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/Aquatic Gardens, Design, Construction & Maintenance

Example Systems: the Tussey's Pond

By Bob Fenner

 The Tussey's pond in La Jolla, Calif.

Aquatic Gardens

Ponds, Streams, Waterfalls & Fountains:
Volume 1. Design & Construction
Volume 2. Maintenance, Stocking, Examples

V. 1 Print and eBook on Amazon
V. 2 Print and eBook on Amazon

by Robert (Bob) Fenner

I had known Chet Tussey of Tussey Marine for many years as a fellow diver, as well as engineer/entrepreneur for his underwater photography housing and related equipment, before finding out he was also an earnest koi-pond keeper. His simple philosophy of "pondering" is, as his top-of-the-line camera gear, "for my enjoyment". What Chet has wrought is confluent in concept and execution; a pond system that is straightforward, functional, and simple to maintain.

Chet built the Tussey's home and first pond some thirty years ago. Both sit on a breathtakingly beautiful prominence right on the ocean near Bird Rock in La Jolla (San Diego), California. The newest pond was dreamed up by Chet, and built out by Mark Lawson, a water feature contractor in Southern California.

Design & Construction:

Chet knew exactly what he wanted, a medium-tech., low upkeep koi pond. Previous basins had all the typical design defects; too small (750 gallons), shallow, too sloped, sharp rocks and corners underwater, no berm to prevent jumping... this pond was to be an "A". Mr. Tussey went so far as to build a miniature model of the pond, replete with plants and rocks, to convey clearly to Mark what he was looking for.

The current pond is about 6,000 gallons; 11 by 17 by 4 1/2 foot deep. It is constructed of tied steel (#2 rebar), hand packed concrete, ThoroSealed with black oxide coloring.

Sides are about vertical all around, with rocks outside entirely. The rocks themselves are from the cliff to the ocean, well-weathered. These make up accents and the three waterfall discharges.

The pond is north of the house, in the shade of the roof and garden plantings, between their neighbors shared fence and property line.

Filtration: is always a chief concern with a water effect, especially in sunny southern California with our mineral-rich tapwater. Chet has had a much more demanding livestock mix before (rainbow trout, minnows, catfish), as well as show-quality koi. He knows personally, the pitfalls of scrimping on adequate, undependable circulation, aeration and filtration.

The gravity-feed filter is constructed of cinderblock (all cores filled) and supplied with two four inch intakes from the ponds dual-scalloped bottom. A 1/6 HP Sta-rite Duraglas pump returns the filtered water via 2" diameter schedule 40 PVC piping.

1) Provision of adequate basin design (size, shape and location), and construction (strong, chemically inert).

2) Three separate isolatable filter basins, each with individual drainage!

3) "Crater" shaped pool bottom fitted with anti-vortex drains leading to a sump/drain area to facilitate water changes and removal of settled solids and undesirable "heavier" liquids. (see photo);

4) Matched to the surface area and volume of the filters/media an appropriately flow-rate pump (1/2 horsepower Sta-Rite Max-E Glas (tm), about 25 gpm in this system), placed below grade (lower than water level), with no suction pressure/vacuum.

Currently, the three filters are arranged in series, the first as a sediment trap, followed by two reverse-flow (bottom to top) red volcanic gravel beds of 12-14" depth. The cinder-rock is raised and supported by an arrangement of pvc pipe, eggcrate and shade screen. Allow me to elaborate on the sediment trap; this is a well-engineered construct of plastic rain gutter fitted with a collar to direct the water flow. The gutter is cut and joined together at an angle to maximize turbulence while optimizing the slowing of water through its channels... all this in an effort to drop out suspended solids.

Plumbing Is, thank goodness, of good (read that large) diameter and plastic all the way around. There is an allowance for overflow (through the drainage sump), ball versus gate valves, and the ability to throttle flow via a bypass arrangement. To my liking, there is no "automated" make-up system that can get these folks in trouble; instead they happily refill their pond "by hand" when enjoyably doing their routine upkeep.


Livestock: Two types of fishes, ornamental carp, aka Koi, and some very nice variatus platies; the second installed for picking at hair algae. Aquatic and bog plants are blind-potted (no openings to the bottom) in plastic pots, fitted with koi-proof plastic net screens over their media. The plants they fertilize once a year, on thinning and repotting, with slow-release fertilizer tablets. The fishes are fed excellent quality white fish meal based pellets.

Maintenance: Here's the REAL measure of the value of an improvement; the acid-test of how much you have to fool with it to make it do what you want. In the Provence's case, their system is spotless and functional, healthy livestock and clear water; but at quite a time cost... a few hours a week. IMHO too much.

Besides the requisite periodic water changes (some once a week or so in summer, to once a month in winter), Mr. P. finds it necessary (to prevent clogging and channeling), to get into the filters, remove ALL the media, supports, sediment trap... and hand clean entirely every few to several weeks. Ho-boy, no fun, and potentially dangerous. Those slimy surfaces are treacherous to slip and falls. Therefore, ahem my following...

Suggested Changes:

1) Pump/pumping: In our part of the western world, electricity goes for a dozen cents or so a kilowatt; with pumps running continuously, this can run up to quite a bit of money for pushing water around. Hence my advice to switch to a far more appropriate (less pressure, about the same flow) pump. In this case a 1/4 HP Sequence (tm) 1000, which will produce about 20 gpm using less than half the "juice". Their current pump can/should be stored as ready back up. Happily the install already has true union couplers, so switching pumps is a snap.

2) Sediment Trap: Such devices are a great idea, and the present contraption is pure genius... but it can/will be improved tremendously by the exchange of suitable brushes for the rain-guttering. Vertically suspended brushes will trap and allow easy rinsing away of sediment by periodic shutting down of the pump, draining of the first filter basin and brisk hosing.

3) Filter Media: The amount (12" depth and 25 square feet) of igneous rock is about right for the size of the system and flow rate (1-2 gpm per square foot); but utilizing pea gravel (nominal 1/4") rock of all about the same size and roundness will greatly diminish the labor of maintenance, while maintaining high water quality. Especially...

4) Gravel Vacuuming: A tremendous advantage to the existing routine of physically removing the substrate currently, is to be gained by substituting four inches of the pea-gravel in place of the volcanic rock. With more water on top, and without shutting the system down, a large diameter gravel vacuum can be moved around utilizing a similarly over-sized (corrugated pool) hose, and the nearby embankment to siphon. No more broken egg-crate and rough, red hands; and much less time spent on routine maintenance. Yay.

Close: When first asked what might be done to clear this system from periodic clouding by suspended algae, my response had more to do with what parameters could/might be manipulated in the way of pH/alkaline reserve, and the possibility of using alum (aluminum sulfate) as a cationic flocculent plus making the water nutrient limited. On finally viewing the pond, and meeting with its owners, I am convinced that they need not avail themselves of chemical means. With the above changes not only will the system be and appear better, the price in terms of money and time to keep it that way will be much less.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Fenner, Bob & Rick Aspray 1983. Ornamental fish ponds. Filters: design, construction and maintenance. FAMA 6/83.

Fenner, Bob 1988. Water Effects: size and shape. FAMA 5/88.

Fenner, Bob & Matt Tsunoda 1988. Waterfall construction. FAMA 11/88.

Fenner, Bob 1988. Aquatic Gardens: Plumbing. FAMA 12/88.

Fenner, Bob 1989. Pumps: An introduction. FAMA 1/89.

Fenner, Bob 1990. Upflow filters (for biological ponds and multi-tank systems). FAMA 2/90.

Fenner, Bob 1990. Pond construction: (Processes in) Building concrete and liner (production) ponds. FAMA 9/90.

Fenner, Bob 1991. Thorosealing cementatious water features. FAMA 5/91.

Fenner, Bob 1994. Pond construction methods. FAMA 5/94.

Fenner, Bob 1994. Concrete and block construction of ponds. FAMA 6/94.

Fenner, Bob 1994. Filter media for ponds: A discussion. FAMA 8/94.

Fenner, Bob 1993. Electricity and electrical use around water gardens. FAMA 12/93.

Fenner, Bob 1994. In-pond (versus outside) filtration. FAMA 9/94.

Fenner, Bob 1995. Selecting a site for your outdoor water feature. FAMA 5/95.

Fenner, Bob 1996. Plants and planting for water gardens. FAMA 6/96.

Fenner, Bob 1996. Surrounding landscape plants for your aquatic garden. FAMA 9/96.

Fenner, Robert M. 1997. Aquatic Gardens; Designing, building & stocking a backyard pond. Microcosm, VT.

Graphics Notes:

1) Overall view of the pond in the backyard area showing water clarity and potted lilies.

2) Detail of koi coming to greet you. Note the plastic wire mesh being used to discourage predaceous birds (herons, egrets).

3) Detail showing blind-potted plants; cattail, lotus, pennywort.

4,5) First in series filter sump with sediment trap covered in place with yardage store batting material (similar to polyester filter pads).

6) Second in series of filter basins, filled with red lava rock. The path of water is from the bottom up through this media and over to the next filter basin.

7) Third in series filter basin, fitted as number two with red cinders (volcanic rock) in bottom to top water flow configuration as detailed in text.

8) Drain sump detail. These stand pipes and ball valves are connected with plumbing to each of the "crater" basins making up the pond bottom. Each area can be thus vented of settled solids and heavy water.

9) A detail of the island in the main pond, one of several oriental touches.

Aquatic Gardens

Ponds, Streams, Waterfalls & Fountains:
Volume 1. Design & Construction
Volume 2. Maintenance, Stocking, Examples

V. 1 Print and eBook on Amazon
V. 2 Print and eBook on Amazon

by Robert (Bob) Fenner
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