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The pond doctor helps keep water gardens an artful oasis

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Former day trader Neil Horgan started fussing with water gardens to relieve stress. When the market tanked, Horgan dropped the job and kept the hobby.

Today he's semiretired and a bank courier. When not at work, he holds water garden classes in his back yard. He tells people why their prize koi are dying, how algae is sliming their pools, what plants are important and when birds can be a menace.

He is the pond doctor.

``There are a lot of people who build ponds, but not many who come along later and help people out,'' Horgan said.

Fans will tell you there are two kinds of water garden pond people: those who like fish, and those who like plants.

Horgan sees his landscape as a work in progress. It might not be that way if his first attempt had succeeded. He built it in his front yard as a Mother's Day present in 1998. All the plants and fish died the first day.

He found out fish can't live in Oklahoma City water unless it's balanced. Plants can't survive in shade unless they belong there in the first place. Plastic water barriers prevent the nutrients found in healthy water.

``I figured I needed to learn something,'' he said. He's been working on his expertise since.

Today, he has eight ponds, front and back, with 150 fish thriving in 5,000 gallons of water. The backyard ponds are linked by streams with plants and rocks. His most important pond dwellers are his microorganisms, he said.

``The whole thing I try to get across is, if you take care of the microbes, the microbes take care of the pond,'' he said. ``You try to get a balance.''

In its basic form, a water garden is made from soil, rocks, water, plants, microbes and other living critters. If you want easy maintenance, you try for a balanced ecosystem. That requires natural and mechanical filters, fish, plants, gravel and bacteria.

It's not always easy. Using the Internet and talking with experienced water gardeners helps.

``People usually build a pond and expect it to take care of itself,'' Horgan said. That's possible but not without a lot of trial and error. His approach is to stay true to his original purpose: stress relief.

``There are ponds designed for low maintenance, but not mine. I can tinker with this thing to my heart's content. I look up and, all of a sudden, it's five hours later,'' he said.

In addition to beneficial microbes to keep his water garden healthy, he depends on lily pads and aquatic weeds called Parrot's Feather. Given a choice of rocks or plants, microbes choose plant roots as a natural place to live. The microbes give the plants nitrates, and the plants return the favor with oxygen.

Surface-dwelling water hyacinths act as fish food and a biofilter. They also give shade to shy fish that hide in the shadows.

Black plant snails and mystery snails reduce algae in the upper filter ponds. If the small snails happen to float downstream to the fish ponds, the koi make quick snacks of them.

As for the nasty bloodsuckers that hang around pools, mosquito fish eat larvae as fast as the insects can hatch from eggs.
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