Cover Story

Add A Splash To Your Landscape With A Water Garden


by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Writer


One of the most instructive lessons in horticulture boils down to this: There are three elements in a well-designed garden — stone, plant material and water. The surprise impression here is that plant material is only one-third of a

garden. Stone provides the key element of structure, the design framework that is

visible even when plants are at rest, but the life-giving essential in a successful garden is water. Yet how many yards that boast exquisite plants incorporate even a small birdbath for feathered friends? Think now of cooling water and what it can bring to your garden sanctuary — movement, sound, an environment to welcome fish and fowl — and this spring, consider all the ways your landscape can make a new splash.

Possibilities galore. Water gardening can fit any size property. OK, so you don’t have

 quite enough room for a wisteria-draped bridge over a huge lily pond like Monet’s at Giverny — not to worry. A water feature can take any shape and can fit into your landscape in ways and places you just may not have considered. It can run a long, narrow course the length of a property. If your land has any slope, use it; if your land is flat, one end can be excavated and the soil taken to build up the other end, creating a slight grade. Water then travels down terraced levels of stone in your created brook; the small stone landing or jetty at the base becomes a place of quiet repose or wading spot to cool bare feet on a summer’s day. Alternatively, the stream can become a rill, straight-edged on each side, carrying the water to the property’s lowest point, ending in a cistern. Along any part of the course, a small footbridge could be incorporated or even a larger structure such as a pergola for dining or merely for sitting to enjoy the gurgling sounds. If you are lucky enough to have any natural source of water such as a spring or a creek, by all means, make it the focal point of your landscape. Arrange natural rock pavers in a gradual descent to access it. Plant ferns, naturalize with bulbs, and get to know all about moss gardening.

Fountains. Fountains are aesthetically pleasing on many levels, literally. They can provide exhilarating visual movement upward; classic examples such as the ones at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania form spectacular architectural columns of water. Fountains also move downward in a cascade or a trickle. Rising jets of sparkling water can put on a show, enhanced at night by slowly changing colors. Or, water flowing from solid, monumental stones arranged in tiers brims over in a smooth, unbroken sheet. Moving water is magical and its rushing cools you mentally.

Water features up close. Fountains originated in the courtyards of Moorish palaces in hot, dry climates. Since water was scarce, the fountains dominated the gardens as their proudest features. In modern domestic settings, people have gotten away from these central pools, but the feeling of a little oasis they create needs to be brought

 back. A pond or pool can be formal or informal and is highly effective when integrated into the patio or decking. It can be the focal point of the entertaining area — just watch out for little people, elderly people, and party revelers; if the pond is on the same level as the surface area where you walk with no raised edge to act as a barrier, remind guests of that fact, or that last step could be “a doozy.” If a visual barrier is desired, a single variety of perennial plant used as an edger all the way around the pond gives unity. Wooly Lamb’s Ear is a good candidate because it is visually soft against hard stone, is evergreen (or ever-gray), and performs well around stone, which aids its drainage.

Any deck is raised somewhat above the level of the lawn. Consider integrating a raised pond on an intermediate level between the deck and the lawn. If the deck is 2 feet off the ground, build a 1-foot-high brick wall as many feet out from the deck as you want your pond to measure, and cap the wall with wooden decking to tie it in visually and to provide seating along the newly created pond so family and guests can enjoy the oasis up close.

Today’s ponds can be molded of fiberglass to suit the needs of small gardens, but custom ponds can easily be dug to any shape and fit with 45-mil EPDM fish-friendly liner if fish are to be included. Ken Gustafson, owner of The Ashland Berry Farm, whose landscape department not only specializes in installing ponds, but also holds seminars for the do-it-yourselfer on pond building and maintenance, offers a wide variety of fish at his Hanover County operation. Over the years, he has observed that many customers (often women) are intrigued by water plants and the soothing

 element of sound a waterfall brings to the garden, but the majority of his male customers are fascinated by the fish. He and his general manager, Carl Gittings, have attended product shows where koi aficionados have paid up to $6,000 for a single fish. Characteristics of these “show-quality” fish include perfectly symmetrical markings with crisp color edges, such as unusually vibrant reds. Inexpensive comets also provide bright coloration and calico shubunkins are quite playful in the pond; neither of these fish require as much in filtration as koi, which produce more waste.

Fish provide great family entertainment and have the advantage of killing mosquitoes by eating their larvae. Mosquito fish, called gambusia, are good additions to the pondscape. When purchasing your first pond, it is important to remember that small fish will grow. When a fish doubles in size, its waste output increases about tenfold, so filtration systems are an important consideration. According to Gustafson, first-time waterscapers’ most common mistake is not thinking big enough when installing their initial pond. The second most common mistake is installing the wrong-size pump. A pond appears one-third smaller once installed in the garden. Rocks are placed all around the edges to anchor the pond and nestle it in for a natural look, but they do jut out and cover some of the pond’s surface. Also, water plants can grow rapidly, so remember to think big.         

If a pond “goes green,” three things can provide a quick fix: tadpoles, snails, and Anacharis. Bullfrog tadpoles eat excess fish food that turns the water green; unlike toads whose rapid life cycle produces adults quickly that leave the pond, bullfrogs stay tadpoles much longer and take up residence in the pond. Snails are scavengers, supposedly working constantly on the sidewalls of the pond. Anacharis is an oxygenating underwater plant.

Aquatic plants. Creating a “living filter” of plants is the goal of an environmentally friendly water garden, according to Gustafson. “Eco-ponds” do not require pumps — the plants provide the necessary filtration. 

“The main trick to a successful water garden is the plants,” says Keith Folsom, who

 with his wife Tish owns Springdale Water Gardens near Staunton. “The cooling effects of the shade their leaves create keep the water garden from overheating in the summer’s heat.” However, more importantly, water plants remove nutrients from the water that feed green-water algae, he adds. “Their roots absorb nutritious fish waste just like it was plant food. Secondly, the surfaces of the plants — roots, stems and leaves —that are underwater grow beneficial bacteria that will process waste from the water that would otherwise make algae thrive.”

Plants come in three forms, Folsom notes. Floating leaf plants like the water lily, lotus or water snowflake cover the surface, the best cooling mechanism for the water garden. Upright growing plants, those that we call the emergents, give some shade. They give vertical and textural accent to the pond. Hardy Thalia, pickerel rush, forget-me-nots and sweetflag are great examples of the more popular choices. The less-seen, but incredibly important plant that is a must for the garden pond is the submerged oxygenator plant. Anacharis is the best-known selection. Planted in gravel, this plant is most useful for absorbing nutrient-rich waste. This plant’s importance is also noted by the cooling effect created among the dense foliage. If that’s not enough, the fish love to “graze” in them and even lay their eggs in late spring, knowing the newly hatched fish fry will be safe from predatory parent fish.

“The cultural requirements of your water plants are simple,” Folsom continues. “They prefer good sunlight with the exception of a few that tolerate shade. Five or six hours of afternoon sunlight will promote good flowering and lush foliage. Full sunlight all day long is fine and even preferred. The real challenge is to select plants that perform in the conditions that your particular landscape has. Water lilies need adequate sunlight to flower, but in lower-light conditions you will still have leaves and maybe an occasional flower.”

Good rich clay-loam topsoil is best for all plants except the submerged oxygenator plants. Remember, the submerged plants are only planted in gravel, forcing them to gather their nutrients from the water. Fertilize with specially formulated aquatic plant fertilizer tablets for best growth. From there, all that is required is to remove yellow or brown leaves before they settle under the water and rot away. The same goes for spent flowers — cut them back, stem and all.

All in all, the best advice for a water gardener is plant lots of plants and the pond will

 be better able to maintain its own eco-system.

Container water gardening. If you just want to try water gardening on the smallest scale, almost any kind of container can be used as a focal point — a sink, an antique trough, a metal tub, any large glazed ceramic pot, or the old reliable half whiskey barrel (lined with plastic). Small water features should include an oxygenating plant to absorb nutrients through underwater stems and leaves, leaving algae little room to develop. Good ones include trailing parrot’s feather (use only in containers as it can be invasive), awl-leaf arrowhead, and waterweed; other plants that thrive in a small water garden include the water lily “Chromatella,” spike rush, and floating water lettuce.

Sound. A symphony of water sounds — a trickle to a spurt, a gush to a geyser — can be produced if there is any type of waterfall. In city gardens, this splash is especially welcome as it combats traffic noise. With the technology now available, it is possible to control most sound with valves.

Remember, the farther the water falls, the louder it is. If your site has a gentle incline, dig out two small pools on two different levels where the water from the upper pool falls into the lower pool then recirculates. If you are lucky enough to have the ultimate cooling water feature, a swimming pool, to lend a bathing element to the garden, create a waterfall into a spa area of the pool as many resort hotel pools have done.

Haunt the salvage yards for an antique stone gargoyle to mount next to your pool. The water spewing from the stone face adds a touch of humor. Or use the same idea in a tiny patio garden for a whimsical tiered fountain. Raise one half-barrel higher than a second; in the top one, mount a stone head from which water can spew into the lower-level barrel. Plant ornamental grasses and iris around your water feature, nestle yourself in, then soak up your success.



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