About this time of year, Lee Neiman walks outside to his backyard every morning and impatiently counts the days.
It's not until late March or early April that the backyard paradise at his Pittsburgh home usually returns to life. The cascading waterfall starts running again and the pond catching it thaws. The fish that went dormant below a sheet of ice during the winter swim back into view.
"I'm looking forward to that first cup of coffee by the pond," said Neiman, a doctor practicing internal medicine. "What I really like is at night when I can open the windows and hear the waterfall."
Backyard ponds, which range from the simple to the elaborate, can become a passion for many gardeners. And technological improvements over the past 15 years have made it easier and more economical than ever to build one.
"The pumps today are much more energy-efficient and last a lot longer," said Randy Stewart, division manager for Pondliner.com, a Shawnee, Okla.-based company that has been selling such supplies since 1998. "As for the filtration systems, some can clean with minimal maintenance. You can now maintain your pond wearing dress clothes instead of standing in the pond, pulling out the system and getting dirty."
Neiman was introduced to backyard ponds about 15 years ago when several of his friends had them. "I was envious of what I saw and decided to proceed and do it myself with the help of my son," Neiman said.
Three years ago, he hired someone to expand the original pond. It now stands 6 feet wide and 12 feet long, and has 16 fish: koi, goldfish and one catfish. The larger pond is more practical and beneficial for fish and plants, Neiman said. Plus, it looks nicer.
Many people who build backyard ponds end up expanding them, said Bob Dorrance, founder and operator of www.backyard-pond-guide.com, a website devoted to amateur pond enthusiasts.
"The first one never seems big enough," Dorrance said. "You're always adding something little to it: lights, flowers, bushes, whatever your taste is. You can probably look at 100 ponds and they are all different. You can make it your own according to whatever you like."
Getting started, he said, is the most daunting step.
Before you dig, design the pond, taking into consideration the surrounding trees and vegetation, he said. Be sure to follow any homeowner's association or other regulations for the property.
Once the hole is dug, Dorrance said, line it with a quality, thick liner. Investing a little more will be worth it to avoid holes or tears.
It's a myth that backyard ponds do best in warm climates, he said. They can thrive pretty much anywhere.
Northern ponds just need a little extra preparation for winter.
"All you have to do is get a lightweight net and put it over the top of the pond to keep leaves and debris out of it," Dorrance said. "Also, make sure you pull any accessories out of the water, like filters or UV lights, so they don't freeze."
Winter should not hurt the fish that call your backyard pond home. "All the fish will go to the very bottom of the pond and go dormant for the winter," Dorrance said. "You do need to have a small hole to allow any gases to escape."
Algae buildup is usually the biggest problem pond owners face wherever they live, he said. The solution is a water pump and an ultraviolet clarifier, a small device that exposes algae to UV light and kills it. They can run anywhere from $100 to nearly $2,000.
Living in warm, central Florida, Sonny Alansky gets to enjoy his pond year-round. Just off his backyard porch, the pond measures 37 feet in diameter, and includes three waterfalls, 14 koi, and a plethora of tropical vegetation such as palm trees, hibiscus and birds of paradise.
Alansky, a retired electrician, designed the pond about three years ago when he moved into his Rockledge, Fla. home.
"I'm out here every day enjoying it," Alansky said. "I love coming out and feeding the fish. They see me coming and they swim right up to me."
He's always adding something new, whether it's more decorative stones or more devices to deter predators; he's already lost one fish to a heron. Fake alligators and owls and even a motion-detector sprinkler help protect the fish.
He has spent roughly $20,000 on the pond so far. It has three pumps, which run constantly, resulting in a $100 increase to Alansky's monthly electric bill. He said the extra expense is worth the enjoyment he and his wife get out of the pond. Friends and neighbors also admire the view and enjoy the murmur of the waterfalls.
"Nothing relaxes us more than watching the koi fish swimming among the lily pads with the brightly colored lily flowers," Alansky said.