In the desert, water can create an oasis in our backyards. Just the sound of trickling water can help us relax, while also attracting birds and other wildlife. There are many ways you can add this essential element to your yard, including birdbaths, fountains, and ponds.
The simplest way to add water to your yard is with a birdbath. Water is essential for our desert birds, and if you want to attract them to your yard, all you have to do is provide it. Trickling or spraying water helps them find it, and a gentle spray allows hummingbirds to zip through for a sip or a wash. A shallow birdbath on the ground with some added rocks helps bees or baby quail drink safely, and a larger basin on a stand attracts everything from doves to migratory birds.
Kristi Lane of Wild Birds Unlimited, 2001 E. Lohman in Las Cruces, says, “You don’t want your birdbath to be too deep because the birds need to be able to stand while they’re bathing. Adding a dripper helps to keep it full, especially during the summer when you have to try to keep up with evaporation. Plus, moving water is a bird magnet!” A basin with sloped sides and texture gives the birds better traction.
You need to keep your birdbath clean for the health of your avian visitors. Kristi advises, “Clean it at least once a week. Use a 10-1 water and vinegar solution and, if it is really bad, use a 10-1 bleach solution. Then make sure to rinse it really well and let it completely air dry.”
Algae growth in the birdbath can be prevented by using the natural enzymes in a product called Bird Bath Protector, which is safe for birds, animals, and the environment. Using a dripper creates movement in water, which helps deter mosquitoes from landing on it and laying eggs. Wild Birds Unlimited offers a variety of birdbaths, drippers, and birdbath heaters to keep your feathered friends happy.
Another option for bringing the sound of water into your yard is a fountain, and you can make your own if you’re a bit handy. You can get step-by-step directions here. If you’re not into DIY projects, you can find some amazing one-of-a-kind fountains crafted from stone by New Mexico artist Greg Robertson. He’s been handcrafting unique sculptural fountains since 2000 as Rock Steady Designs. Check out his designs online at rocksteadydesigns.com. Fountains and birdbaths are also available
Ponds allow you to create a bit of nature in your yard, complete with plants and fish if you wish. They provide water for birds and other thirsty animals, can become a breeding place for dragonflies, and offer tranquility and peace.
Janet Beatty-Payne, a speech therapist for Las Cruces Public Schools and frequent star in local theater, has two ponds in her backyard that she took on as personal projects three years ago. Her first bit of advice is to research before you build. “It’s a serious commitment,” she warns. “Maintenance is huge.” However, she adds, “It’s so much work, but I don’t regret it at all. I really enjoy what I created. I love sitting on a bench by the pond as the sun is going down. I can hear the water sounds in the house, too. It’s so therapeutic!”
Janet realized after her first effort that she didn’t create enough terraces for plants to be set in underwater pots around the edges of the pond, as the sides were too steep. After some remodeling, she now has a variety of plants growing in the pond, plus mosquitofish and “feeder” goldfish that have attained quite a size. Her first small waterfall pond has become the “murky” one. She was alarmed by strange creatures in the muck at the bottom of this pond. Janet checked with her entomologist brother who assured her they were safe as well as desirable: dragonfly larvae! The mosquitofish, or gambusia, eat mosquito larvae that may be hatching in her ponds.
In early spring, she tackles the serious cleaning work in the main pond, using a cleaning agent and spending six or seven hours wading in the water. She also cleans the filters in the pond weekly in summer and monthly throughout the rest of the year. UV bulbs in the fountains help keep the algae down. In summer, she hangs sailcloth over the pond to shade the fish and places cinder blocks in the water to create shade tunnels for them.
Jud Wright, artist and owner of Del Valle Design & Imaging, took his pond to the next level. The family home is also the business, located downtown in a historic building with mature trees and green lawns. He felt the spot in the front corner of the yard was lacking. “I wanted a waterfall and a creek to remind me of being in the mountains in Colorado and a pond because it is soothing,” he said. “It also cuts down on the traffic noise. It makes traffic noise sound like ocean waves.”
While he and his sons did the digging for the pond, he hired experts to build and maintain it. However, to ensure you get a final project that matches your vision, Jud says you have to be actively involved.
“A good graphic designer can meet with a client and talk to them for about 30 minutes and know exactly what they want,” Jud says. “You have to do this with pond people. ‘These are the rocks I want, the flagstone I want.’ You have to be part of the creative process or you won’t be happy with it.”
He also advises, “One of the mistakes people make with ponds is that they want them to look perfect. But they’re not supposed to look perfect. I want mine to look like you came across it in a forest somewhere.”
Jud adds, “If you ever want a living creature and a proper ecosystem in your pond, you have to make sure nothing you use is dangerous to the environment or to life. Never build anything with concrete or use oil or paint.” He adds that you must buy plants that are grown for this purpose and not contaminated in any way.
A big fan of essential oils, he also uses them in his pond to help his koi. “I use tea tree oil from doTERRA as it cleans the fishes’ scales,” Jud explained. “Fish tend to get growth on them, like mold, which can suffocate them. The oil eliminates that. I put frankincense in there, too, just a few drops. You can mix lemon oil, eucalyptus oil, and lemongrass with water and spray it around the pond edge, and it will kill the mosquito larvae on the edge of your rocks.”
Jud added a protected grotto area near the waterfall where he and his wife, Anna, can sit in the shade, watch the water and fish, and sip cool beverages on a warm day. Jud notes that between the large tree, lawn, and the water, it is much cooler near the pond than elsewhere.
But they’re not the only ones who enjoy the pond. Jud shared the story of a Tibetan monk who was in town to give a talk at New Mexico State University. He needed business cards and found his way to Del Valle Design & Imaging. Jud knew he was coming and planned to meet him out front. The monk had arrived early and was already in the yard when Jud came out, sitting by the pond and meditating. When he became aware of Jud, he said, “I have to tell you that I’ve traveled the whole world and my entire life and soul is about Zen and being at peace and nature. This right here, the feeling I get being here, is the happiest I’ve been in my whole life. You don’t know what you’ve built here. You’ve built a perfect place to meditate.” Having the perfect place in your own backyard is easy. Just add water!
Ponds for Fish
If you want to have fish in your pond, do some research first to ensure that the depth of the pond is adequate to provide temperature zones to help them survive during hot or cold weather. Large fish like koi need deeper ponds and all fish need someplace to hide from predators that may see your pond as a grocery store. A variety of goldfish and minnows can thrive in a healthy pond.
Written and photography by Cheryl Fallstead
Originally published in Neighbors magazine