When Russ Adams retired from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office six years ago, he got a whale of a retirement gift: an impressive backyard pond stocked with assorted fish.
Seven giant koi with distinct personalities and looks that inspired names like Coy Koi and Moo Moo share space in the oversized pond with about 20 comets, a fancy type of goldfish. Tall, tropical-looking plants like Thalia and Elephant Ear grow from the pond, and a small waterfall projects a tranquil sound of the backwoods in Adam's idyllic Warwick Village yard.
"The fish pond was his retirement gift," said Adams' wife, Sunny Chen-Adams. "At the time, I thought maybe we'd get a small pond. Like the size of this table." She spread her arms across the small rectangular table no bigger than 3 feet by 5 feet.
"I wanted a big pond, with big fish," he said.
He got what he wanted. The pond measures 12 feet by 14 feet and is 3 feet at its deepest. The koi, which grow as large as their oxygen supply allow, stretch close to 2 feet long.
As a small boy, Adams enjoyed his grandfather's small backyard fish pond and once an adult, he became a fan of "Gardening By the Yard" hosted by Paul James on Home and Garden Television. The garden show's occasional features on backyard ponds inspired Adams to get one himself.
Now, Adams enjoys the gentle burble of the falls and the frequent slap of the fish as they jump from the water with his morning coffee. Sunny, who was born in Beijing, said the pond honors the Chinese philosophy of feng shui—or "wind-water"—which is based on the idea that the land is alive and filled with energy.
For all of its beauty and natural inspiration, the pond is not without multiple and significant downsides. First, the price tag: Adams' pond cost $15,000 and requires ongoing maintenance. The pump costs $1 a day to run, the chemicals to keep the water clean can cost as much as $70 a gallon and the fish eat 60 pounds of food a year.
"It's like owning a sailboat," Adams said.
The pond is deep enough that it does not need to be drained annually, as some pools do, but it requires a four-hour, detailed cleaning twice a year. Once a week, Adams must clean the skimmer filter and every day, he needs to clear debris from the skimmers.
Also, just like typical house pets, Adams needs to make arrangements for his fish to be fed and the pond cared for when he and his wife go on extended vacations. Then, there's the unexpected emotional toll of raising the fish. Two years ago, when the microbursts ripped through Del Ray, tumbling trees and casting the neighborhood into an extended blackout, Adams lost four koi. Without a working pump to cycle the pond water, the fish suffocated the first night. Of the three that survived, one, Coy Koi, remains crippled from the oxygen deprivation and has difficulty maintaining balance.
"I was devastated," Adams said. "In fact, we have a grave on the side of the house. We have the same attachment to them that people have to cats."
Adams pointed to an LPG portable generator on the patio which he purchased after the 2010 storms. "That generator there is more for the fish than for us," he said.
Sadly, it wasn't the first time Adams lost fish. The first year after the pond was installed, it stood open and unmolested by predators. But by the second year, two 6-foot tall blue herons had marked the pond as prime feeding ground. "We saw them holding the fish and flying away," Sunny said. Every single comet in the pond—including the hilariously-named Larry, Mo and Curly—fell prey to the herons.
Over the next few years, Adams experimented with different pond covers and gadgets to scare away unwanted wildlife. He installed a "water scarecrow" that squirts unsuspecting animals at night if they get too close to the pond. And he eventually fashioned a cover of PVC pipe and plastic chicken wire that, so far, seems impenetrable.
"It spoils the natural look," Adams admitted. "But it has definitely kept the animals away."
If you've ever considered a backyard pond, Adams suggests a different approach than the one he used of hiring a general landscaper. Find a company that specializes in the design and installation of fish and backyard ponds.
Oh, and prepare to work hard for the payoff.