Gardenscape: Riverside resident Ed Buck built an elaborate Japanese pond in his backyard, complete with colorful koi fish. | Photo courtesy of Ed Buck

An ancient practice of Asian peasants has become an increasingly popular pastime for Americans. More and more people are building ponds on their property and stocking them with colorful koi fish. This Japanese tradition calls for creating an ecosystem that combines flower and fauna into an urban oasis. 

The local Mecca for koi-keeping is Brookfield, home to several members of the Midwest Pond and Koi Society. The society now has over 500 members. They meet monthly and host annual tours of their koi sanctuaries.

On the weekend of July 18-19, there will be a tour of ponds in Chicago. The following weekend, July 25-26, the tour will focus on the near west suburbs: Riverside, North Riverside, Berwyn and River Forest. The society distributes booklets and maps to groups and families for $15, so it doesn’t cost much to take a peek at these remarkable fish. For those who might want to spend more money to become a “ponder,” the 23rd Annual Koi Show is scheduled for June 26-28, at the Darien Sportsplex. 

Riverside resident, Ed Buck, will certainly participate in the tour and attend the koi show. In 1992, the former city kid took a shovel and started to dig in the backyard of his Des Plaines Avenue home. He didn’t know anything about koi but thought a pond adorned with water lilies was a great idea. He dug down about two to three feet. 

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Buck confessed, “I bought some landscape timbers to enclose it and used plastic tubs filled with rocks to filter the water.” Today, there are ready-made products for ponders but they were scarce back then. He enlarged and modified his water garden over the years. His three ponds are now over five feet deep and stocked with what Buck describes as, “Wonderful works of art that swim.”

Koi are a species of carp. Back when peasants were raising them, they also ate them. Then they found a way to breed them to bring out brilliant colors. Bloodlines were developed over the centuries to produce fish that are celebrated for their color patterns. Some are even bred to be smooth, with no scales. This breeding process has turned a once hardy fish into a delicate sensitive species. When raising koi, Buck found that, “Water is everything.”

He has two ponds, a large one containing 14,000 gallons of water and a small pond with 3,000 gallons. These ponds are fed by two bogs, planted with water lilies and lotuses. This natural filtration system keeps the ponds in pristine condition. He also installed pumps to keep the water circulating. “Water has rules,” Buck said, “Water has to move.” 

Buck became educated about water quality by going to monthly meetings at the society. “I learned about a lot of local resources. I joined a community of people, who are kindred spirits. They value gardening and are lovers of nature.” Besides these informational and social gatherings, society members offer each other hands-on help. For example, Buck has a large hoop house, similar to a greenhouse, to keep his ponds ice-free during the winter. “It was a communal effort,” Buck recalled, “Like an Amish barn-raising.”

Not that koi can’t survive a winter under the ice. “They live under the ice quite comfortably,” Buck said, “But they have to have some open surface.” Many koi keepers allow their ponds to freeze over but cut a hole in the ice, or bubble air through the pond with pumps to provide oxygen. Spring is actually the toughest season for the koi. They are very sensitive to temperature fluctuations, which stress their immune systems. 

Changing weather may be one danger the fish face, the other is predators. Because Buck has a “water hole” in his backyard, all kinds of critters are attracted. “If you build it, they will come,” Buck said of the ponds. “If you give raccoons a beach, they will feast.” 

To keep his koi safe, Buck built the ponds with sharp drop-offs. This discourages most rodents. Otherwise, Buck enjoys the wildlife that flock to his yard. “We have had a fox come, deer, frogs. Ducks come but we shoo them away. In rural areas, otters and minks can wipe out a pond.” 

Buck hasn’t lost a fish to a predator in two decades of koi-keeping. But he has suffered losses from other causes. “Every hobbyist has buried a fish in his backyard,” Buck said, which is why he doesn’t name his fish.  “I feel that if I name them, they die.” However, he does know each fish individually, including the two 20 year-olds. “I can tell right away if something is wrong with a fish. I’m constantly checking chemical levels and watching for changes in water quality.”

Koi are gregarious fish who like to hang out together and compete for food. Buck feeds them a brand of food called Kenzen. During the summer, he feeds them daily and weekly during the winter, when their metabolism slows. Buck considers the koi to be pets and doesn’t care for tasteless jokes like, “What do you use for bait?” or “Let’s throw one on the grill.”

At his peak, Buck had 70 koi swimming in his ponds. “I re-homed many of them to create space. It’s easy to overstock.” He currently has 22 koi in the large ponds and six mixed fish in the small one. Koi can grow to be quite large, some are 36 inches long but they average about 18-20 inches. They can also be quite expensive, some costing thousands. Koi are flown in from Japan, where they are revered. Each different color pattern of koi has a Japanese name. 

Thanks to his “Contribution to the green scene,” Buck’s water garden has been designated a National Wildlife Certified Yard. “It really boosts the ecology,” he said, “And I like being part of a cool movement.” He’s hoping the number of enthusiasts increases. Now that gardening centers are stocking pond equipment, beginners don’t have to improvise like he did. He encourages local residents to take the society’s tour. Where else can you see works of art that swim?  

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