Make a splash with a water garden

July 8, 2004
Victoria County Master Gardener Intern

Photo by Arline Fox, Victoria County Master Gardener

Water gardening has become increasingly popular - and easy to do - with today's do-it-yourself product availability. What used to require somewhat deep pockets and labor and skill-intensive activities, now can be accomplished with reasonable expense and time commitment.

There are many considerations before beginning a water garden, including design, site selection, materials, methods of construction - and desired water garden size.

There is nothing like the sound of moving water to delight the senses and give a feeling of tranquility. Water can transform an average landscape into a soothing retreat. This can be in the form of fountains, waterfalls, statuaries or overflowing water jugs. Ponds can be made with flexible liners whereby you dig the size and shape of your choice, or they can be made of preformed fiberglass whereby you dig the hole the size and shape of the preformed pond and line it with sand before installing the form.

Select the largest size you think you may want. The larger the pond, the easier it is to maintain a balanced ecosystem. Ponds need to be 18 to 24 inches deep if you plan to stock with goldfish; 24 to 36 inches deep if you plan to have koi. Your pond should be away from trees to prevent leaves from falling into it - unless it encompasses a large portion of your yard and is situated in the overall landscape which includes some overhanging tree limbs. In this case, your concern should be necessary amounts of light, wisely chosen aquatic plants, and pumped natural filtration.

For the smaller water garden, it is wise to place it near your deck or patio versus in the back corner of your landscape so that you may enjoy the sights and sounds near your home. Ponds attract other living creatures such as birds, dragonflies, toads and frogs for your viewing pleasure. When planning for the placement of your pond, keep in mind most plants require a minimum of five to six hours of sunlight daily.

When your pond is finished and you have added fish and plants, everything looks serene and the water is crystal clear. Then in a few days or weeks your pond becomes green and murky - you may not even be able to see the fish. This murkiness is due to algae blooms that may appear as green water or filamentous mats that float on the water surface. Algae blooms are fed by dust, pollen, fish waste, rain runoff and debris. Your first inclination will probably be to clean it out and start over; however, this will just start the cycle over again.

It is possible to achieve a balanced ecosystem with fish and aquatic plants. Ideally, 60 percent of the pond surface can be covered with water lilies. This not only provides protection areas for fish but will hinder the growth of algae by reducing the amount of sunlight in the pond. In addition to the water lilies, your pond will need some submerged plants such as anacharis that, during sunlight hours, take up carbon dioxide from fish waste and release oxygen for the use of other plants and fish.

During the growing season, spring to fall, water lilies and other aquatic plants such as submerged plants and bog plants should be fed nutrients in the form of tablets made specifically for aquatic plants that are inserted into the soil around the plant. This will ensure lush foliage and colorful flowers and will increase the winter hardiness of perennial plants. Bog plants are marginal plants that prefer very wet ground. They may be planted in pots and set on shelves inside the edge of the pond or planted in a separate shallow area outside the pond. Most bog plants may be put in water from 2 to 6 inches deep, but would prefer to grow in wet ground rather than standing water. These plants add to the overall pond landscape area, and are useful in concealing the mechanics of the pond, such as pumps and filters.

Fish help in the control of algae because they feed on it. As an added bonus, they also devour insect larvae, helping to minimize the mosquito problem. However, if you have moving water from a fountain or waterfall, this will prevent mosquito problems.

Too many fish or overfeeding the fish will cause too much waste in the pond. Feed your fish a balanced diet of fish flakes made for pond fish. Feed fish during sunlight hours, as their digestive system works faster when the water is warm. Feed them only as much as they can devour in about five minutes, because after that the flakes fall to the bottom of the pond and pollute. However, you may feed them two or three times a day.

Feed fish one teaspoon of flakes for every 10 fish. A word of caution - if you are going on vacation, do not have a neighbor or friend feed your fish. They are almost assured to overfeed. Goldfish can live on the algae in the pond and insects for two to three weeks.

When pond water temperature reaches below 50 degrees, you should stop feeding for the winter.

With fish in a pond, it is best to have a filter system. Filters give nature a boost, especially in smaller ponds. When you use a biological filter in addition to appropriate submerged plants such as anacharis, you neutralize harmful nitrites and ammonia that result from fish waste. Biological filters aerate, boost beneficial bacteria, and remove the suspended matter in the water that makes the water murky.

Despite all this, you may still have algae in your pond at times; however, there are all kinds of products to control algae as well as to clear up cloudy and murky water caused by dirt and debris. Just be sure to follow the instructions and use no more than is recommended for the number of gallons in your pond. It is best to use these products early in the day because they may reduce the amount of oxygen in the water. When used as directed, they are safe for fish and plants.

All ponds are different, just as all landscapes are different. You just have to experiment to find out the right balance and maintenance schedule for your pond. When you do achieve that balance you will have many hours of enjoyment from observing the fish and wildlife around your pond and hearing the sound of flowing water.

As an added feature, today's Lifestyle section includes a story of another master gardener intern who has succeeded in designing and installing a water garden that encompasses the whole east side of her yard. Be sure to read about how the liner was installed, the waterfall and center island were built, and the natural filtration system was designed.

Happy water gardening to you! Try "making a splash" in your landscape!