10 Years of a New England Farm Pond

Part 3 in a series about landscaping on a farm pond in central Massachusetts

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When we bought this small horse farm almost 10 years ago, it came with a little gem of a farm pond, complete with resident fish, frogs and a number of birds that dropped in regularly to visit and feed from this aquatic habitat.

Part of the banks had been damaged by hoof traffic, and a good part of the shoreline on one side was covered with the non-native invasive Multiflora rose, Japanese barberry and ditch lily, but otherwise we could see the potential of the pond as a central feature of our habitat landscaping.

This is what the pond looked like when we moved here in early 2004:

Early 2004

March 2004

I wrote about our trials and tribulations along the way in a series of articles at Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens, but at the 10 year mark, I feel confident that we are just about managing the pond well for all its uses and functions. A wetland area such as this can harbor an enormous amount of biodiversity, and plant/weed competition is fierce. A little careful intervention here and there helps nature keep the area in balance — if we did not manage it, our pond would almost certainly become overrun with unwanted foreign invaders, and eventually revert to swampland.

The pond’s shoreline is roughly broken down into 4 quite different zones:

  • Barn buffer zone
  • Vegetable beds
  • Managed moist meadow
  • Wild/unmanaged “back 40″

Barn buffer:

This strip of extremely nitrogen-rich soil separates the pond from the barnyard where 2 horses live. The plants in this area act as a filter, soaking up nitrogen from horse urine before it leaches into the pond.

Bee balm, heliopsis and helianthus fill the area with color in summer, and attract many hummingbirds and butterflies to their blooms.

In the early years, I had many plans for this highly visible garden area, but many plants have failed (ninebark, summersweet, native lilies, to name a few).  Now, my approach has evolved into a “see what nature does” attitude with this challenging area.

A small pathway provides access to the buffer, but I do let the wild violets fill in along the fence to contribute to the vegetative buffer:

violet-path-chicken-montage

The violets need one “hacking back” per year to keep them from taking over the path.

Wild blue phlox, Virginia bluebells, violets, foamflower and golden star bloom in early May:

violets virginia bluebells mertensia blue phlox pond

Summer brings the blue flag iris which loves its spot on the water line:

blue-flag-turks-cap-montage

Above right: For many years, I eagerly looked forward to blooms from the native turk’s cap lilies I planted in the buffer, but every year, they formed buds that always aborted before flowering…just too much nitrogen, I suppose. Finally I got smart and dug the bulbs up and moved them elsewhere on the pond where I hope they will now bloom….

A beautiful Joe-Pye weed seeded itself in along with its white-flowering cousin boneset, and they mingle well with the rose mallow and New York ironweed I planted:

pond hibiscus boneset eupatorium ironweed

The very last Monarch butterfly I ever saw on our property was in August, 2012, and it spent most of its time nectaring at the ironweed flowers (below left):

2007: The self-seeded goldenrod was removed in a later year to make more room for the asters as they grew

Above right, Sept. 2007: 2 varieties of native aster drape over the bank along with a self-seeded goldenrod, which was removed in later years to make more room for the asters as they grew

 

Vegetable Gardens:

The sunniest side of the pond shore contains a number of raised beds, some permanent and some constructed each year from bales of hay or straw. We are able to grow a surprisingly large amount of food in these raised beds filled with our farm compost, using pond water for irrigation.

veggie gardens pond raised beds

Our food gardens are started very early in spring. This past year, early crops were seeded when there was still snow on the ground in late March:

cold frame snow veg gardens

We make sure that the vegetable beds are surrounded by plenty of flowering plants (mostly native) that attract pollinators and beneficial insects. These perennials put down deep roots along the steep bank to shore it up, and the predatory insects that are attracted to the flowers ensure that we have very few pest problems on our crops.

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Managed Moist Meadow:

This area fences our horse pasture from the pond shoreline — we installed a watering trough instead of letting the horses drink from the pond. Over the years, I’ve planted a few native shrubs/small trees such as buttonbush, leatherleaf, blueberry and serviceberry, all of which are thriving, but in between them I have watched other native perennials come and go — common milkweed, goldenrod, daisy fleabane, ironweed, swamp sunflower — they all compete with each other for the moisture and sunshine, with none monopolizing the area completely:

pond-meadow-montage

Serviceberries, common milkweed and daisy fleabane in this “wild zone” feed and shelter many pollinators and songbirds right through the year.

Unmanaged “Back 40″

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The southern edge of the pond is bordered by a grove of evergreen hemlock trees, which shade the water through the year — the water in that side of the pond is many degrees colder than the sunny, unshaded part of the pond. It’s a deliciously cool place to paddle a kayak during the hot, humid days of August.

We’ve never touched that side of the pond, since the full shade is a challenge, and the inaccessibility of that area (to dogs, horses, people) means that it makes safe habitat for turtles and other shy wildlife who travel between wetlands and upland woods. Several families of mallard ducks have nested in those woods above the pond and took their first swim here, before Mama whisked her ducklings away from the dangers of 2 resident dogs.

Late in the season, the flowers are gone but the backdrop becomes the show…

Four seasons of habitat…

Instead of doing the conventional fall garden cleanup, we leave the season’s spent perennials along the pond banks to supply birds with forage all winter long. As I write this in mid-November, mixed flocks of juncos, chickadees, song sparrows and other small songbirds are working the abundance of seed stems, building up strength for the cold months ahead.

Bird seed smorgasbord!

Bird seed smorgasbord!

Winter bird food, left standing on the stem..

Winter bird food, left standing on the stem..

Planting with caution …

Lizard's Tail, aquatic plant

With interesting white curved flowers and its partially submerged stems, Lizard’s Tail provides nectar and pollen for wild bees and shelter for aquatic wildlife. Do not confuse this plant with a similar-looking spreading plant called Gooseneck Loosestrife–which is a non-native plant that many consider invasive in New England gardens.

When I wrote my last article in this series, I had decided I wasn’t going to add any new plants along the shoreline but was going to let nature do any additional planting from thereon. Well, this year, with some trepidation, I did add Lizard’s Tail (Saururus cernuus) to the shoreline of the moist meadow. Trepidation, because this is a quickly spreading plant that can form large colonies. Like the native water lily, I am keeping a close eye on it and will ruthlessly thin colony edges as necessary. Each summer during the hottest days of the year, I stay cool by weeding the pond barefoot in a kayak…

Lizard’s Tail is a very rare plant in New England – it is endangered in Connecticut and has not been seen growing in MA in many years. The shorelines, pond banks and open swamps where it once grew along the eastern seaboard were long ago drained, developed and industrialized. In pre-colonial settlement, however, lizard’s tail was a well-known plant and valued for its many medicinal qualities — so when I saw it available for sale by Tripple Brook Nursery in Southampton, MA, I decided to try growing it to help restore its populations and add habitat value to our wildlife pond.

If you’re interested in our experiences and lessons learned working with our farm pond, read more of the series at Tales of a Farm Pond: Part 1 and Part 2

 

Don’t Miss! Ellen Sousa’s Book (click image for more information)

 

 

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Comments

  1. says

    You have done an incredible job; the photos are absolutely beautiful. We have a much smaller pond, surrounded by native grasses, and you’ve given me some ideas for adding color around it. Thank you.

  2. Bonnie says

    So enjoyed the post about your pond. My husband and I have a slightly larger pond which my grandfather put in about 50 years ago. I left it untended for about 10 years (not realizing the value of natives, wildlife and pollinators) and when I went to check on it last summer could not even find a passageway into the pond. After much work (hired) and my own it is beginning to take shape. I think my deceased grandfather would be proud and I think all the critters will appreciate the new native plantings and all my hard work. When I want a vacation, I just head to the pond! There is still much to be done.

    • says

      Bonnie – it can be a challenge to get through the thousands of weeds that like to live on the edge of water…but I know your grandfather and your local wildlife will be very grateful for your effort! And yes…the pond is the place to be on our property too :)
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Fall Frenzy

  3. says

    I have pond envy! Such a beautiful spot and you have managed it so well. Love all your choices. I hope to make a small pond (pool really) to attract frogs (and birds) on my village lot. For now I simply have water containers. I picked up a Lizard’s Tail because I read it was native and its fairly hardy. Right now it is overwintering in my cellar. I hope it lasts so I can replant it next year in a water container and then, hopefully, near my new pond/pool. You have a beautiful patch of it! I also have Iron Weed and when in bloom it is always loaded with bees and other pollinators. Let’s hope there are more Monarchs next year!

    • says

      Ooh, interested to hear how your Lizards Tail does, Kathy. The picture in my article is not my own path – I only planted it this year. The pic shows it growing at Garden in the Woods in Framingham MA. That was the first and only place I have seen it growing and as I am a sucker for spiky flowers, I had to have some of my one…
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Fall Frenzy

    • says

      hi Gail,
      I can vouch that a pond definitely attracts dragonflies (especially the ones that lay their eggs in water) and they are voracious mosquito eaters…just remember to include plenty of aquatic plants with underwater and emergent stems – dragonfly hatchlings (some species) use the plant stems to crawl up to the “outside world” when they are ready to fly away in their adult form…
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Fall Frenzy

      • Marilyn says

        I also appreciated the way you explained the different areas and why you planted them the way you did. I am starting almost from scratch in trying to plant natives. Knowing what to do, how to start, can be overwhelming. As in almost any big job, breaking it into smaller jobs is the key. This shows how you did that. Also, I am envious of your rose mallow, which is native to my area, but probably I think I have figured out it’s too tall for the spot I wanted to put it. :(

  4. Carole says

    Inspiring!!
    Lizard’s tail grows naturally on my property here in northwest Florida, I’ve not found it to be aggressive.

  5. Kim Sedgwick says

    I absolutely love this post on your beautiful pond. I will keep this and try to integrate some of these lovely ideas into my own. Thank you for the inspiration.
    Kim
    Macomb, IL

  6. juliahomer says

    Gorgeous, inspiring gardens. What are your favorite flowering plants for surrounding the vegetable beds? I currently have daisies, goldenrod, mullein, lamb’s ears, cup plant, lavender, thyme, and marigolds surrounding my vegetables, but most just arrived opportunistically, and I’m not sure these are the best choices.

    Julia

    • says

      Julia – I always grow a lot of marigolds (single-form flowers) in and around my veggie beds, also borage and dill to attract the beneficial insects. For those beds near the pond, I don’t plant a lot because it’s very steep but I see what seeds in on its own – so far blue and white lobelia, goldenrod, rudbeckia, daisy fleabane, and I was happy to see the native swamp yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia terrestris) pop up this year. I did plant a dwarf summer sweet shrub (“Hummingbird”) in the area too for its mid-summer blooms and fragrance.
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Fall Frenzy

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