No Place for Frogs

Last summer, listening to nights filled with frog calls from the trees around our house, I resolved to put in a frog pond in our garden. My hope was to encourage breeding and bring our property a tiny step further towards being a well-rounded habitat for native wildlife.

A Gray Treefrog, one of the species I was hoping to lure to my pond. Photo: Sarah Hollerich, US Fish and Wildlife Service

I’d created duck ponds before, but never one for frogs. The basic structure is the same (hole, liner, water) but the detail is very different. This is an account of my journey – definitely a voyage of discovery and – spoiler alert – not at all successful.

I started by talking to friends and watching a bunch of YouTube clips on how to do it. People definitely made it look easy (thanks people). But. While the basic skills required are, in fact, basic (digging, laying down a tarp, grabbing the garden hose), getting it to look good to me, or frogs for that matter, was not.

Here’s a neighbor’s frog pond. They employed a different skill set though. They wrote a check.

So, I started by digging a hole. On YouTube, there are apparently no clay soils, no massive tree roots, no poison ivy. Just beautifully tilled rich black humus waiting to be gently moved aside for amphibians. I would definitely love to be a frog living in their backyard. The hole I dug (in fact, using a pickaxe) was roughly 6 x 9 ft. It’s a little smaller than recommended but at least was about 3ft deep at one end and shallow at the other, as advised.

It was a thing of beauty. Okay, not so much, but it was mine. That was, for about half a day, until a large branch fell directly on top of it, obscuring it completely. After a period of cursing, I eventually heaved it out to be used in landscaping later. I’m just glad I wasn’t working underneath it, or I’d be typing this from hospital. Or the Other Side.

The hole, showing some of our lovely Piedmont clay.

The next thing to do was to measure the height of the pond, which I’d dug on the least sloping part of the property. It’s important for the final result to ensure it’s level. Unfortunately, I skipped this step and went right to laying out the tarp. It certainly looked level. After that, I managed to find the one length of garden hose the chipmunks (or squirrels, or rabbits) hadn’t gnawed through. On the end of the hose is a complex brass contraption designed to divert the flow into one hose or another. It’s easy – you just decide where you want the flow to go before you turn on the water, adjust it, turn the faucet and get a nice tidy stream in your desired direction. Don’t turn the water on until you have completed this important step.

After I changed into some dry clothes, I got the hose to stretch to the pond. Fortunately it just managed to reach to one end. I started filling it, gleefully anticipating of my triumph. I had already measured out enough dechlorination drops to treat the water. Unfortunately, when the level was about half way up on one side, the water was already running down the hill on the other.

Enthusiastically filling the pond for the first time.

Then came a process of using the soil I had dug out of the hole to boost the lowest point on the other side. No sooner had I done that, started filling it again, when the water started leaking out of the new lowest point. You might, at this juncture, ask yourself whether I own a spirit level. Yes, I do. It’s in the garage.

Eventually, I got the lowest point in the pound to be only about four inches above the waterline at the highest point which, sadly, is the most prominent view from the most obvious vantage point. Never mind, I had flagstones pilfered from around the garden, an old porcelain sink which is so old it looks like a rock (yes, that is not hyperbole), and from the garden center, bags of river pebbles. Also the aforementioned tree limb.

The flagstones actually look great on the forward (lower) side of the pond, where they create a nice ledge, reminiscent – for those with poor vision – of a Victorian garden. The rear of the pond is dominated by the branch and its curves create small dark spaces that were, I was certain, irresistible to pond life.

Unfortunately, between the branch and the waterline lie four inches of very un-Victorian, unnatural black plastic. Something I’ve learned about river pebbles during this process. Their spherical shape and smooth surface do not make them good at adhering to the vertical sides of ponds. There are, as a result, a couple of bags of pebbles at the bottom waiting, even now, to be populated by tadpoles.

My best attempt at photographing it artistically

Then came time for the water plants. I’ve also learned that deer (or rabbits) are fond of water hyacinths and they’re unlikely to bloom after they’ve been chewed down to their roots. The two flowers I did get were quite pretty, however. The water lilies have so far survived, although they’re still scant, and I doubt provide much cover. The irises were severely chewed by the cat when they were still inside. That leaves the duckweed, which I’m hoping is not an invasive species.

Finally, the animal life. What it lacks in diversity, it makes up for in abundance. The diminutive water body is home to enough mosquitoes for a sizable stretch of the Congo. I faithfully use the hormones that stop them from metamorphosing into subsequent stages. But, of course, the adults don’t know that, and the females are out there, proboscis ready. And they are looking for me. But frogs? Not one.

One of my little pond friends

Not far from my house, there’s a small nature reserve with a nice (if slightly eutrophic) pond. Every time this summer when I’ve happened by it at night, I can hear the noisy chorus of hundreds (thousands?) of frogs calling to prospective mates. I’m not one to anthropomorphize, so I don’t actually think they’re laughing at me. However, this Fall, I’ll be writing a blog post about how to turn your disused frog pond into a rock garden.

Featured image: Christopher Ricker June, 2019

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