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'Drains are great if you're draining a pond, but if you're setting up an ecosystem you need rocks at the bottom," says Cindy Collins, owner of Aqua Designs. "If you do it correctly, it looks like this pond has always been there." On Saturday, July 9, and Sunday, July 10, Aqua Designs will host a tour of 85 ponds in San Diego County as part of Pond Tour North America. The tour is self-guided, but pond-seekers will be given a booklet containing directions and a description of each garden, located as far east as Jamul, south as Chula Vista, north as Fallbrook, and along the coastline. The average cost of a pond ranges from $5000 to $7000. "The cheapest [pond] that we will do is $3500," says Collins. The most expensive pond she has helped create is not on the tour. That pond, which cost its owner $140,000, is sixty feet by sixty feet and six feet deep. "There is a huge waterfall, eight or ten feet wide, coming down into this thing." Most of the ponds on the tour are no more than two feet deep. One home on the tour, located in San Marcos, has two ponds. In the back yard is a "really colorful pond with water plants and landscaping," says Bob Collins, Cindy's husband. "Two waterfalls feed into it, and the water is crystal clear." In the front yard is a pondless waterfall, a thirty-foot stream that disappears into a bed of gravel. "People like [pondless waterfalls] in their front yard instead of having ponds because they're low maintenance and the liability is lower."

"My pond is sixteen by sixteen and two feet deep. And no, it's not on the tour." Cindy Collins describes a hundred-foot "winding waterfall" that feeds her pond. "My property [in Rancho San Diego] is long, and one side is a bank. The waterfall zigzags, winding its way around and down the hillside. Part of the reason that my pond is so clear is that the stream helps filter the water." In four years she has never had to clean it.

Prospective pond builders can pinch their pennies when it comes to filters. "Some people believe they need great big filters for their koi [colorful carp bred in Japan]. This makes sense if they are raising show koi, but large sand filters aren't needed on most people's water features." Show koi are kept in a sterile environment, which minimizes the possibility of the fish scarring itself or rubbing scales off against rocks in the water. Of her own koi, Collins says, "They've got scars and stuff just like a child who goes outside to play. But it's nothing to worry about unless you're a koi enthusiast."

Plants that thrive around ponds include papyrus, water lilies, pickerel rush, irises, dinosaur reeds, umbrella plants, and floating water hyacinths. Ponds attract birds, frogs, and sometimes, unwelcome guests. "We had a lot of fish in our pond, and then one day we could suddenly find none of them. We first suspected that people had stolen our fish," says Tim Paige, whose pond near the Twin Oaks Golf Course in San Marcos is included in the tour.

To solve the mystery of his missing fish, Paige set up an Internet camera and programmed it to e-mail images to him whenever the scene changed dramatically. "By the time I got to work I had sixty e-mails with pictures of this great big bird running around the pond and stabbing at the fish." The bird was a blue heron -- a four-and-a-half-foot-tall fish-eater with a wingspan of up to eight feet. Since he solved the mystery, Paige has noticed the herons "sitting on our rooftop and waiting until we leave."

To keep the birds at bay, Paige and his wife have set up a Rainbird watering system. "It's an electric eye. If something passes the infrared detector, it sends out a three-second burst like a machine gun blast of water." This scares the birds away when they get close to the pond. As a backup, Paige has placed screens on the water to "give the fish a place to hide underneath the netting." Raccoons, possums, frogs, and turtles have been drawn to Paige's pond. He now has thirteen koi and a few "very large, miscellaneous goldfish." The fish have finished spawning for the third time. "They supply enough of a breeding population to satisfy the local wildlife," says Paige.

Collins insists that if the water is kept moving, mosquitoes will not stay. "We do not like dead water -- it attracts mosquitoes and encourages algae," she says. "When we initially had a pond as a water feature [prior to the moving streambed], we had tons of mosquitoes," says Paige. "But then we threw in goldfish and mosquito fish and the problem was gone." -- Barbarella

Parade of Ponds Saturday, July 9 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, July 10 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 85 locations throughout San Diego County Cost: $20; children under 12 free (Proceeds benefit the Lakeside River Park Conservancy) Info: 619-443-4770 or www.lakesideriverpark.org

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