One-on-One with Ben Plonski

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Creating A Koi Pond: A Water Feature to Enjoy for Many Years to Come

Photo by Ben Plonski

 

Koi are mesmerizing. It is impossible to walk past a koi pond without stopping to watch the majestic bright fish just beneath the surface. Koi ponds add a wonderful, soothing element and they are said to promote healthy Feng Shui (positively enhance your living spaces). Ben Plonski, owner of Laguna Koi Ponds on Laguna Canyon Road is an excellent resource for anyone who is interested in starting a pond or improving on an existing pond. 

Q: Describe the path that led you into the koi pond industry

A: I have been a “fish nut” since childhood. I started an aquarium and pond service route when I was 15. I strapped buckets and fish nets to the back of my Suzuki 175 motorcycle and cleaned ponds and aquariums in the Palm Springs area with my friend Leroy. I always loved salt water aquarium fish, and when I was 18 I moved to LA / Orange County to work for a large aquarium service company. I enjoyed this and learned a lot, but always liked big bodies of water, waterfalls and the outdoors, too. So ponds became a natural transition for me. Back then there wasn’t much information on ponds, so we had to uncover the mysteries for ourselves. Soon, my route had more ponds than aquariums. I met Jay Thayer who had a love of the outdoors too, and we started the Laguna Koi Ponds retail store back in 1989. Jay did the books and computer geek stuff and I handled the koi and customers. We moved our small facility to the current site in 1991 and brought in a third partner Greg Zuccolotto for the construction side of things. Laguna Koi Ponds is on year 22 now.

Q: Are there different options for koi ponds and koi fish?

A: Of course, every hobbyist has unique ideas on pond and filter designs. We have seen ponds built indoors with beautiful entryways; some are built out of old tubs and nestled in the garden; one was built out of an old row boat by an artist on the cliffs of Laguna Beach. I’ve seen ponds in restaurants underneath the floor, so customers can look down at the fish while they eat, and of course the standard backyard pond with scenic landscapes and waterfalls is a popular choice. There can be ponds as small as 30 gallons all the way up to 300,000 gallons. The unique ideas seem endless. This can make it challenging, but very interesting for us as it always provides a wide range of experience.

Photo by Ben Plonski

Q: What are the challenges and benefits to having a koi pond?

A: Koi fish are a commitment. Koi is a large animal with a life span that can exceed 30 years. They require care like any other pet. Koi will become part of your family … like your dog or cat. You will miss them and worry about them when you’re on vacation. The koi fish is so friendly and beautiful, you can’t help but fall in love with it. Give them the best and largest environment possible to help ensure their health and longevity. A good koi pond should be at least 1,000 gallons but 5,000 is better. The filter system is extremely important, but also takes up considerable space. So, the hobbyist needs a good-sized area to devote to a well-designed pond. When built improperly. the pond will just be continuous headaches. When the pond is planned out and designed with care and consideration for the health of the koi, you will be rewarded with years of enjoyment and easy maintenance. You will have created a thing of beauty. The koi pond can become a real focal point to your home and yard. For the backyard entertainer, the pond is a big hit, because it sparks fun conversation and interest for your guests.

Q: Do you need to have a certain type of architecture and landscaping to have a koi pond work?

A: No. As they say, “where there is a will there is a way.” Nice ponds can be built in a formal design – very natural design or artistic. In general, simpler shapes and designs work better, however. Certain functional elements need to be in place regardless of the outward visible shape or design.  

Q: Is there a best age to purchase koi and what do they cost?

A: Most people buy koi as babies. A baby is a 1 year old and they are $35-$50, measuring 6-12 inches in length. The more discerning hobbyist might pick an older koi about 2 years old, because the colors change a lot on a baby koi. The 2-year-old’s color is more stable. They are 12-20 inches long and run between $200-$500.

Three year olds are the most stable and the nicest koi available. They are 20 inches long and can cost $1,500 to $3,000. A top quality 3 year old could easily go for $10,000. Breeders don’t sell the top koi; they keep them for breeding.

 

Photo by Ben Plonski

Q: What is involved in maintaining a koi pond?

A: Koi eat a lot of food and feeding is one of the greatest joys in having koi. They jump and splash and will eat food out of your hands. So, your filter system needs to be large and easily maintained to handle the waste. Another functional element should be the shape of the walls and floor. We don’t want debris building up in the pond basin. So, the walls and floor need to be formed into a self-cleaning shape. Vertical walls and a sloping bottom should lead to bottom suction drains. The drains should lead to external filtration. Circulation jets should gently direct the water in a vortex-type manner so that all debris is funneled out of the pond continuously. This self-cleaning type design is a must if you want healthy koi and easy maintenance. Oxygen is the key to all biological functions in the pond. A waterfall should be vigorous enough to supply adequate oxygen. Additional air pumps are often installed to provide extra oxygen.

Q: Like a pool guy, is there a koi pond maintenance person?

A: We are the “koi pond guys.” We service more than 200 ponds in the Orange County area on a monthly basis. We also install and repair filter systems and pumps, and provide a yearly clean-out service. Our service team of more than 10 pond technicians is well versed in all areas of pond maintenance, filtration and koi health. I am proud of our service department. The managers Andrew Giraldin, Rick Gerards and Victor Munoz are truly dedicated to customer service.  

Q: What do koi eat?

A: Almost anything. Koi are not really fish. They are pigs with fins. They do have special nutritional needs however, and should be fed a staple fresh koi pellet for the bulk of the diet. Feed lots of green vegetables and citrus fruits for vibrant health. Stay away from animal proteins and fats. Shrimp and silkworm are good treats and boost energy and colors. During summertime, we feed color enhancing pellet diets which bring up the red colors.

Q: What are the costs associated with having a koi pond?

A: Your main two monthly costs are going to be koi food and electricity. Good food can run between $3 to $6 per pound. Feed the best you can afford and supplement with lots of fresh veggies for long-term health of the koi. Electricity can add up if you are not careful. Koi pond pumps have to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The pond needs oxygen and filtration continuously. If you use a swimming pool pump, your electric bill will be through the roof. A koi pond pump is a special pump designed for high flow rates but with a very low electrical cost. Your average pond electrical can be $40 to $70 per month in Orange County. 

Q: What is the range of cost for installing a koi pond?

A: A Do-it-Yourselfer can build a 1,000 gallon pond for as little as $1,000 with complete filtration, waterfalls and rockscapes. High-end pond builders can put in unbelievably beautiful ponds and landscapes with all the bells and whistles for up to $100,000. I would say the average pond built by a homeowner will cost around $5,000 or professionally built – around $20,000.

Q: You travel to Japan every year? Will you describe what the purpose of those trips are like and what happens while you’re there?

A: I love traveling to Japan every year to find beautiful and unique koi. Sometimes I go twice a year. It is my reward for a long year’s work. Japan is the homeland of koi. All the most beautiful varieties of koi were bred and cultured in Japan. There are hundreds of specialty koi breeders in the amazing Niigata Mountains. Winding roads through trees and over rivers lure me from breeder to breeder in search of special koi at good prices.  I can spend a week hand picking koi every day and not grow tired. Good koi are not so easy to find. Truly special koi represent only one in 10,000. I have to sort through a lot of koi to find the right ones for our customers. Of course, another lure is the fact that late October is harvest season for the koi breeders, so it is basically “party time.” Dealers and hobbyists come from around the world to buy koi in the fall. The breeders get to show off their hard work over the past year and this is when the money comes in for them. We are out every night enjoying great Japanese food, beer and sake. These breeders work very hard and are dedicated to raising the most beautiful koi possible.  They are the real “Koi Kichi,” which is a Japanese term we use that means “Crazy for Koi.” 

Q: Are there many “Koi Kichi” folks around here?

A: You would be surprised how many hobbyists have joined Koi clubs in our area. These koi clubs meet every month at a member’s home and have fun talking about koi.  They put on yearly koi shows where koi are entered in competition for big prizes. The koi shows are a great weekend outing for the koi kichi types. It’s an opportunity to see some of the very best koi all in one place and the people are so friendly and willing to share their knowledge and stories. If you want to learn more about koi, consider joining one of these local clubs. Chances are … you’ll make some nice new friends.

Stop by Laguna Koi Ponds, located at 20452 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, particularly during feeding time. For Newport residents, the koi pond at Fashion Island is also one of Ben’s inventive creations. For more information and a list of koi clubs in the area, call 949.494.5107. Visit www.lagunakoi.com.