A koi pond can be a beautiful and tranquil backyard addition ‘Living jewels’

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Scott Sabin, owner of Pondsmiths in Sandwich, offers this advice for creating and maintaining a backyard koi pond:

  • Assess your land: “Before you build, really look at your land and where the pond will best fit. Take into account shade versus sun, as most ponds do best with a mix of both. Full sun can create bad algae growth but full shade is not good for the plants. Slopes in a backyard can be a great area to build up a waterfall for the pond. Being able to see the pond from your windows is important if you have children.”
  • Think deep: “Koi ponds in New England need to be at least 28 inches deep at some point, though 40 inches is better. This allows the fish to hibernate in the winter below the ice. A hole in the ice or an air stone in the bottom of the pond is necessary during the winter for oxygen.”
  • Fit filters: “Koi ponds really need to be filtered and there are a wide range of filters out there to suit your needs. Just like a swimming pool, you do not want to undersize your filtration needs. Bigger is better.”
  • Say no to crowding: “Many people buy koi when they are little, but in doing so, buy too many. Remember that koi can grow very big and the more fish that are in a pond the more waste they produce. You can have a good amount of fish in a pond, but you need an excellent filtration system to keep them healthy.”
  • Quarantine newbies: “Any new fish that you buy should be quarantined in their own trough or bucket separate from the pond. If the new fish carries a disease and is placed in the pond, it can kill all the fish. Since larger koi can be worth upward of $3,000, it can be a costly mistake.”



They are known as “nishikigoi,” or “koi” to the English-speaking world. Believed to become dragons as a reward for their tenacity and courage, these fish were kept as pets by emperors of China and Japan centuries ago.

They are now carefully bred by koi enthusiasts and have a following that rivals the largest of animal-breed clubs. And while the history of koi is rich and long, it is their friendly demeanor and stunning colors that make koi the beloved pets of many area families.

While creating and maintaining a pond for them takes some time, some work and some savvy planning, local koi fans say the “living jewels” and their homes have created a water oasis and popular attraction in their yards and businesses.

Five-year-old Lily Sanborn loves her grandfather’s koi. In fact, she loves them so much that when she pays him a visit at the West Yarmouth hotel he owns, she makes sure to see the resident fish first.

“I really like the fish in Papa’s pond, especially the big one that is yellow and orange and white. I would like to have them come and swim with me in my pool,” Lily says hopefully, a request that has mom Amy looking dubious.

Given the size — some reach 30 inches long — of her grandfather’s elaborately colored koi, however, anything seems possible to the kindergartner. Papa, aka Paul Swartz of Centerville, is amazed at how people love the koi at his Cape Point Hotel. Visitors seem magnetically drawn to the fish, rarely passing through the main doors of the hotel without saying hello to the aquatic pets.

“Many people will come into the main entrance to check in, but then they see the waterfall and wander over to check it out,” Swartz says. “Then they look down and see all the fish swimming in a pond about 20 feet below on the bottom floor and they are amazed.”

The pond started out as a sort of wishing well, but the conversion to fish pond has proved so popular that “people cannot pass by the waterfall without saying ‘hi’ to the fish, especially the kids … they are the biggest fans,” he says. During breaks in the school year, children are allowed to help feed the koi and a naming contest may be held soon.

It was because of another kid, his daughter McKenna, that Peter Benoit of Acushnet found himself debating a pond in his front yard.

“I was redoing my front walkway and thought that since I was ripping up everything anyway, I might as well add a little pond near the front walk. I figured my 1-year-old daughter would like it and I would throw in a few fish and we could feed them together,” says Benoit with a laugh.

It turns out that having your very own pond and collecting the fish, however, can be addictive.

“McKenna adored the fish and so did the rest of the family, so then I thought that I should go a little bigger … OK, a lot bigger,” says Benoit, who ended up three years ago with a pond that rivals the size of an in-ground swimming pool at 8,000 gallons.

Before diving into his new, large pond project, Benoit decided to attend a meeting of the Rhode Island and Massachusetts Koi Club. The people he met there and the information he learned completely changed what he thought he knew about his new hobby. “I recommend anyone who is looking into building a pond and having koi to go to one of their meetings. They had such outstanding information,” Benoit says.

Even better, it turned out that the club helps one member a year construct a pond and it chose Benoit.

“My pond grew in size, filters and price,” Benoit says with a chuckle. “My wife called it the giant hole in the ground, often saying it was a ‘huge hole that cost a whole lot of cash.’ In the end, when she saw it done, though, she loved it.”

So does daughter McKenna, who named the fish and enjoys that they are very tame. Her play area is separated from the pond by a fence for safety, but she visits often with supervision.

“You can go up and feed them by hand. They will come over to the edge of the pond to see what you are up to,” Benoit says. “The entire area of the pond is a peaceful focal point in a hectic life. You can sit there on a bench with your dinner in the evening and just watch your kids enjoy the fish and hear the water. It is our personal piece of heaven.”

The ability to make your own slice of nirvana was also the draw four years ago for Kathryn White’s husband, Justin, and children Aiden and Emma. Kathryn, however, was not so keen on the pond.

“When we bought this home (in Forestdale), it came with a neglected koi pond out back. To me, I instantly thought ‘drowning danger’ with the kids. I wanted it filled in, but I was overruled by everyone,” White says. “Now that we have worked on it, it is beautiful and the fish look great and the kids know the safety rules.

“The running water from the waterfall is very relaxing to listen to in the garden. Everyone enjoys watching and feeding the fish. The kids each have their own fish they have named,” White says.

Son Aiden agrees that the pond is “awesome.”

“When we first got the house, there was still a fish in the pond – a catfish and I named him Gollum, you know, from ‘Lord of the Rings.’ He was very cool,” says the enthusiastic 10-year-old. “I usually feed them and they will come up to me and will eat their pellets. The smaller ones won’t come too close yet, but the bigger ones will eat right out of your hand!”

In addition to the fish, the pond is attractive to other creatures. “We get lots of frogs,” says Aiden, “You can catch them and hold them. It is really fun.”

Aiden is also happy to “help get the leaves out of the pond in the fall” and says his friends really like the pond, though none of the kids can go out there without an adult.

With the addition of a third child in 2009, White does still worry about accidents. “Our only fear is our 2-year-old falling in the pond, but she is never unsupervised. If you have a pond and you have young kids, you can never be too careful.”

She estimates that, so far, the pond has cost the family $1,000 between pumps, chemicals and fish.

“The electric bill also goes up $50 a month during the summer months of June, July and August when the pumps are running 24 hours a day. Koi ponds can be expensive,” White cautions. And while she very much enjoys her backyard oasis, she does think that ponds are not for everyone.

“I personally would not recommend getting a pond unless you are retired or have a lot of free time on your hands,” she says with a laugh.

Time and effort are exactly what Bill Story of Mashpee invests continuously in his magnificent koi pond, which is roughly 3,900 gallons and houses 16 large koi. Story is not only a member of the same koi club as Benoit, he is also the webmaster for the club’s website (www.rimakc.org).

“I have always had aquarium fish growing up and loved them. When I was re-landscaping the backyard 10 years ago, I decided I would really like a water feature, so I built my pond,” Story says. “My daughter was only a year old at the time, but she always loved watching the colorful fish.”

Koi, he notes, “can get quite tame and will come up to you. You can touch them and feed them out of your hand. They aren’t just ornamental fish – they are true pets.”

Story worries that some people forget that fish, especially koi, “need proper care and nutrition just like a dog or cat.”

“I mean, when you have a 2- or 3-foot-long koi that you have owned for years, sometimes decades, you become attached to them. Koi can live 25 to well over 35 years with proper care,” Story says.

His daughter has named all of his fish and knows their individual personalities. “Children especially love koi and caring for the pond can be a true family project where everyone can have their own task.”

Story has the same fears about safety as White does, so when designing the pond, he elevated the edges to create a wall about 18 inches high surrounding it.

“The wall doesn’t mean you can take your eyes off a young child, but it does give me that extra split second before someone falls in. Our rule at the house is you can only go out to the pond with an adult and one foot must always be on the ground,” Story says. “Because they want to hang out with the fish, they always listen. And since the whole family likes to sit by the pond, following the rules isn’t that hard.”

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