Romaine lettuce, arugula, scallions, and some garlic mustard growing near the compost bins for our dinner salad. 

In case you’re wondering, no, we don’t add anything electric to our water gardens. We find that, just as with indoor aquariums, the appropriate mix of sub-surface oxygenator plants, plenty of other plants, snails, and a few fish (emphasis on few—they need lots of room to breathe), creates a balance that needs no interference from us apart from removing fallen leaves from the water’s surface. We’ve never had any problems (if you don’t count the *&%$#@!!! raccoon), and our water gardens have always been beautiful and lush. Algae has never been an issue for us, either, but our water gardens are shaded, which may account for it, or it may just be that fish-snail-oxygenator-plant balance that’s taking care of things.

Whatever the case, our friend Ben can’t imagine a less troublesome, more gratifying thing than a half-barrel water garden. (Of course, we feed the goldfish, but sparingly.) Confession: We use the molded plastic half-barrel liners for our water gardens rather than wooden barrels. They’re lightweight, unobtrusive, and indestructible.

What if you’d like to set up your own water garden, but don’t have a wonderful business like Aquatic Concepts nearby? Our friend Ben recommends a fabulous and all-too-tempting online business, Arizona Aquatic Gardens, to you all. Arizona is rather a far stretch from our Pennsylvania home, but we’ve always gotten deliveries from Arizona Aquatic Gardens quickly and in perfect shape. Their plants, shrimp, freshwater clams, fish, and etc. simply cannot be beat! Visit them at www.azgardens.com and see for yourself!