The Evolution of a Pond

I’m rarely satisfied.

This trait is both beautiful and terrible. It pushes me to achieve more than I ever thought possible, and yet I almost never feel truly finished with anything – projects, writing, etc. I know that I can always improve.

In Season 1, Episode 7 of “Revisionist History,” Malcolm Gladwell describes two types of artists. Picassos seem to create pieces quickly (but often meditate on the piece long beforehand). Cézannes remake the same song, object, etc. over and over until reaching a “final” product.

Although I think and plan, I am a Cézanne.

I’ve previously traced my chicken coop designs over the six years I’ve lived in my human coop. But long before I ever decided to get chickens, I started thinking about ponds. I’ve always loved the water – gentle splashing, smooth reflections of light. The moment I started looking at houses to buy, in the back of my mind, I was also planning my first pond.

Before I dug into the ground the first time, I had a few goals for my water feature:

  • a small waterfall
  • fish
  • to be able to hear the water through open living room windows.
  • within reach of an outlet (for the waterfall)

The most obvious location was right outside my side door. There’s a covered exterior outlet, and the side door leads straight into my living room. Perfect!

I started digging and pretty quickly ran into a thick PVC pipe. Okay, so my pond would be two levels: the end with the PVC pipe would be about six inches shallower than the far end. I figured it actually worked out pretty well for water circulation because the deeper end held the pump and filter box, and a hose ran the water from the box to the waterfall at the shallow end.

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This first pond was basically a hole with a sheet of pond liner on the clay (what passes for dirt here), some river pebbles along the bottom, and pavers around the rim. I built the “waterfall” out of stones and old concrete chunks I found around the yard.

What that picture doesn’t show is the leaves that constantly rained onto the water from an oak tree overhead. The tree provided nice shade that kept algae at bay, but it made cleaning the pond a constant struggle. Those little rectangular pavers were also inching into the water too.

That said, the pond was cute and met my initial needs. It was enough low enough that the chickens stopped by for water breaks. The few goldfish that called it home seemed pretty happy too.

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Here it’s not as pristine, but the goldfish enjoyed the creeping jenny trailing into the water. I also added a second layer of pavers around the perimeter, which improved the stability. However, the leaves were still an issue, and the chickens kicked mulch and debris into the pond every time they went near it.

The biggest issue with the first pond? Look how close that wall (and the house foundation) is to the pond. Although the pond likely wasn’t deep enough to permanently impact the foundation, as a new homeowner, I grew nervous (ditto with the weight of the water on that PVC pipe). Having a hole so close to the foundation just wouldn’t do for the long term.

The second pond was a little bit away from the house, but still within reach of the outlet. The distance was maybe eight feet? I also wanted an above-ground pond to combat the mulch-kicking from the chickens.

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Rather than buy a bunch of pavers, I decided to build a wooden frame and make my own “pavers” out of Quikrete. They weren’t gorgeous, but they were cheap and functional. As there was no obvious place for a waterfall, I opted for a fountain in the middle.

Actually, what I really wanted was to a hand holding a sword coming out of the water – a la Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake – with the sword acting as the fountain. I tried to build one out of a plastic sword and a manicurist practice hand, but I just couldn’t get it to work. Years later, I’m still sad; the Sword-in-the-Lake fountain would’ve been awesome.

You may notice that this pond had the added benefit of being a nice gathering point for a sitting area. That wooden post between the benches is part of a pergola I built not long after rebuilding the pond. The only thing is, this space was cramped. The pond was also a bit too small because I opted not to dig down more than a few inches before building up the sides.

But the biggest issue with this second version? My own desires and aesthetics. I yearned for mountain streams and curving water. The above-ground pond looked too constructed. I wanted something more natural and meandering, like the creeks of the North Carolina mountains where I used to hike. So down came Pond 2.0.

For the third pond, I started digging again. I laid out ropes and hold water hoses to approximate a winding creek. It would have a waterfall at one end and a pool (with the pump box) at the other. A second waterfall would separate the “creek” and the pool.

Fortunately, I was able to reuse all the pavers – bought and made – and the pebbles. I had to buy a few more bags of pebbles, though, because this new pond was quite a bit larger than previous versions.

Around the same time I was building this version of the pond, I had four ducklings quickly growing to adult size. One of the reasons I wanted to build larger was to give them a space (in addition to the repurposed bathtub in the coop) in which to splash around. Water isn’t required for ducks, but they sure do love it.

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The only downside of having a duck pond is those silly birds are also ravenous murder birds. I can’t really keep fish or any other living thing in the pond. Even the cleverest goldfish with plenty of hiding spots has eventually gotten snapped up.

This past summer, though, I tried an experiment and fenced off the upper pond with poultry wire. I added some aquatic plants and let the algae grow, hoping to create the perfect environment for toads and/or frogs. My end goal is to establish a toad or frog community for pest control in the gardens (which are only a few feet away from the pond).

It seemed to take forever – but I also didn’t have a good idea on when tadpoles appear in New Orleans. Then sometime around June, I realized little black dots were scooting around the pond!

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Pond 3.0 has worked well so far. It’s definitely my favorite design, and my qualms with it stem from structural choices. For example, the waterfall separating the upper and lower pond leaks water and is less of a “fall” and more of a “seeping pile of rocks.” I’ve also struggled to control algae at times because the pool sits in direct sunlight for much of the day (fortunately, the algae issue seems to have worked itself out, probably due to the ecosystem self-balancing).

I love ponds, and my favorite designs also skew towards more natural states. I enjoy watching plants and animals grow, develop, and interact. That’s probably why I also love creating gardens – it’s not just about growing plants. Gardens, for me, involve creating a natural community. Then, I just step back and observe.

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Chicken Coop Designs Through the Years

By the winter of 2012, I’d spent about six months in my new house. I’d learned that the dirt in my yard was hard clay that stuck to my shovel like peanut butter, that roaches appeared in surprising places during warm weather, and that I really enjoyed working outside and taking care of animals.

So I started planning for chickens.

Things I knew, starting out:

  • My backyard is fenced in, and I planned to let the chickens free range while I was home. Therefore, the size of the run could be a bit smaller than if the chickens were in there 24/7.
  • Everything needed to be enclosed. I wasn’t sure what my predator situation was yet (see a few paragraphs down), but I didn’t want to risk a chicken to find out.
  • Since heat is more of an issue in south Louisiana than cold, the coop needed good ventilation.

The feed stores wouldn’t have any chicks until February or March, so I fumbled my way through building my first coop in January. It was my first major build, the previous largest being storage bench. I researched and sketched and researched more. Finally, I ended up with this happy little blue number perfectly sized for two chickens:

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I couldn’t find any good pictures of the run, but it folded up small enough to fit into the back of my car. At the time – keep in mind I was in my initial year of living in a hurricane-prone area – I was very worried about how and where to take my chickens should we need to evacuate, so a transportable run seemed like a good idea. But I’d also overbuilt it out of heavy wood, so it was really unwieldy for everyday use. I hated run.

A few months after my first chickens arrived, I decided to get another pair of chicks. Halfway through 2013, I returned to the sketch pad.

This new coop would not only be larger, but it would have a fixed run. I was worried about the chickens scratching one spot of grass to mud, so I read a lot on chicken tractors. With some good wheels and mechanical advantage on my side, a heavy coop would be easy to move around the yard every other day or so, right?

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Those tiny, tiny wheels.
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Here, you can see the old coop behind the new one.

In that first picture, you can see “levers” connected to the wheels. The idea was that the coop would sit squarely on the ground until it needed to move. Then, I’d pull those levers and engage the wheels.

That, er, didn’t exactly work. The coop was heavy and – once again – unwieldy. I also have far too little land for a chicken tractor to be effective; my entire lot is less than a quarter of an acre. So the wheels came off and the coop found a permanent home in my yard. I filled the run with sand, and for a short period, everyone was happy.

But it was with this second coop that I learned about my nocturnal predators.

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“Borrow a cuppa sugar, friend?”

See, the part of my yard that isn’t peanut butter clay is sand. Apparently, my area has many, many raccoons and opossums, and those critters like to dig. I woke up in the middle of many nights to chickens shrieking because something dug under the edge of the coop and squirmed inside. Fortunately, the only victim was the chicken feed. I laid down a perimeter of galvanized hardware cloth and heavy stones, and all was well again.

It was also around this time that I tried using an automatic coop door. The idea was that the coop door would slide closed at sunset and open at sunrise, so that even if something got inside the run, the chickens would be protected. Although now I see plenty of kits and ready-to-go options for sale, back then, it was more reasonable to put my own together with a solar panel, battery, and gearbox. Technically, it worked, but with the expansion and shrinking of wood, the door got stuck and trapped my chickens in the coop. I eventually gave up on it and resolved to put my energy towards making the coop and run like a fortress.

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It’s not perfect, but this was probably my most charming set up.

I was happy enough with that coop, until in 2017, I decided to get ducks.

So here’s another obvious mistake I made:  even if you think you’ve sealed your wood, don’t let it sit directly on the ground, especially somewhere with humidity and insect issues like Louisiana. As I dissembled the coop and run, some of the wood on the bottom crumbled. Of course, the pressure-treated pieces held up better, but still:  don’t let wood sit directly on the ground.

I had some experience behind me, and I’d gathered some tools since my first coop back in 2013, so the 2017 edition went up more quickly and was more solid than ever.

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Okay, so what do we have different than before? The whole thing sits up on leveled concrete blocks. All of the lumber is pressure treated and painted with exterior-grade paint. I actually built this in two stages – you can see the separate chicken coop to the left is actually finished and sealed off.The ducks have their own separate house, lower to the ground for stubby little duck legs (although one or two have already shown off that they can awkwardly waddle up the ramp into the chicken house).

Finally, this much larger run is easily tall enough for me to walk around in so I can clean. This is particularly important because the bathtub for the ducks requires a regular water change. The height also allows easy access to the feeder, the houses, the water reservoir, etc. And when the ducklings first moved outside in 2017, it was easy to cordon off an area and keep them separate from the adult hens until the ducks grew large enough to hold their own (which didn’t take much time at all – maybe a few months – ducks grow very quickly).

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Man, they were so freakin’ cute.

For anyone interested, I do water changes using a submersible pump that can handle large chunks (little pebbles and sticks often wind up in the tub). I swap out the water three times per week and sprinkle a few mosquito bits to prevent larvae in the standing water.

This coop has performed well. Zero predators have gotten inside. However, I’ve [grumble grumble] started having some problems with mice. I’m currently trying a treadle feeder to see how that helps the problem. And in the spirit of disclosure, I’ve also laid out poison (protected from the reach of the ducks and chickens). I don’t like using poison, but mice and rats are not only expensive (they blow through feed), they carry disease and can chew on and damage wooden structures.

Another change I made with this coop is the substrate. Previously, when I only had chicken, I used sand. It’s easy to rake and keep clean-ish. The chickens seem to like it for scratching around and dust bathing. But while preparing for ducks, I knew wetness was going to be an issue. Not to get too graphic, but while chicken poo is solid, duck poo is more like diarrhea. Yum. Therefore, in this coop, I used pea gravel almost everywhere; it’s easy to hose down and rake. There’s still one corner of sand for dust baths.

Alright, so what I have learned from building and rebuilding and building again?

  • Never let wood rest directly on the ground; set it up on concrete blocks.
  • Build a run big enough for an adult human to stand up in and move around.
  • Bury hardware cloth around the outside and secure 1/2″ or smaller hardware cloth to all openings using fender washers (they have a large diameter); assemble that coop and run like a fortress.
  • Given tools, time, and the ability to understand your mistakes, you can always rebuild.
  • Sand for chickens; pea gravel for ducks.

Every time I was preparing to build, I’d also visit the BackYard Chickens forum for ideas and instructions. The trick is, though, understanding your environment and building (or rebuilding) to that. My chicken-keeping friend in Colorado has no roof on her run – it’s basically a fenced-in patch of yard – but she doesn’t have the same predators that I do. Understanding your environment might mean that your first stab at a coop sucks, and that’s okay. It’s only a problem if you never do anything to make the situation better.

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Meet the Flock

We’ve spent a lot of time in the front yard so far, but hey, there’s a whole lotta land behind my house. Hah! Kidding – my house sits on less than 1/4 acre, but I’m trying to cram as much as possible on that little bit of dirt. As of this posting, that include five chickens and four ducks.

The winter after I moved into my house, I started researching what a backyard flock required. Housing. Food. Protection from predators. Part of this came from my mom talking about getting chickens on and off while I was growing up. She never did it, though, so I figured I’d give it a go and see how two little fluffy chickens went.

Hehehe.

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The feed store near me had Barred Plymouth Rocks, so I got a pair of those in 2013.

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They were the top hens – assertive to others yet submissive to me. I quickly realized the pair would not be enough, and two months later, I picked up a pair of Buff Orpingtons.

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Man, chicks are awkward and cute at the same time. It’s so much fun to watch them explore.

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While both of my Barred Rocks had similar dominant personalities, the Buff Orpingtons are pretty different. I call the slightly smaller one “Sassy” because she’s quick to fly off the handle at the other birds and if she’s displeased with a person, she pecks feet. The other is “Goofy” because she frequently gets lost in my tiny backyard.

Once upon a time (when they were chicks living indoors), the chickens had pet names, but those went away when they moved outside. For the most part, the birds are either “chicken” or “duck.” Sometimes, if I’m feeling especially lovey-dovey, they’ll get “baby chickie” or “duck-duck.”

I’m sorry to say that the Barred Rocks have both since passed on.

Last year (2017), my chicken-raising friend got a batch of new chicks and I started to feel the itch too. However, I didn’t really want more chickens exactly, so I ordered ducklings through the mail.

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The idea of ordering live animals has always made me uncomfortable, but the only breed I could find locally was Pekin. I’m sure Pekins are lovely, but I wanted something a bit different. I ordered two Blue Swedish (the grayer ducklings) and two Welsh Harlequins (the blonder ones).

People don’t lie when they say ducks are messier than chickens, and it’s mostly down to poop. Chickens have infrequent solid poop and most of it plops out as they roost at night. It’s easy to contain and clean. Ducks, however, often pause in their travels to shoot out watery poop. If they eat fish, that poop might even turn blackish. There; now you know about duck and chicken poop.

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The funny thing is, I was never a huge fan of ducks until I decided to add them to my flock. They are absolutely hilarious to watch, though. I was worried they might be loud, since I live in a city neighborhood, but they’re pretty quiet. When the ducks do make noise, it’s “chatter” (like a very soft goose honk) or the occasional startled quack.

While the ducks will turn your pristine pond into a mess, they aren’t as destructive in the garden as chickens. My ducks will root around with their bills, but the chickens have sharp little feet their use to scratch apart plants and dirt.

This spring (2018), I got the itch again. I was still recovering from my ex and spending loads of time in the garden was a large part of my healing. I realized just how much satisfaction I get from raising and caring from animals. The feed store also happened to have some breeds I haven’t yet raised:  Rhode Island Red and Australorps.

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So. Stinkin. Cute.

I’ve heard that Rhode Island Reds can be aggressive, so I only got one. All three, however, seem to have similar personalities – very energetic, curious, and adventurous. After a day or two, they were already climbing all over me. My other chickens were quite shy.

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David Attenborough voice:  “Here, we see three juvenile females – oh! Looks like we’ve been spotted.”

Now that I’m more comfortable with raising ducks and chickens, this batch of chicks moved outside way earlier than the others. Previously, my system was to raise the birds in a large dog kennel in my living room for a few months until they had feathers. These three moved outside at two weeks old.

Of course, it helps that I live in a subtropical climate and even our early spring days were close to 70F. I also put their brood shelf outside (protected in a plastic bin) so they had access to heat. For weeks, they lived in their own little section of the coop, fenced off for protection from the older birds. Although the chicks were freaked out at first, they seemed to enjoy living outside, and they feathered out quickly.

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Ah, destroying my gardens as a family. How sweet.

Now everyone gets along, for the most part. I was worried that the young chicks might grow up to be aggressive, but living with the older birds from a young age has tempered that a bit. If one of the younger chickens gets in the way of a duck, the duck will make like she’s going to smack the chicken with her bill. They don’t make contact, though. No one’s singled out, and no blood is drawn. Yay!

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I won’t lie. The birds are a bit of work, and keeping the flies at bay is a constant battle (it doesn’t help that I live close to the stables of a horse racing track). They are more at risk to predators than other pets because they live outside. Losing them really freakin’ hurts, because often, we as owners could’ve done more to protect them.

But few things in my life up to this point can compare to sitting under the pergola, coffee in hand, on a Saturday morning and watching the birds wander around the yard. Then, when my tummy rumbles, I head inside and cook a pair of fresh eggs.

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