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    Water garden feature

    Water gardening has become the fastest-growing trend in landscaping, with prospects of tranquility and property enhancement inspiring floods of interest ...

    Water gardening has become the fastest-growing trend in landscaping, with prospects of tranquility and property enhancement inspiring floods of interest in the topic. If you’ve thought about jumping in but feared you might end up in a sea of maintenance problems, check out our pond. The water’s fine! Best of all, it’s virtually self-sustaining.

    Building a water feature that successfully mimics nature’s ecosystem can free you from chores such as monitoring water quality, balancing chemicals, repairing leaks and nursing sick plants and fish. We learned about this approach to pond construction and care from Club member Ray “Dr. Pond” Campbell of Lost Eden Ponds in Clearwater, Minnesota. He showed us how to build a balanced water garden that includes a filtering bog, a cascading stream and a fishpond.

    How It Works

    The process is simple, but it does involve heavy labor. In a nutshell, you dig holes for the pond and bog, carve a streambed, line it all with fabric and a waterproof liner, add culverts, a pump, rocks and water, and finish with plants and fish.

    In his classes for would-be pond owners, Ray explains that a healthy water feature requires a combination of components. This bog/pond design achieves a balance because it includes a cascading stream and a bog garden as well as vegetation and fish. As water flows through the system, it is aerated and filtered — just as a natural stream would be.

    Size, Shape and Siting

    It’s easy to plan the size, shape and location of a water feature to fit your yard’s available space and landscaping. Our 6 x 8-ft. pond is relatively small because it was made to fit within an existing fenced area. But with more space and materials (and energy), you can build a water feature as large as you want. In fact, larger is better because a higher volume of water keeps the system more easily balanced.

    This bog/stream/pond works well on either a flat area or a hill. We placed ours on a slope that has a total drop of less than 2 ft. Whatever the grade, create a series of steps down rather than one or two large falls to minimise water loss.

    To achieve a natural look, we chose an irregular shape for the outline of our water feature. If you want a formal water garden, you could choose a more symmetrical or a geometric shape and use materials such as brick or uniform stones.

    Before you decide on a site, check local codes regarding setback distances, fence requirements and electrical permits, and have all utilities’ locations marked so you don’t hit any pipes or cables during excavation. You must also factor nature into your site decision. Naturally moist or poorly drained soil is not a good location for an artificial body of water because of erratic freeze-thaw cycles, unstable soil and potential flooding. And to avoid runoff of lawn chemicals and other pollutants, do not choose a low area of your yard. Consider these additional guidelines as well:

    • Locate your pond near a water supply and an exterior-rated electrical outlet (equipped with a GFCI). Consult an electrician if you need to add an outlet.
    • Because most water-garden plants like plenty of sunlight, avoid heavily shaded areas. Overhanging branches also drop leaves, twigs, blossoms and seeds into the water.
    • To fully enjoy your water feature, choose a location that you can easily view from your outdoor living area. We created ours close to the house and deck.


    Once you’ve chosen a location and determined the outline of your pond, stream and bog area, mark the ground; then excavate the pond, bog and streambed. You’ll use some of the soil to landscape around the water feature, but you’ll probably need a spot (nearby if possible) to deposit the leftovers. To prevent settling, tamp any soil that is added to or disturbed within your water garden area.

    Ray recommends using a surveyor’s level to be sure that the excavation is level and that the edges hold water.

    The pond’s perimeter should vary in height for a natural look, but you need to create one low edge so that overflow due to heavy rains and snowmelt will be directed away from nearby structures. Use the low spot as a benchmark for establishing pond depth. Dig within the outlined shape of the pond, grading the entire inside area to be level with a point that is 8 in. below the benchmark. (Most edges of the pond will be more than 8 in. high.) About 10 to 16 in. from the edge, outline and dig a second level at least 8 in. deeper. Create the resulting tier to vary in width and have a slight grade toward the centre of the pond so debris will flow toward the pump. The shelf provides a home for plants and a spot for people to safely step in or out of the pond if necessary.

    You can carve a third level in the centre if your pond is larger; just be sure you reach a total depth of at least 24 in. — the minimum depth for fish to survive winter in a northern climate. Finally, dig a 10-in.-deep x 16-in.-wide trench across the pond floor to hold the culvert tube. Grade the trench slightly downward toward the pump end.

    Next, dig the bog area, which in our project is a 4-ft.-dia. x 3-ft.-deep pit with straight sides. Mound and tamp some of the excavated soil around the edges of the bog to create a berm for blocking runoff of lawn chemicals and grass clippings. In the floor of the bog, create a trench for the second culvert. Check that the culvert assemblies fit in the trenches of both the pond and the bog, and adjust the soil as necessary. At the top of the stream, dig a deeper recess to act as a holding pond (photo, left). Form the stream with stepped tiers, each with a gentle backward slope so that all of the water doesn’t drain to the pond if the pump is turned off. The stream tiers must be level side-to-side. At the front edge of each step, form the grade level to be at least 6 in. higher than the stream.

    Finally, dig a narrow 12-in.-deep trench (sloping slightly towards the pump) next to the water feature. This where you will bury the flexible PVC tubing that carries the water from the pump to the bog.

    Adding Components

    Once you’ve prepared the site, install the components that contain, circulate and filter the water. Consider the following guidelines:

    • Underlayment and liner — Before placing the underlayment, clear away all sticks, roots, stones, etc. As you install the waterproof liner, be sure to press the liner tightly into curves and corners so the weight of rocks and water will not stretch it across any voids. Arrange the liner so at least 12 in. wraps over the edges of the entire water feature.

    • Culvert — First cut a section to fit the full length of the pond and a second piece that matches the depth of the pond when the sections are attached to the elbow. Bore 2-in. holes and assemble as shown (photos, p. 34). Make another assembly to fit the length and depth of the bog.

    Set the assembled culvert sections in place, making sure the tops of the vertical sections are about 2 in. below grade at both ends of the system. Trim the underlayment and EPDM liner to 12 in. along the edges of the water feature. You can trim them to 6 in. after the water feature is lined with rock and filled with water.

    • Pump and tubing — Attach the connector and the flexible PVC tubing to the pump (see photos). After lowering the pump into the culvert, cut the PVC and install a 2-in. hose clamp to create a joint that enables you to disconnect the line if you need to replace or remove the pump.

    Cut the PVC tube again, at grade level, and rejoin it with a 2-in. ball shutoff valve. Lay the tubing in the narrow trench next to the water feature so it extends from the pump to the floor of the bog. Install a second ball valve just above grade at the bog end as well. Then insert the tube into the horizontal end of the bog culvert.

    • Rock — Starting with the largest rocks, fill around the culvert assembly in the pond (photos, above). Add smaller rocks as you go, filling spaces between the larger ones. Periodically check that the liner fits against the soil as tightly as possible and that it reaches well over the edges of the excavated area. Adjust folds to distribute them evenly and minimise bulk.

    Work your way upstream, setting large rocks along the sides and in front of the stepped edges. Line the bog with rock as described for the pond, starting with the largest rocks and fitting smaller ones between. Fill to about two-thirds full; then add gravel (1-1/2- to 2-in.-dia. river rock) to fill nearly to the top of the bog. Layer at least 3 in. of additional gravel on the floors of the pond and stream to create a bed for plants and to hide the liner.

    Cover the top of each culvert assembly with flagstone and a few decorative rocks. Place more rocks of varying sizes and colours around the entire water feature, in random positions for a natural look. Backfill the trench that holds the 2-in. flexible PVC tube.


    With the components in place, it’s time to add water, plants and fish. Unless your water comes from a private well, it likely contains chlorine, which is unsafe for fish. Once you’ve filled the pond and bog, begin to operate the pump, but wait a few days for the chlorine to dissipate, or add pond dechlorinator (available at garden supply stores). The circulation will also clear the mud from the water. Your new ecosystem should be self-sustaining in a few seasons as the algae, plants, fish and bacteria levels establish a balance.

    Before choosing water-garden plants, talk with experts to learn which plants are hardy in your area. You’ll want to eventually cover at least one-third of the pond surface with a variety of plants, including water lilies, marginals (shallow-water plants, such as iris and grasses) and oxygenators (such as water hyacinth). We planted grasses in the bog area as well, which will eventually spread to cover the gravel bed of the bog.

    Planting is easy. Just remove the plant from the pot, wash all of the soil from the roots and bury the roots directly in the gravel. Start with hardy perennials and gradually add tropical plants if you desire.

    Once the water and plants are in place, complete the ecosystem with fish. Ray recommends starting with young koi (or goldfish) so they learn about the dangers of predators in a natural setting. When adding to an existing fish population, quarantine newcomers in a separate tank for a couple of weeks to ensure they are healthy. Follow the supplier’s advice on how to acclimate fish to a new body of water. Although fish require initial care, don’t be intimidated; you may soon find that they are your favourite part of being master of your own ecosystem.

  • 15

    Plan a pond

    Whatever your lifestyle and garden, there’s a water feature to suit you. Water gardens can be natural or formal, vibrant ...

    Whatever your lifestyle and garden, there’s a water feature to suit you. Water gardens can be natural or formal, vibrant or reflective, intimate or elaborate. If you’re considering a pond but haven’t taken the plunge, read through this practical planning guide to find out if you’re ready to have a water view at home.

    Define your goals

    First, decide what’s most important in a water garden. Do you want something beautiful to look at? Are you interested in caring for fish or unusual plants? Is hearing the relaxing sound of running water your main objective? Think carefully about why you want a water garden, write down these goals, and share them with your landscape designer or anyone else who’s helping with the process. Clarifying your goals will help you choose the right site, size, and design for your water feature.

    Choose the site

    Pick a location you’ll see often from the outside and inside. You might want the water feature near your kitchen window, for instance, or beside the patio where you have outdoor meals. The more you see your pond, the more you’re apt to maintain it, so keep it in sight where you can enjoy it year-round and fix problems quickly.

    Water gardens look beautiful in many locations, but there are pros and cons to each spot. If you build a water feature on a slope, you’ll spend more time designing and building it, but you’ll end up with dramatic waterfalls and multi-leveled pools. Wooded ponds look natural and attract wildlife, but cleaning out fallen leaves and sticks will take up a lot of time. Sunny or semi-sunny spots are often best. Although you’ll have to keep algae under control, water plants thrive in these locations.

    There are places where water gardens definitely don’t do well—especially boggy, low-lying areas where rainwater accumulates. It may seem natural to plan your water garden there, but rain runoff sometimes drags along fertilisers and debris from surrounding areas, creating a biological imbalance in your water feature. Build your pond close to a source of water and electricity to make the project easier and less expensive. Always check for water and electric lines before digging.

    Ponds may pose a threat to a young child’s safety. If you have infants or toddlers in your family, postpone building a water garden until your kids are older or build a “pondless” water feature. These water features are either filled entirely with pebbles or are topped by a strong gate with pebbles on top, making them safer for children.

    Plan big

    It’s best to design a bigger water garden than you think you’ll want, especially if you want to add fish. Large, deep ponds hold more fish and plants, they’re easier to see from a distance, and they achieve an ecological balance better and faster than small ponds.

    If you want fish in your water feature, plan a pond that’s 2 feet deep in at least half the area, with varying depths in other areas (no more than 5 feet at its deepest). Shallow water gives water plants a good place to grow, while deeper areas offer fish cool water and a place to hide from predators. Ponds without fish don’t need as much depth or variation.

    Keep water clean

    Every water gardener dreams of clear water, and you can have it—up to a point. Be aware, however, that your pond will never be crystal clear. Two kinds of bacteria, nitrosomona and nitrobacter, must be present to transform the toxic ammonia in the water (from fish excrement and decaying organic matter like fallen leaves) into healthy nitrates (which act like fertiliser for your plants). So don’t remove that slimy green film on the sides of your pond and rocks—it helps your water’s ecosystem stay healthy.

    Algae, however, is something you need to monitor more closely. It can look like individual hair strands linked together or a thin, green mat covering the water. By the time a water garden is about three years old, algae problems often resolve themselves. In the meantime, and to help keep algae under control each year, include enough surface-floating and deep-water plants so that 50 percent to 70 percent of the water is covered by foliage and flowers in summer. (Algae won’t grow well in shade.) Also, put in submerged plants to starve algae of food. In addition, chemical and organic products are available from nurseries and pond stores to help limit algae growth.

    All these strategies help control algae, but in spring you’ll always have more algae simply because water plants aren’t yet providing shade. Just practice patience, use a plastic garden rake to periodically remove the algae, and wait for algae to die back in summer.

    Consider adding fish
    The most common mistake for beginners is to put too many fish in their ponds too soon. By limiting the number of fish, you decrease the amount of toxic ammonia the fish excrete, which leads to higher water quality. Experts suggest adding only one goldfish per 25 to 50 gallons of water in a new pond. After a few months, once your pond is ecologically balanced with plenty of plants and healthy bacteria, you can increase the ratio to about one goldfish per 15 gallons of water.

    Goldfish are relatively small, social fish that coexist well with other species and plants. They’re available in a wide range of colours, and some sport elegant fins and tails. Measuring 6 to 10 inches, they’re fairly hardy in both cold and warm climates. Goldfish live through the winter in zones 6 to 10 and go dormant at the bottom of a pond in water temperatures between 36°F and 50°F. Keep a hole in the ice all winter (via a waterfall or fountain) to provide oxygen to the fish and to release gasses from dying plants. In colder zones, you’ll have to bring your fish inside for the winter, which can require a large aquarium and high maintenance.

    Unless you’re a dedicated koi enthusiast, stay away from these beautiful swimmers. Koi, an ornamental carp, grows up to 3 feet at maturity, requires much larger pools, and damages many water-garden plants.

    Get the right equipment

    The type of pond equipment you need depends on the size and purpose of your pond, and also the amount of maintenance you’re willing to do. Consult an experienced water-garden designer to discuss what works best based on your needs and budget.

    If you want a simple pond with no fish, you probably won’t need any filters. If you add fish, however, you’ll need a mechanical filter that traps debris so you can manually clean it out. And you’ll need a biological filter, in which bacteria attaches itself to plants, rocks, and other surfaces in the filter and cleans water as the water moves through. Sizes and prices vary widely. You’ll also want to research various fountains and liners. In the end, you should have a pond that meets your goals with the least amount of maintenance.

    Plants for the Pond

    There are five types of plants that provide beauty and ecological balance for your water garden:

    ¦ Submerged plants remove nutrients from the water so algae can’t thrive. These plants don’t need soil. Just put them in one-gallon pots filled with pea gravel and place them in the bottom of your pond.

    ¦ Deep-water plants (or floating-leaf plants) such as water lilies (Nymphaea) grow in pots placed 12 to 36 inches deep and have foliage and flowers that bloom on top of the water’s surface. Along with surface-floating plants like butterfly fern (Salvinia rotundifolia) and fairy moss (Azolla filiculoides), they provide shade, which limits algae growth. Surface-floaters, which also help starve algae by depleting the water of some nutrients, require no planting. Just put them in the water and their tiny leaves reproduce rapidly. Most of these are considered annuals in colder climates.

    ¦ Shallow-water plants like the hardy canna (Thalia dealbata) grow in mud or 12 to 18 inches of water. Arrange them on platform shelves on the edge of your pond to conceal the water garden’s artificial edges. Keep these plants in fabric or plastic pots, then place the pot under water and let the leaves grow in the open air.

    ¦ Bog plants grow in damp soil just outside a pond. They’re good transition plants between land and water. Some tolerate completely waterlogged ground and others don’t, so check each plant’s needs before buying.

    Water gardens are a joy to have in your garden, but they do require some maintenance. Here’s how to keep your pond healthy and attractive:

    – Remove debris often. Use a skimming tool (available at nurseries and pond stores) to remove debris from the water surface. This will mean fewer toxins in the water and cleaner water for your plants and fish. In fall, screen your pond to prevent fallen leaves from adding too much organic matter to the water.

    – Tend to water plants. Prune and divide as needed. Add either organic or chemical fertiliser to potted plants about once a month. Tablet forms make it easy to place fertiliser in the soil.

    – Leave bacteria alone. The bottom of your pool, the surface of rocks, and the base of plants all provide places for healthy bacteria to live. They eliminate toxins in the water, so don’t scrub these areas. If you see long algae growing, though, take it out.

    – Introduce natural bacterial enzymes. These products break down organic matter quickly. Purchase at pond stores and nurseries.

    – Avoid overfeeding fish. Excess food floats in the water and breaks down into nutrients that feed algae. Feed fish once a day in spring, summer, and fall, when the water is warm. (They don’t need food in winter because they can’t digest food in cold water temperatures.) Give them only as much as they can eat in five minutes.

    – Check pH, ammonia, and nitrite levels. Test a new pond quarterly; test older water gardens twice a year in spring and fall.

    – Maintain equipment. Clean fountain heads and pump intake valves to keep them running properly. Check and clean mechanical and biological filters routinely.

    What makes a pond ecologically sound?

    Most water garden experts recommend creating a pond with an “ecologically sound” or “ecologically balanced” system—in other words, one that recreates nature as much as possible. Instead of requiring lots of chemicals or maintenance, an ecologically balanced pond stays healthy by relying on fish, plants, and microorganisms working together. It usually requires a mechanical filter and a biological filter and some sort of running water to circulate oxygen. It also needs a moderate amount of algae and beneficial bacteria to transform potential toxins into nutrients.


    – Don’t add too many fish at once. A good rule of thumb for a new pond: one goldfish per 25 to 50 gallons of water.

    – To keep algae under control, make sure 50 percent to 70 percent of the water is covered by surface-floating and deep-water plants in summer.

    – You can build a water feature just about anywhere, but if you want to grow the widest variety of interesting water plants, make sure your pond is in full or part sun.

  • 15

    Water features

    Water features add an enchanting quality to a garden. Hot days seem cooler when you’re relaxing by a tranquil pond, ...

    Water features add an enchanting quality to a garden. Hot days seem cooler when you’re relaxing by a tranquil pond, and the sound of moving water provides a soothing background to any outdoor setting. Beneficial wildlife like frogs, dragonflies, and birds are also drawn to a watery oasis. To make a water feature an attractive addition to your landscape, here are a few pointers to follow.

    Think about size. When trying to decide how big to make your water feature, consider two main factors: the size of your property and the time you have to maintain the water feature. As with any garden element—be it a plant, path, container, or piece of furniture—it’s important to select objects that are in scale with their surroundings.

    Small garden water features

    If you have a small garden, a tabletop container or wall-hung fountain would be just right. Medium-sized gardens can accommodate a larger feature, such as a galvanised livestock tank filled with water, a stand-alone fountain, or a small in-ground pool. Properties with sizeable yards are perfect for full-sized ponds. Also keep in mind that the bigger your water garden, and the more pumps, plants, and fish you add to it, the more time you’ll spend maintaining it.

    Match your garden’s style. If your home has a formal architectural design and the garden is laid out with straight paths, symmetrical flowerbeds, and an ordered pattern of plants, then classic fountains or pools in the shape of a circle, rectangle, or square would be a good fit. To complement a rustic or cottage-style home, look for wooden tubs, whimsical fountains, and pools with curved and sinuous shapes. For contemporary homes, choose a water feature with minimalist appeal, such as a boulder or large rock with natural indentions where water can collect.

    Look for the perfect spot. Before you start digging a pond or installing a fountain, think carefully about the best location for your water feature. One option is to position a pool or fountain as the garden’s focal point and arrange furnishings around it. Tabletop water gardens or wall fountains, on the other hand, may be more appealing as subtle accessories that give the setting a relaxed ambience.

    The best location for your water garden is near the area where you spend most of your outdoor time. Resist the urge to place the water feature in the back corner of your property. If you’re adding a fountain, put it in a spot where you can hear it from inside your home. Make sure it’s near an outdoor outlet where you can plug it in, and consult with an electrician to be certain your outlet provides proper protection for an outdoor water feature.

    Create a scene.

    To enhance the beauty of your water garden, add plants and accessories to help blend it into the setting. For a tabletop water garden, mix in some water plants or arrange tropical houseplants, a bonsai tree, or a wall plaque around the feature to give it more presence. Place containers of plants near wall-mounted and stand-alone fountains.

    Concrete and terra-cotta water features tend to look out of place until time and weather tone down their brightness. To speed up the ageing process, apply and then quickly rub off a thin wash of grey-green paint to “grunge” the surface.

    Whimsical accessories such as a ceramic frog, favourite stones from travels, or a statue that reflects your garden’s theme help add your own personal touch to the garden. Use these items in moderation, though, so the scene doesn’t become cluttered.

    Mimicking Mother Nature is a good design plan for larger water features. Natural ponds have a plethora of plants in every crack and crevice, growing over and around the rocks and softening the pond’s look and feel. Apply this technique to increase the natural aesthetics of your water garden. In large pools with moving water, a stream that flows over stones and large rocks is more natural-looking than a spray or fountain.