Welcome Wildlife to Your Water Wonderland

Let your herb garden set the stage for pools, waterfalls and fountains that will attract wildlife, too.

water garden

Rick Wetherbee

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Having butterflies, birds and dragonflies in your yard is as simple as making a pot of tea: Just add water and wait. The sensory appeal of water not only adds soothing sights and sounds, but its presence becomes a magnet for all sorts of hoofed, winged and webbed wildlife. Whether your garden consists of potted herbs on the patio or a yard landscaped with beds and borders, make water an integral part of your garden design and you’ll have plenty to watch besides growing plants.

A water feature makes the most of any outdoor space, large or small. The water source doesn’t have to be a large pond or cascading waterfall to be mesmerizing or to attract wildlife. A simple water bowl, birdbath or bubbling urn can create a stopover that a variety of insects and birds will find appealing. Water will draw people as well, making the garden interesting and restful, and enlivening any area or bed it occupies.

Beginning with the type and size of water feature that best suits your needs, here are some factors to consider as you plan.

Water Works

Garden pools can be any shape or size, formal or informal, with depths ranging from 6 inches to 3 feet or more depending on your climate. (The deeper the pond, the more it will stand up to summer heat or winter freezes.) These pleasing pools also provide added appeal with an intriguing class of aquatic plants and moisture-loving herbs such as sweet flag (Acorus calamus), water figwort (Scrophularia auriculata) and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

Birds and butterflies will access the water’s outer edge, and you can make a large or deep pond more wildlife-friendly by placing a few partially submerged boulders or large tree branches in the deep areas so the critters have a convenient place to land. Floating plants with vegetation that skims the water’s surface — such as water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes), water lilies (Nymphaea spp.) and frogbit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae) — also make good landing pads for frogs, butterflies and beneficial insects.

Formal pools can be in-ground or raised and are typically defined by their geometric shapes and flat bottoms with straight sides edged with a hard paving material such as wood, tiles, brick or stone. Plants often are used like accessories in a formal living room — reserved with a sense of order. In contrast, informal pools or ponds have a more naturalistic feel due to their irregular borders and lush plantings that help blur the edges between water and landscape. With shallow and deep zones and sloping sides, informal ponds are generally more attractive to wildlife, luring birds and butterflies to drink and bathe along the shallow edges.

Waterfalls can be built from scratch or fashioned from plastic, fiberglass or pre-cast stone forms. A modest slope or natural hillside offers the ideal setting for installing a waterfall or stream. However, even fairly level ground can support a waterfall by using the soil from excavating your pond to build up a sloped terrain or knoll. The movement each creates — whether gentle or powerful — adds oxygen to the water and helps keep it fresh. And the lush plantings of ornamental grasses, alpine plants and herbs for damp soil such as astilbe (Astilbe spp.), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), bee balm (Monarda didyma) and New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) that border the edge offer an inviting buffet of seeds and nectar for birds and butterflies.

can spew forth a watery show and dazzle the senses. They are arguably the most versatile of water features, ranging from devices that emit water within a pool to decorative wall fountains and large self-contained statuaries that are works of art in themselves. Fountains in large basins also can double as a place to grow aquatic plants such as water parsley or water celery (Oenanthe spp.), water lettuce and miniature papyrus (Cyperus profiler). With so many different types to choose from, fountains can be used in nearly any garden design, come in just about every style and are sized to fit any space—whether that be a deck or patio, a simple garden bed or a grand landscape.

The sound of a fountain will attract birds, butterflies, rabbits and deer. You might even catch sight of a hummingbird or two buzzing back and forth as they bathe on the wing through the fountain’s spray.

Container water features are portable water gardens ideally suited to small spaces or for use as an accent in a border or bed. Small container water gardens also offer limited water use, which can be much more amenable to the environment and your water bill. Options are almost endless because just about anything watertight or that can be waterproofed can be turned into a self-contained water feature. Ceramic pots, old laundry tubs, half-barrels, or even a recycled commode can bring water into small spaces. Use larger containers to house aquatic plants as well as small goldfish. You also can create a waterfall effect by incorporating a series of waterproof containers at varying heights — such as a collection of watering cans. Water spills from one container to another into a bowl- or basin below, then rises through a tube to the uppermost watering can.

Conservative Water Use

When considering a water garden, please make responsible choices in the best interest of one of our greatest resources. Water use, especially in dry climates, can be limited by creating small, self-contained water features.  A birdbath or a tub garden offers wildlife-attracting beauty without water-guzzling side effects. If you choose to create a fountain, make sure the setup allows for recirculating the water rather than a constant flow of fresh water and continuous outlet or drain.

The Ripple Effect

Once you’ve settled on the type of water feature that best suits your needs, carefully consider the location. The amount of sun or shade an area receives, along with wind patterns, topography and distance from your home or garden can create a ripple effect of pleasure — or discontent. It’s far better to spend a little extra time in the planning stages than to end up with a poorly sited water feature that makes you grumble every time you think about it.

Pools or other water features that will include sun-loving aquatic plants are best located in a somewhat open area receiving at least five hours of sun daily. It’s especially important to locate garden pools far enough away from trees to avoid fallen leaf litter (methane gas, a byproduct of decomposition, can be harmful to fish) or traveling tree roots which can puncture the lining or cause damage to in-ground cement pools. The site should also be somewhat sheltered from strong winds that can affect the spray from a fountain or injure plants.

For the most visual opportunity, situate your water feature within view of a window, patio or deck. Perhaps you envision a secluded oasis with the water feature slightly hidden from view to evoke a sense of mystery. However, locating your water feature in an area that offers the most vantage points gives you more opportunities for frequent viewing and enjoying wildlife up close. Keep your binoculars at the ready.

When using a pump, you’ll want your fountain within easy access of an electrical source equipped with a ground-fault circuit interrupter, available at most hardware stores. Most water features also require access to a hose and water source to replenish what’s lost to evaporation. Other factors to consider include drainage or runoff that might affect the pond’s ecosystem, such as chemicals from a fertilized lawn. Remember to contact utility companies before digging to identify any electric or telephone cables, gas pipes or water pipes to ensure that you don’t damage them or place a heavy water feature directly over them.

Setting the Scene

A water feature can form the centerpiece around which a garden is designed or can accent a particular plant or grouping.  Each type of water feature creates a different aesthetic impact within a given space.

A pleasure pool (so-named because of its pleasure-giving existence) that looks spectacular as the focal point of a vista loses its impact when tucked into a tiny space. A more natural effect is achieved with an informal pool nestled into the surrounding landscape or built near the garden’s edge. Because waterfalls vary in size and magnitude from diminutive trickles to bold, dramatic drops, they can be adapted to suit almost any setting.

A courtyard garden, large patio or lawn is the ultimate setting for a formal pool equipped with a fountain. On its own, a fountain can serve as the focal point in a sheltered garden, an eye-catching backdrop that draws you into the landscape, or an element of surprise in a secluded corner of your yard. Wall fountains are ideal when placed near the entry, to dress up a deck or enliven a lackluster wall. Their appeal is further heightened when surrounded by climbing vines such as Virginia creeper, climbing roses, passionflower or honeysuckle, which also serve as convenient nesting and shelter sites for birds and butterflies. And the nectar-rich flowers appeal to hummingbirds, butterflies, moths and other insects.

While the location has a bearing on the type of water feature you choose, the overall design of your garden or space should influence the style of water feature you install. An informal pool may be the perfect complement to a cottage garden or woodland setting, whereas a formal pool is better suited to knot gardens and very structured beds.

Added accessories can further integrate a water feature into the existing design.  Stepping stones or a bark-covered path placed near an informal pool emphasizes the feel of a cottage garden or woodland retreat. Don’t forget to include a feeder to entice the birds to come visit regularly.


Kris Wetherbee enjoys watching the variety of wildlife that visit her Oakland, Oregon gardens. She is an avid organic gardener, wildlife enthusiast and author of the recently released book, Attracting Birds, Butterflies & Other Winged Wonders to Your Backyard (Lark Books, 2005 OR See Bookshelf,” Page 56).