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A backyard oasis: Koi ponds bring serenity to pressurized lifestyles

For an escape from the frantic pace of life in Silicon Valley, many on the Peninsula are turning their back yards into mini-oases with koi ponds. A small pool, some water plants and a minimum of maintenance are all it takes for homeowners to have the famous red-gold Japanese fish literally eating out of their hands.

"I think of a pond as a daytime fireplace," said koi pond professional Ken Snarr, of Ken and Barbara's Pond Service in Mountain View. "The bubbling water blanks out noise from a freeway or street, and it is very serene to sit and watch the fish."

Los Altos residents Kip and Tim Kado, who recently built a koi pond, will share their peaceful oasis - complete with waterfall - with the Santa Clara Valley Koi Club Pond Tour this summer.

Tim had always wanted a pond, so when they bought their Los Altos home a year ago, they began the planning. The landscape contractor put in the multitiered pond with a waterfall cascading down red slate, and filled it with water plants. But they were having problems keeping it balanced, Kip said, so they turned to the Santa Clara Valley Koi Club for help.

The club began about 20 years ago, "when there was no Internet, so people had trouble finding information on how to maintain a koi pond," said President Carole Lee. The club sponsors monthly guest speakers on various aspects of pond maintenance and fish and plant care.

Club member Snarr helped the Kados rework their pond to keep it in better health, re-engineering the water flow and replacing the entire filter system. "We don't put chemicals in a pond," he said, explaining that in a well-designed pond, all debris ends up in a filter, which is then easy to clean. He helps the Kados maintain their pond, coming every few weeks to clean the filters.

"Koi are fussier than goldfish," admitted Lee, but she said that with the high-tech filtration systems now available, "once you learn the right things to do, it is not too hard" to keep a pond going.

Kip Kado agreed. The Kados empty the skimmer every few days and feed their fish, but Kip pointed out that koi don't need to be fed in the winter because they hibernate during the coldest months. "And when you feed them, they are so tame they will come up and let you touch them," she said, demonstrating as a brown-and-gold fish, one of 12 in the pond, cruised easily up to the surface and nudged her hand, seeking a midafternoon snack.

You could probably put in a basic pond for a few thousand dollars, according to Lee, but most club members spend between $5,000 and $10,000 on their ponds. "And, of course, there's no limit to how much you could spend if you wanted to," she said.

The fish alone can cost $10,000 each for "show quality" fish (the club Web site includes links to pages for local koi shows), although ordinary koi can be bought for a few dollars.

While the Kados' koi are not considered show quality, they are a step above many that you see in public pools. "We went to a fancy hotel in Hawaii, but noticed that their koi were very ordinary," said Tim, proudly pointing to one of his fish, whose grey, white and orange markings were highly symmetrical and consequently very desirable.

The Kados' fish range in color from deep brown through all variations of orange to yellow and even white. Koi can live as long as 100 years, Tim said, although most of the fish in their pond are two or three years old.

"It is so calming to sit and listen to the waterfall and watch the fish swim," said Tim. "The pond has definitely exceeded our expectations."

Lee said ponds are surprisingly common and estimated there are "probably hundreds" of koi ponds in the Los Altos-Los Altos Hills area.

But while the owners enjoy their ponds, the perception that they are difficult to maintain can actually make it harder to sell a house with a pond, especially a large one, said Connie Miller, a broker associate with Alain Pinel Realtors.

"People don't want the responsibility of accidentally killing a fish because they don't know how to maintain it," said Miller. She recently sold a house with a koi pond the size of a small swimming pool, but a condition of escrow was that the seller would find homes for all the fish. The buyer filled it in.

"The key to marketing a home with a distinctive feature like a koi pond is to target the various local clubs or Web sites, to find a buyer who will really appreciate it," said Miller.

The Santa Clara County Koi Club pond tour is scheduled 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 15. It includes six ponds from Los Altos to Los Gatos. You can start the tour and purchase tickets at any of the homes on the tour.

For more information, visit www.sckoi.com.

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