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Fount of Dreams 

Even your mother can install a backyard fountain

Standing in the rain outside Stone Brothers and Byrd nursery in Durham, my friend Kay and I debate the merits of one large stone fountain: Rebecca with Urn. The virginal statue stands about four feet tall and holds an urn above her left shoulder. In the rain we get a pretty good idea of how she will look with water spilling out of the urn, pouring down her left elbow and into the small concrete pool where she stands on a pedestal. This spring, Kay has taken on the task of remodeling her backyard pond and figures that Rebecca will be perfect. She's a classic fountain that will be framed nicely by the stone archway that rises just behind the pond at her West Durham home.

The pond, also concrete, is probably 30 years old, a 10-by-7 foot oval handmade by the couple who sold the house to Kay two years ago. Since then, it has sat unattended, collecting seasons of leaves and generations of mosquitoes that have made mowing the lawn an itchy proposition. This spring the plan is to clean out the pond, install a fountain and reclaim the backyard.

Backyard water gardens have grown in popularity in recent years. A walk around any nursery or home improvement mega-store proves that a lot of people are installing them. The various pre-formed plastic pond liners with names like Trinidad, Cancun or Tobago range widely in size and price. And there are any number of corresponding pond supplies: filters, submersible pumps, chemical water treatments, organic water treatments, algae removers, floating fish food pellets, chemically treated faux lily pads, floating pond lights--the selection can be daunting.

Tom Ossner of Reba & Roses nursery in Hillsborough keeps things simple. He classifies ponds in three categories: the lily pond, a fish-free pond that is home primarily to water plants; goldfish ponds, which need to be at least 16 to 18 inches deep; and ponds for Koi fish, which must be at least three feet deep for the bottom-feeding fish. He says that the basic components of a lily pond are the plastic liner, a submersible water pump and a fountainhead--all of which are available separately or in various starter kits. Ossner says the most important things to remember when shopping for the basics are that pumps should come with a pre-filter to keep them from clogging, and that ideal pumps will be oil-free and come with a two-year warranty.

Because she is renovating an existing pond, Kay is able to bypass the most intensive labor. And she is choosing not to line the pond with plastic; she wants it to look as natural as possible. Concrete holds water as well as any store-bought liner. Kay's main job is to install the fountain and find a way to power it--tasks that she has quickly and conveniently delegated to her parents, Richard and Elsa. On their annual trek from upstate New York, they've been roped into buying and installing Rebecca, a week's worth of labor wrapped up as a generous birthday gift to their daughter.

Before they arrive, I stop by to check on Kay's progress. Walking down the gravel driveway and into the backyard, I find Kay and her neighbor Bob both ankle-deep in uncut grass, hunched over a very loud, motorized Ditch Witch ditch digger. They manage to drain the pond and remove all of the leaves and debris. The trench will be used to bury the extension cord running to an outlet in the garage, powering the fountain.

With the help of Kay's parents, her neighbor, three friends and a borrowed pickup truck we eventually get Rebecca home the following Saturday. She ends up weighing more than anyone anticipated, and her small concrete pool has to be rolled on its end through the yard, because it's too heavy to lift.

The pond is more than three feet deep in the center, so the fountain and smaller pool must rest on cinderblocks--several of them placed on end in the bottom of the pond--to raise them above the water level. After situating the fountain and making sure that--viewed from the house--it is framed by the archway, Kay's parents install the pump, threading plastic tubing through the base of the fountain and up into the urn. The pump is then placed in the water below the fountain to allow for easy removal and cleaning.

The power line is connected to a Ground Fault Interrupter Circuit (GFIC) in the garage, which Kay's father has installed. This means that, if the pump shorts out, the power supply will be severed, preventing current from running through the water. The fountain can also be turned off and on from the garage.

After the pond is partially filled with water, we realize that its edges aren't level, and that the back edge of the pond needs to be higher in order to raise the water level enough to run the pump. The repair is made easily, using quick-dry cement to fill several inches around the back edge of the pond. After waiting a few days to make sure the cement is dry, they fill the pond completely, and turns on the fountain. Water slowly bubbles out of Rebecca's urn and into the pool.

Kay says she will probably leave the fountain on for most of the summer. When I ask her about the added expense, she proudly cites a do-it-yourself guide that says a 250 gallon-per-hour water pump uses as much energy as a regular 70-watt light bulb; she estimates her monthly electric bill will increase only slightly.

With the fountain installed and working, we take a trip to the nursery and discover that the world of water plants extends way beyond the lily pad. There are cattails, water hyacinths, Buddha's fingers, variegated celery plants, water Forget-me-nots, aquatic mint, and water Baby's Breath to name a few. Kay adds two water palms to her pond and several water hyacinths--floating plants that help aerate the water and serve as fish food.

The pond is deep enough to hold either Koi or goldfish, but will require some extra equipment, such as a water filter to remove bacteria and prevent ammonia build-up. There will also be the added responsibility of cleaning the water filters regularly. But both goldfish and Koi can survive year round, hibernating close to the bottom of the pond in winter.

To maintain the pond, both Ossner and the folks at Stone Brothers and Byrd agree that fall is a natural time to clean it. For water gardens, the easiest thing is to drain the pond and scrub it out, removing algae build-up and other debris. Kay plans to remove the pump and cover the fountain in winter to prevent damage.

In the meantime, Kay will be spending a lot more time outside. Throughout the week, we all spend a lot of time sitting in the plastic lawn chairs that she haphazardly sets out while we are working. The sound of the water is compelling and the pond is a natural gathering spot. All things considered, installing the fountain turns out to be a relatively easy process and one worth considering--even if you can't get your parents to help. EndBlock

  • Even your mother can install a backyard fountain

More by Clancy Nolan


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