The Joy of Koi
By: J. Marlando
You probably won’t believe it unless you’ve experienced it. That is having a genuine love and attachment to a fish.
I built my own pond around ten years ago—approximately 10 X 10—and as soon as it was finished my wife and I bought four koi. I had wanted to do that for decades: When I was a small boy a neighbor lady had a small pond in her yard and I would spend a lot of magical times sitting on the bank and watching her big gold fish swim around. Now, my wife and I sit out by our pond nearly every evening—except in winter—and never tire of enjoying the pond, the waterfall and the fish. My point for sharing this with you is to tell you that there really is the “joy of koi.”
Most everyone knows that koi are most associated with Japanese breeders and farmers. In fact, the word koi is an unromantic term simple meaning…carp. Koi and gold fish are both in the carp family! Yet, carp fossils have been found in China going back millions of years and there is some evidence that breeding began in China but this remains uncertain. Incidentally, it is said that Koi were introduced in Europe by the crusaders and later distributed as a food source throughout Asia by monks. When koi finally reached Japan no one really knows but that they were bred as a food source.
No one knows for sure when they became pets either but what I assume is that Japanese Koi farmers began noticing the most brightly and beautiful fish and began keeping them from the market as prize possessions. No doubt that neighboring farmers would be keeping their most beautiful koi as well and soon the passion spread throughout the Japanese culture.
Chinese history tells us that Confucius’ son, born 533 B.C, was presented a large fish, presuming a koi, by Shoko of Ro who was king at the time.
There are also historic accounts of the Japanese emperor keeping Koi going back to 200 A.D. so this might have been the time that koi was popularized throughout the Japanese culture—after all, if keeping koi was an interest of the emperor it would no doubt become an interest of the people. National interest also perked when Emperor Hirohito was given koi for the Palace moat in 1914. What I find most interesting, however, is that few Japanese enthusiasts recognize the name koi for their colorful pet fish. And, indeed, Japan is credited with being the most successful breeders on the planet. What they call the fish, however, that the rest of us know as Koi (or coy) is Nishikigoi, which means “living jewels.”
Once you build your pond or have it built you will soon enough begin thinking of your fish as…well, living jewels as they will become very valuable to you and very beautiful. At the same time they will soon enough become attached to you. Koi fish are exceptionally intelligent and once they begin trusting you, they will even eat out of your hand.
When my wife and I began we were very naïve about raising koi, however. We assumed that if you build a pond, put fish into it, feed the fish and tend to the pond is all it takes. This is what we did, and we had a great time watching our fish grow and play over those first two years after the pond was broken and we had quite a love affair going with our pets in the water.
Then one day my wife was looking out the kitchen window and pointed out a big bird that had flown into our yard. Lots of birds will come to drink out of your pond but we were very excited since we’d never seen a bird like that before. It was quite
HERON: A major danger to bigger fish
an experience watching him fly off and we felt fortunate to have witnessed him. We had no idea what kind of a bird he was, however.
The next morning when we woke up and went to feed our fish—the pond was empty! We would soon enough learn that the big bird in our yard was a heron and herons are predators. We felt broken hearted but it was too late—we hadn’t done a thing to protect our fish.
You need to think of your fish’s safety when you build your pond or have it built—your fish need a place to hide from predators but, beyond all else, you need to grow Lilly pads. Lilly pads give your pond fish a sense of security, especially for sleeping so I suggest that you start growing your lilies and other water plants before you put fish into your pond. Creating your water garden first creates an environment for your fish. In fact, when you build your pond make a couple of shelves where you can place potted water plants around a foot below the surface. You will not want your pots to show so you might even want to pick out your containers before designing the real details of your pond?
As soon as you put fish into your pond, you will have created your own ecosystem because the fish will be providing nutrients for the plants while the plants oxygenate the water for the fish.
There is another benefit of having a fish pond—fish in general keep the mosquito population down. We had mosquito fish living with our koi to make sure the mosquito eggs would never last long enough to hatch.
Speaking of our (big) koi and our (tiny) mosquito fish, we have heard that koi are known to eat smaller fish but we never had a problem. Nevertheless, mixing small fish with your koi might not work as well for you so ask a professional.
Here are some fish pond designs you might want to copy or create a variation of for your yard.
Building your fish pond is fairly simple. You begin by scratching an outline in the dirt of the shape that you want and dig a hole inside the outline. Unless you plan on doing some serious breeding, farming and marketing koi, the best size for an average yard is between 10’ X 10’ to 15’ X 15’. My pond is 18” deep but this was a practical choice for me. In California where I live a pool or pond over 18 inches deep, must have a security fence around it to avoid accidental drowning, especially of children. I might have made my pond deeper if it wasn’t for that law but, as it turns out, 18” is deep enough to create a great environment for koi and since I neglected to put in a drain, it makes maintenance and cleaning easier.
After you have your hole dug, lay a piece of lumber across it and use a level to make sure your sides are even. Once you’ve done this you can cement and/or put in a liner so your pond doesn’t leak. Before you fill up your pond, however, decide where you want your fountain or connect your pump to your water fall. I built a waterfall but fountains can be ever as enticing and comforting.
Both waterfalls and fountains create negative eons and negative eons tend to uplift and energize us.
Here are some fountain ideas to consider:
In thinking about all of this, I discourage you to do what I did. That is, to just start digging and improvising your way to building your pond. Having your pond built especially to your specifics can be very expensive but your pond, even if you do the all the labor, will take investing. You’ll almost certainly want rock in and around your pond and rocks can be very expensive. I used lava rocks around my pool which are very inexpensive but I still spent around $400.00 on them. The pool liner cost me around $ 200.00 and the waterfall pump around $50.00…I probably spent another $300.00 or so on plants for the pond and for planting around the pond. I only paid around $8.00 to $10.00 for my original koi and around this same price when I replaced them after the heron had his feast. I’d estimate that by the time I finished, I had well over $1,000 dollars invested but it has been ten years so I don’t really recall the exact cost. (Having a pond built can cost thousands of dollars).
My pond is not what I would build today because of what I've learned over the years. That is, what (great) ponds need to be healthy and happy.Here is a list of seven vital questions you need to know the answers to before you start building your pond.
- What size and shape will your pond be?
- Will your pond have a fountain or waterfall?
- How will you clean your pond?
- What select plants will you grow in your pond? (Water plants that grow in pots often need special levels to sit on)
- Where and how will you conceal your electrical outlets? (You will want your pond to look as natural as possible).
- What filter and aeration system will you use?
- How will you protect your fish from predators?
Nothing complicated but I would have built my pond differently if I’d only asked these few question before, if you will, jumping in feet first.
Having a pond really is a joy to have and when you add Koi—I will use the Japanese term Nishikigoi since “living jewels” is the perfect metaphor for the colorful fish—that joy escalates.
As I said at the beginning of this article, if you’ve never experienced it you’ll probably find having a relationship with a fish a little difficult to believe but we have a loving relationship with our Nishikigoi and they are truly pets. Pets that you know and who know you—and, as with all pets, there is an apparent bond that evolves between you.
I recently learned that an ancient Buddhist symbol for happiness is a pair of golden koi called Suvanamatsya in the ancient language of Sanskrit. I think the term “happiness” sums up the experience I have been attempting to share here.