Water Gardens

Water Gardens

Water Gardens
by Neil Moran

A frog leaps off the bank into a shallow pond just as a hummingbird pauses for nectar from a flaming red salvia plant. Meanwhile, water is splashing against jaded sandstone rock making it's way into the pool where fish swim just below the surface. A few feet away are two people taking it all in from their favorite summer perch.

For years now my wife and I have enjoyed the water garden that's the focal point of our front yard. We enjoy the sight and sound of water trickling between the statuesque plantings of delphinium, lupine and hollyhocks. And we enjoy watching the wildlife that frequent the pond like the frogs and hummingbirds.

Water gardens have become a popular item for folks looking to add running water to their gardens and landscape. They're fairly easy to install and will last for years. They come in two styles: a hard shell prefabricated liner and a flexible liner. You can choose from a number of prefab liners that come in various shapes and sizes (up to about 8' X 10') to very large flexible liners. Prices range from $40 for a whiskey barrel type water garden to around $130 for a 5' X 6' prefabricated liner. Forty-five mil black flexible liners start at about $135 for a 10'X15' liner to $500 for the much larger liners. Whatever you do, don't settle for a cheap liner from a discount store. Purchase a quality liner, such as one manufactured by MacCourt or Tetra.

There are a few accessories you'll need to purchase to go with your liner including a pump, hose, fountain heads, and additives. And don't forget plants. A whole new world of gardening awaits you when you go searching for water lettuce, water hyacinths, lilies and prairie grass.

Before installing a water garden consider the overall location of your pond in relation to your house, deck, flower gardens or recreation areas where kids are playing. My wife installed a plastic prefabricated pond in the middle of what started out to be a small flower garden. The pond is located in the center of the front yard about ten feet in front of our deck. The deck, pond, flowers and trees blend in nicely to achieve the right effect.

Install your pond within reach of a garden hose and electrical supply for a pump and other accessories you may wish to add, such as patio lights. Avoid installing directly under trees where leaves will clutter the surface of the pond. Nearby trees also make for some difficult digging. However, if you must plant under trees, which is after all a natural setting for a pond, consider purchasing a light weight net to catch the leaves as they fall in the autumn.

Rocks are often used to add a natural look to a water garden. Here's where my wife used her imagination to create the effect she really desired, and you can too. You'll need a couple of wash tubs full of rocks to create a waterfall and to line the outside rim of your pond, should you choose to go with this type of design. Consult a local contractor to see what kind of rock is available in your area.

Water gardening is one of the easiest forms of outdoor gardening; no hoeing, no weeding, no daily watering of transplants. And water gardening is one of the few things in life with which you will probably be more successful by doing less. The key is patience. The basics contained in this bulletin will get you started.

To achieve the waterfall effect, arrange the rock behind the pump (facing your viewing area) so that the pump hose can be slid just above the first layer of rock. It can be curved up behind four or five layers of rock and poke out through the second to last layer of rock. From there it can be wedged between two rocks and hidden from view. The water is then allowed to trickle down over the layers of rock. One problem with this design is that water can escape the pond as it splashes off the rock. This can be avoided by laying down a 40 mil black plastic piece of liner material under the first layer of rock, which will direct the water back into the pond.

Of course, there are simpler ways to achieve the trickling water effect. Fountain heads are inexpensive and simply sit atop the pump in the middle or off to the side of the pool. They send water shooting into the air, creating a mushroom type of effect. You can also attach the hose to ceramic frogs and turtles, which will "spit" water into the middle of the pond. As the old saying goes "you're only limited by your imagination."

Water pumps come in different sizes as well. Choose a pump based on how many gallons of water they pump per hour. A 300 gallon per hour pump is sufficient to circulate water in a 5' X 6' water garden and costs under $100. Seek the advice of a licensed electrician to install an electrical supply line that is safe and practical.

The prefabricated liners are easiest to install for the do-it-yourself homeowner. The flexible liners are a little more difficult, but not impossible to install yourself. If you do plan on installing a flexible liner you may want to watch the Hometime PBS series on water gardening to get a good idea on how to install one of these. You can purchase this video at major retail hardware stores.

Begin the installation of a prefab liner by outlining the shape of the pond with flexible water hose, spray paint or rope. Dig to the depth you need depending on the height of the pond you've purchased. Dig out the bottom of the hole as evenly as possible so your pond will be level. Level the rims of the pond by setting a liquid filled level over a flat 2X4. Take readings from 2 or 3 different angles. A pond that is not level will look awkward and should it overflow with water, it will dump its excess to one end of the pond, making that end quite soggy.

Now you're ready to fill the pond. The smallest prefab ponds and liners hold around 60 gallons. A 5' X 6' pond holds about 300 gallons. Incidentally, if done right you'll only have to drain and refill the pond at the beginning of each season. The introduction of plants and fish to the water garden is something that can be done a little each season.

Avoid the temptation to grow more plant life and fish than a pond can handle. What you're creating is an ecological balance between fish, plant life, insects and algae (this ecological balance is also what keeps your pond clean).

Less than half of your pond surface should be covered with plant life. This will allow you the opportunity to see fish swimming beneath the surface. Limit your fish to no more than a dozen per 4' x 4' section of pond area.

Water lilies, water lettuce and water hyacinths can be planted in the pond and are very attractive when in bloom. Some plants, such as water lilies, need to be rooted in containers seated at the bottom of the pond. Lilies are suitable for larger water gardens and spring fed ponds.

Bog plants, also known as emergent and marginal plants, include some hardy types such as pickerel weed, arrowheads, cattails and yellow water iris; and shorter species including golden-club, parrot's feather and spike rush. Bog plants root beneath the water or in the shallow water at the edges of the pond and grow skyward, projecting their pretty blooms to the heavens.

Goldfish, golden orfe, and different types of fantail fish do surprisingly well in a pond, once established. Before you add fish, test city water for chlorine dioxide and chloramine, both of which can be treated with chemicals purchased at a nursery or pet shop.

Allow your fish to adjust to the change in temperatures by placing bag and all into the water and leaving it a couple hours. The best time to do this is when the outside temperatures have warmed your pond. You may loose a few fish at first, thus its best not to invest too much in this aspect of your water garden project right away.

Fish will scavenge for insects and plant life in the pond but will also benefit from an occasional feeding of fish food. Avoid heavy feeding in the fall--fish don't digest food well in cool weather.

In warmer climates, fish can be left right in the pool over the winter. This may not be practical or desirable if the ice in the pond freezes right to the bottom! My wife places a small heater in our pond, which prevents the pond from freezing over. You can also bring them inside to an aquarium.

Simply fill the aquarium with cold water and even some ice to avoid the shock of a sudden change of temperature, assuming this is being done late in the fall. Check the temperature before transferring your fish into the aquarium. Use your imagination when landscaping around your pond. Low growing plants are usually planted around the edge of the pond and between the rocks that line the pool, to conceal the rim of the liner. Pansies, petunias, dahlias, lilies and even small shrubs can be planted so they extend a few feet to several feet away from the actual pond. While you're at it, choose plants and shrubs such as Scabiosa columbaria (pink mist and butterfly blue), honeysuckle and salvia that will attract hummingbirds, butterflies and other wildlife to your water garden.

You're not done yet! You will need a comfortable bench or set of chairs to view your creation. Now sit back and enjoy your water garden.

About the Author
Neil Moran is a Michigan author and co-owner of Haylake Gardens. Quality liners and equipment can be ordered from Haylake Gardens by calling 906-635-3556.

Neil Moran is a horticulture trades instructor and author of North Country Gardening: Simple Secrets to Successful Gardening. Neil is also the owner and operator of Haylake Gardens, a garden center and gift shop in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Questions and comments can be emailed to nmoran(at)30below.com.

About this Author