Truth be told, I rather hoped the fish would die.
I even stopped feeding them.
Introduced to a small, round pond to bring an occasional splash of movement to a comparatively still parterre, I originally bought tiny minnows but they’re nervous creatures, rarely seen and they quickly fell victim to the ferocious dragonfly larvae. I replaced them with bigger, more robust and brightly coloured outdoor goldfish.
The pond itself is an old circular ‘copper’, up-cycled from an ancient wash house and now the proud centrepiece of a descending logarithmic spiral (snail shell -see above) made of old red building bricks.The outer spiral is filled with ericaceous soil and planted with low growing cranberry plants (Vaccinium microcarpum) which would create, I thought, an attractive, all season feature. I also had a theory that water blown off the surface of the pond would keep the soil moist– cranberry plants preferring a wet, almost boggy soil. This seems to have worked though keep a weather eye on the pond’s water level in summer.
Dense, tough, low and fairly slow growing, the creeping cranberry is green in summer, turning a deep, warm rust for autumn and winter colour. And its crowning glory, bright red cranberries in late autumn / early winter which look stunning against a hoar frost or even snow (see Delia’s Winter Cookbook cover). As satisfying as the colour though is homemade cranberry sauce on the Christmas table, but you do have to be fairly quick off the mark as once the berries start to soften, the birds pile in.
A unplanned but interesting feature is that the berries mirror the crimson crab apples ofthe nearby Malus Red Sentinel. The small, jewel-like fruits cling to the bare branches throughout autumn and winter, long after the leaves have dropped, and it’s only about now, March, that they have softened sufficiently for the blackbirds to devour.
But back to the pond. Why kill, or not as it transpired, the fish?
The problem was that all natural pond life – water boatmen, skaters, snails – disappeared. Consumed by the fish, or so I thought. So I abandoned all fish husbandry in the hope that the poor fish would perish and natural wildlife return.
However topping up the surrounding soil and repositioning dishevelled bricks one weekend, I discovered that the loose brick structure had actually created snail heaven; the nooks and crannies providing aerial cover from birds and, judging by the vast snail population residing there, most other natural snail predators too. It also transpired that the moist soil and the course cranberry foliage also provide excellent cover for some of the largest toads in North Oxfordshire, presumably enjoying a Toad Hall level extravagance of snails and pond life.
So it probably wasn’t the fish devouring my natural pond life after all; it was much more likely to have been the toads. And thank goodness the fish survived, because the miscarriage of justice would have been unbearable.
But there’s another twist.
Like most parterres, mine is contained within a considerable quantity of expensive box hedging – a mix of fast growing, light green Buxus sempervirens and the much slower, dark leaved, Buxus suffructicosa. The area is also infilled with box circles, a rather repetitive theme in my garden, and box balls. The dreaded Box Blight then, is an ever present threat.
So news this week that the Box Tree caterpillar, a relatively new pest to British gardens, is making its presence felt in Southern England, defoliating and weakening box plants and making them more susceptible to blight in the process, is not good. And worsened by the expectation that these unwelcome beasts will inevitably head North. And if the Daily Mail is to be believed, straight towards Oxfordshire.
But all is not lost. A natural predator for these unwelcome foreigners is, it transpires, the common garden snail, for which I have unwittingly created a breeding haven right at the heart of my box extravaganza! And assuming that the toads do their job to keep snail numbers in some kind of check, I’m hopeful that any passing Box Tree caterpillars will be swiftly despatched.
And the fish? Well I think they deserve a reprieve. For now.