Pondering Ponds ‘Walk and Talk’ Reveals Many Unexpected Surprises


Hi Everyone,

First, thank you to our hostess and guests!

First, a great BIG thank you to our host, Rhonda Rafferty, for sharing her personal experience of starting her pond garden with one level, and then growing it by adding two more levels, as explained during our most recent “Walk and Talk” garden event, held last weekend.

Rhonda’s pond gardens are situated in her backyard, and they are visible from her deck patio area adjacent to her house.  At the base of her pond gardens is a beautiful sitting area flanked with a pergola.

Cathy T and Rhonda's reaction to a funny intro story!

Cathy T and Rhonda’s reaction to a funny intro story!

The sounds of the water trickling from decor spitting fishes and fountains in the ponds are enough to draw you from inside her home to the great outdoors in her backyard.

We had 15 attendees which made this tour a great success. Many of the attendees were from local areas, some folks from a new South Windsor church gardening group, and several attendees from Cathy T’s Classes.

Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0012

Started with a kit, and built two more sections

Rhonda explained how she started her adventure with pond gardening by using a pond kit to build level one, or the very first tier of the current 3-tiered pond garden area in her yard. As soon as it was ready, her husband bought ten goldfish and put them in it, and of the ten, seven goldfish survived. All of the other goldfish in her ponds today, hundreds of them, are the offspring of the initial seven goldfish.

When Rhonda had shared pictures prior to the tour of her pond gardens, I had assumed the fish were Koi fish. They are rather large and very active in all three levels of her pond gardens, rising to the surface quickly and swimming around rapidly as you approach the water’s edge.

Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0007

Rhonda explained the first level of the pond garden is rather shallow but the middle level is approximately 5 feet deep and 20 feet long.  Each pond section is structured a little differently, and they are not connected but adjacent to each other in a three-tiered pattern.

Attendees Listening to Talk by Rhonda

Attendees Listening to Talk by Rhonda

Spring and Winter Cleanup Routines

For maintenance, Rhonda drains the ponds completely in the spring.

The goldfish (which stay dormant in the winter months in the bottom of the ponds) are relocated to a 100 gallon horse troth until she’s done performing spring clean-up activities.

Easter is when Rhonda usually opens the ponds if the weather is warm enough.  She can tell when the lilies start growing that it is time to get moving and working on her ponds.

Water lettuce, Lilies, and Lysimachia near goldfish

Water lettuce, Lilies, and Lysimachia near goldfish

All the muck, which built up and decayed in the bottom of the ponds over the winter, is removed with a special muck vacuum she purchased because her ponds are so large.

Also, Rhonda noted using ‘Microbe-Lift‘ in the water filter to add good bacteria to the water.  This will keep her pond healthy throughout the season.

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At one time, Rhonda used a power washer to clean the liner, but she no longer uses a power washer because she wants to keep the algae growing on the liner, and the power washer was removing it – so she uses a garden hose instead.

The algae helps the natural ecosystem get established after a complete water change, and provides food for the fish because you can’t feed them until the temperature of the water reaches a consistent 55 degrees.

There is a special ‘Spring & Fall’ food for cooler temps of approximately 55 – 75 degrees.

However, once the temperatures reach 75 degrees, Rhonda changes to feeding the fish a summer staple food.  Rhonda also noted she uses special UV filters to control bacteria so that the water stays clear during really hot temperatures in season.

During the fall season, the food is changed again when it gets cooler outside, and she stops feeding at 55 degrees.  She also turns off the filters when she stops feeding for the fall and winter months.

Standing at Level One, Rhonda talks about products used to keep water healthy

Standing at Level One, Rhonda talks about products used to keep water healthy; Photo by C. Testa

In the winter, she leaves all the water in the ponds, but will remove the filters and clean them for storage.  She basically washes them down with water because she avoids getting any chemicals in the filters.  She also cuts back all the hardy water lilies and plants, and sinks them to the bottom of the pond in her deepest tier.  A small low watt pond deicer, which floats on top of the water for the winter, is used.  This will create a small patch of open water in the ice to allow gases to escape in the winter.

Water Plants, Floating Plants, Perennials and Tropicals

Rhonda has a mix of plants in and around her pond gardens, and she noted, many have appeared on their own. Some self-sowed or got there perhaps by bird droppings of digested seeds, and even a few ferns arrived to her garden naturally. It is as if the plants know this is the right spot for them.

Elephant Ear (Colocasia)

Elephant Ear (Colocasia)

In the water of her pond gardens, she has water lettuce, elephant ears (one showing off a bloom on it during our tour) – Colocasia esculenta ‘Illustrious’, canna plants, hardy water lilies, papyrus (herbaceous perennial), and mosaic plants (Ludwigia sedioides, an aquatic perennial grown as an annual).

Some of the plants she overwinters by placing them in a fish tank in her home, and others are stored by division of rhizomes or corms, such as done with the canna and elephant ears, or by saving off-sets.  And some are allowed to sink to the bottom to decay or regrow the following season if hardy (as she noted above in maintenance comments.)

Rhonda mentioned Garden’s Dream in Enfield, CT as one place she purchases plants from because they started carrying water type and aquatic plants.

Other plants and bees

There is no doubt the bees are enjoying the plants, for not only could we hear water trickling, see fish moving, there were also many bees visiting the blooms of her coneflowers and other plants surrounding her pond gardens.

Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0002

Perennials, such as Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower), and various ornamental grasses are planted in the ground near the ponds, and one plant many attendees noticed planted in a pot sitting on a rock in the center of the pond was Amaranthus tricolor, an edible annual with bright red and yellow foliage, which grows rather tall and is showy.

Plant with red and yellow foliage in pot seen in background -Amaranthus tricolor

Plant with red and yellow foliage in pot seen in background -Amaranthus tricolor

When everyone asked me what it was, I drew a blank on the plant name, but Rhonda said she got her first plant of this variety from me a couple years ago and loved it – fortunately, she remembered the name of it.  Rhonda said she’ll never forget seeing this annual at my home in a container garden because she uses Amaranth flour as one of her gluten-free ingredients in her recipes at home.

Papyrus tops


Other plants in the pond gardens, as noted above, were the elephant ears (can sit in water), papyrus (not technically a water plant but also can sit in boggy like water or on water’s edges in pots), and the aquatic water lettuce, hardy water lily, and more.  One we all found fascinating, and is relatively new in Rhonda’s pond gardens, is the mosaic plant (Ludwigia sedioides).  It is an herbaceous perennial (winter hardy to Zone 10) which floats and rests somewhat flat on the surface of the water and has a pretty mosaic like pattern to it.

Mosiac Plants - Photo by C. Testa

Mosiac Plants – Photo by C. Testa

Root Mass Demonstrated 

Another surprise is when Rhonda reached into the water to pull up a huge mass of hardy water lily plants bound together by one root system, explaining how quickly plants grow in her water gardens.

Root Mass of Hardy Water Lilies

Root Mass of Hardy Water Lilies

She also noted another plant found by her husband in the wild, upon with, I gave a little caution to the attendees to be very careful with water plants or any plants you may find out in the wild if you do not know what it is.  There are invasive species in the wild or in natural ponds, which you should never relocate to your pond or home gardens by mistake, especially if it can run off to another water system nearby your home.  So just a note – know what you are planting, and if you decided to get rid of a rampant plant growing your gardens because it became out of control, and don’t know what it is, toss it in the garbage and not in the woods where it could potentially spread.  This is something I learned more about as a kayak-er, where you must be careful to not accidentally bring home an invasive aquatic plant after visiting a lake with your kayak or boat, as discussed in a previous blog here.

Floating Containers – Another Big Surprise of the day 

I’ve written about all types of containers to use in and around the gardens, but have never considered the type Rhonda had in her pond garden.  There was one container floating around in the pond garden, moving here and there gently in the water, and without hesitation, Rhonda lifted her floating container out of the water to show our attendees.  It is made of a black Styrofoam base with individual open sections where pots may be inserted easily.

Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0006 Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0007 Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0008

Garden Art is wonderfully displayed around her pond garden — this little pig in the corner, spitting fish here and there, and other surprises as you look and observe.

Pig by Pond; Photo by C. Testa

It is an adventure to spot them.  We all could imagine the days or evenings when she and her family has sat there to enjoy all the hard work put into the pond gardens at her home.

Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0005

Sources for Pond Supplies

AZPonds.com is an online source Rhonda uses to order supplies. She gets her liner, filters, pumps, and water treatments from them. Shipping is pretty fast.  Orders arrive within 5 business days.

Rhonda started her first pond garden 12 years ago, and continues to learn and expand it.

We all could appreciate the amount of effort but how her efforts also equals the relaxing moments by the pond gardens enjoying nature, goldfish, and sounds.

Pond Gardening is Not for Weenies

Water or pond gardening is not for weenies – it takes some effort to get it cleaned and prepared every season, but the payoff is grand. And if you were wondering, one of the reasons we were laughing in the above photo is because I shared a story of how Rhonda and I met during our corporate days – when we decided to take a motorcycle riding course together, and how we would ride into work side by side on our Harley Davidson motorcycles.  Rhonda still rides today, I, however, gave it up so you can see – she’s no weenie!  Makes sense to me that she manages to maintain such a diversity of plant life, fish, and more in her pond gardens.

Hostess Rhonda; Photo by C. Testa

Hostess Rhonda; Photo by C. Testa

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Also, as for pH of the water, Rhonda noted she doesn’t monitor it – she lets nature take its course.  That sounded good to us – and fits the overall rule of the ‘Walk and Talk’ Garden events – it doesn’t have to be perfect for us to enjoy hearing and seeing what any homeowner has created in their backyards.

Pesto and Passion Flowers

The last big surprise of the hour was the handing out of freshly made pesto by one of our attendees — Thank you Linda C.

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What a treat, and additionally, we all saw, on the way out for the day, Rhonda’s beautiful blooms on her passion flower (Passiflora) vine located at the front of her home. She said it returns every year via self-sowing (or perhaps she has one that is noted to be survive winters, Passiflora incarnata.)  It certainly looks like it!

Passion Flower; Photo by C. Testa

Passion Flower; Photo by C. Testa

She has seen fruit growing after the flowers pass, but wasn’t aware it is passion fruit until we discussed this fascinating flower further.

See here to also learn about this plant’s religious significance, which I looked up via my iPad and pointed out to everyone – each part of the flower has a special meaning – and is believed to represent symbols of Christ’s passion and cross.

Next Walk and Talk 

Our next ‘Walk and Talk’ event is scheduled on August 16th in East Granby, CT at 10:00 am.  This one will feature a sunny hillside garden where the homeowner will share her experiences on what thrived and what didn’t when it comes to the plants she has tried in a very informal, loose and spreading garden on a full sun hill which receives lots of heat in the midst of summer, and wind.  As per our rules, the garden is not perfect but a great place to learn directly from a home gardener with a particular passion.

For more information on planting aquatic plants, check out this post by thegardengeeks.com.

Thank you,

Cathy Testa

P.S. If interested in showcasing your home garden on our Walk and Talk tours, please feel free to contact Cathy Testa, author of this blog, and coordinator of these events.

Special note of thanks to Professional Lifestyle Photographer, Karen Ladany of Debut Cinematic, for attending to take various photos of the gardens.  She is currently located in East Windsor, CT.

Kayaking, Plants, & Nature at Crystal Lake in Ellington, CT

Clear Waters at Crystal Lake

Clear Waters at Crystal Lake

I’ve traveled past Crystal Lake, located in the towns of Ellington and Stafford, CT, many times on my way to Stafford Springs and Ashford, and I have admired the lake from the hills off of Sandy Beach Road at a housing development where I’ve done some landscape designs as well. But my recent passion for this lake has grown since I’ve glided over its smooth waters on tranquil mornings during of my off-time on my new kayak.

Crystal Lake is perfect for beginners, such as myself, because it is not too big, nor too small (FYI, a website indicates the lake area is 183 acres).  I’ve tour the lake within an hour or so. However, paddling back to return to the public access boat launch is not always easy because I usually don’t want to leave.

I describe kayaking like, “getting a massage.”  The calm mornings, the sounds of wildlife, and the feeling of being relaxed as nature surrounds you, is part of the kayaking experience for me.  It has become an addictive hobby, and it turns out to be a great way to see plant life up close and personal.  Occasionally, a fish may splash in the water, or birds will fly overhead to land on plant life nearby. You may even have a pack of geese following your kayak, which happened to me one morning.

Most of the waters in Crystal Lake are crystal and clear, but there are some areas of the lake tucked in near a dam, and in cove nooks where water spots are low, filled with plant life.  Plant growth and mucky swamp like waters exists in these side areas, and it is not a suitable swimming area, but a kayak can find its way carefully to adventure close by, should you not mind a bit of muck smell and bugs.  The lure of lily pad blooms drew me into the area.  I wanted to get some up-close shots of blooms.

View from my kayak in the center of the lake

View from my kayak in the center of the lake

The pond like area was a quieter section of the lake because it is surrounded by trees and part of inner nooks, and the birds were chirping and perching on plant life everywhere.  As I carefully paddled nearby, it did cross my mind to be careful to not collect any plant parts or plant drippings on my paddles and to use caution, not only for myself (because this is a place you do not want to tip over your kayak), but because there was a lot of foliage and silt moving around me, and I wondered if this could be disturbing the plant live too much.  It occurred to me maybe I was breaking a rule.

Bugs spotted

Bugs spotted

On my way through some of the water plants, I discovered some rather bizarre looking insects.  They didn’t seem to notice me at all as I took a few close up shots.  They sat perfectly still on top of a lily pad.  As I took the photo, I was thinking when I return home, researching these plants and the lake online was my priority to educate myself more.  I left a message with the Crystal Lake Association to obtain more information, because certainly as a plant person, I didn’t want to contribute to the spread of an invasive species.

Sun captured in the bloom

Sun captured in the bloom

There were two types of blooms happening, one was a white water-lily and the other, yellow pond lilies.  In researching websites, I believe they are Nymphaea odorata (American white water-lily) and Nuphar variegata (Common yellow pond lily). Without my kayak, getting close up shots would be near impossible.

Bloom happening on a common yellow pond lily

Bloom happening on a common yellow pond lily

When I left that day, I read the poster by the public boat launch warning boaters to not bring invasive species plant parts along with them on their boats or equipment.  My mission is to find out more about how the area is protected.  Because the lake is so beautiful everywhere else, this has to be a priority, and my guilt has not yet subsided for venturing into the lily pad area to take photos.

Sign warns everyone use caution

Sign warns everyone use caution

When you go to the lake, you can find the public access road off Rt 30. Finding the street sign can be a challenge one way as a big tree is hiding part of the sign for West Shore Road.  The road dips a bit and leads you to the public boat launch.  A small parking area is available across the street for a few vehicles.  In the mornings, it has been available but during busy peak season time, it may be impossible to find a spot. There is also a beach, called Sandy Beach (see below for information).

Road to public boat launch at Crystal Lake

Road to public boat launch at Crystal Lake


Crystal Lake Association can be found on Facebook here.

Information on how to handle your boats to prevent spread of invasive species can be found here.

Safe boating practices for the lake can be found here.

An Aquatic Plant Survey map for Crystal Lake can be found here.


There are two outhouses in the parking area across from the public boat launch.


SANDY BEACH information from the “Town of Ellington Website” below:

Sandy Beach is located on Crystal Lake on Route 140 in the northern end of town. Our beach offers swimming and sunbathing opportunities on hot summer days. The normal operating schedule for the beach is weekdays from 12 noon to 6:30 pm and on the weekends from 11:00 am to 6:30 pm. Ellington residents may purchase seasonal passesfrom the Recreation Department at a cost of $40.00 per family (Ellington Resident), $25.00 per single (Ellington Resident), $10.00 per senior citizen (Ellington Resident) or enter the beach on a daily basis.

Daily Fees: Ellington adult residents are $ 2.00, children 6 years and older are $ 1.00. Out of town guests are charged $ 5.00 per adult and $ 3.00 per child 6 years and older. All children 5 years and younger are free.

Downtown Stafford Springs, CT

Downtown Stafford Springs, CT


If you decide you would like to venture on some more after boating in the morning, Stafford Springs center has done a bit of revamping, and you can find some nice artsy shops and a wonderful coffee shop serving lunch in town, called Middle Ground Cafe. It is about 5 miles from the lake, continuing on Rt 140, until you hit the center of Stafford, which you will recognize with the brick buildings.  Look for the cafe on your right, at 42 Main Street, Stafford Springs, CT, (860) 851-8900, http://www.middlegroundcafe.com.  They offer great teas, coffees, and a mix of light lunch entrees and sandwiches.  Stop into “The Chocolate Moose” at 72 Main after for dessert, and be sure to visit the quaint art shops.  I bought some tiles at “Stained Glass Creations & Beyond” by “Art by Stefanie” across the street.  Old newspaper prints related to agriculture with plant images stamped on them caught my attention.  There were also some nice pottery items by other artists, hand-made soaps, jewelry, and paintings on the wall.

Downtown art shop, Stafford Springs, CT

Downtown art shop, Stafford Springs, CT

P.S. I will be adding information to this post once I get my call back from the lake association on my questions about the invasives to share with you, and for me to learn more!

Update:  I heard from Mark Mickiewicz, President of the Crystal Lake Association.  He said “the invasive plants grow from the bottom and rise to the surface, and they are trying to prevent power boats from going into those areas because it can cut the plants, detach, float, and repopulate into other cleaned out areas.  They are asking to be “careful” and not to pull, cut, detach or damage the plants.”  (Basically it is not strictly prohibited to enter for kayakers, but requested to stay out of the invasive cove areas if possible to prevent any spread, but some people do venture there to fish, etc.)  For questions, call 860-875-1001.

Cathy Testa
Container Crazy Cathy T
(860) 977-9473