Mother Earth Living

Water Rights: Create a Water Garden in Your Backyard

Always wanted a water view? Create your own destiny—simply and naturally— by building a water garden. Both you and the wildlife you attract will be glad you did.
By Kellie Sisson Snider
July/August 2003
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A water garden is a venue for you to relax, for plants to thrive, and for animals to gather. It can be designed as large, as small, and as creative as you have space and energy for. Visit aquascapedesigns.com for inspiration, products, and more water gardening literature.
Photo Courtesy Aquascape
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Water gardening is the art of luring nature’s beauty to your home. Lately the hobby has become mechanized, commercialized, and complicated, but it doesn’t have to be that way. People kept water gardens hundreds, even thousands, of years ago without expensive, labor-intensive equipment. It was done naturally and simply. It still can be. Today’s water gardens can be even simpler to keep than in days gone by if you are selective about what modern devices to use.

Why bother?

Water gardens attract natural pest predators. Frogs, toads, and garden snakes are likely to show up uninvited, but welcome them! They eat insects, grubs, and slugs—all those things your neighbors spray pesticides to get rid of. And if you worry about the pond attracting mosquitoes, relax. The fish in the water gobble up mosquito larva, while the toads and snakes make meals of the adults.

Also consider the auditory advantages of a water pool in your yard. The use of a solar or low-amp pump to power a waterfall or fountain creates white noise that softens the rumble of cars and other neighborhood sounds. This white noise isn’t just buzz—it’s the trickle of moving water, humankind’s favorite music.

Making the pond

Relax. Pull a lawn chair into the yard, look around, and decide where you’d most enjoy your water garden.

• The pond’s location should be visible from your favorite outdoor sitting spot as well as from indoors if possible.

• If you live in the North, position the pond in direct sunlight to make your growing season as long as possible. In the South, give it partial shade to keep the water cool enough for plants and fish and to discourage algae.

Contemplate. Decide how large you want it. Your space is the final arbiter. A pond can be any size from a large pot on your patio to an acre in your lower forty.

Choose a liner. The most commonly used liner, a sheet of rubber called EPDM, can be purchased in most home improvement or garden supply stores. Its disadvantages are weight, cost, and size restrictions. Permalon, a polyethelene membrane, is cheaper, lighter, and can be made to any size you order—without a seam—but you have to special order it.

Measure your liner. The liner’s width should equal the width of the pond opening plus the depth of the pond multiplied by two. Then you should add at least one foot of overhang times two. So, if your pond is five feet wide and two feet deep, your liner will need to be at least eleven feet wide. Use the same equation, plugging in the pond’s length, to figure the liner’s length.

Decide on the depth. If you keep goldfish, your pond needs to be only two feet deep in most parts of the United States, although deeper is better in colder climates. You want your pond to be deep enough that it doesn’t freeze solid in winter and that the lower reaches remain cool in summer.

Dig. Begin by digging the entire outline to a depth of about one foot, then move about twelve inches toward the center and dig to your full depth in the center. This method leaves you with a ledge around the perimeter for setting plants and rocks.

Protect the perimeter. Line the pond’s dirt bottom with old carpet scraps, an inch-thick layer of newspapers, an inch of sand, or other padding material to protect your liner from roots and rocks.

Roll out the liner. Center it as best you can.

Add water. Begin to fill the pond with water while you work the edges of the liner around into the best possible fit.

Create a rock border. When the pond is full, begin placing rocks around the edges. You may mortar them, but large stones can often be wedged into place without mortar so you can adjust their position for the perfect aesthetic. If you plan to have a waterfall, make a small hill of rocks at the desired location and drape an extra piece of liner over it so that it drops well into the water. Cover the liner with more rocks.

Position the pump. The pump should be placed in the deepest part of the pond, inside a bucket of pebbles that will filter the water. Run the hose from your pump up behind and under the rocks in your waterfall. The placement of the waterfall—rocks and hoses—requires adjusting until you get it right. I leave plenty of extra hose and run it out of the pond and behind the waterfall. Once I’ve adjusted it so the water cascades naturally, I secure it in place with rocks. The parts behind the waterfall are disguised in the plantings around the edge. Ideally, no water should splash outside the liner.

Plant your garden. Place water lilies in the depths of the pond and other plants around the ledge. Plant the area surrounding your pond thickly to make it look at home in its surroundings. Wait a week or two before adding fish.

Go for the goldfish

Common goldfish are inexpensive and hardy in all but the harshest weather.

My first goldfish were feeder fish purchased for eight cents each. My more experienced pond acquaintances warned me that feeder fish are sickly and weak, but mine grew to be a hearty foot long. They were quite beautiful, marked with red and white patterns called sarassa. My biggest problem was that they spawned so prolifically that my ponds were soon overwhelmed. I’ve since switched to fantail goldfish, which are less prolific and suitable for most ponds during the warmer months and in warm-climate ponds all year.

Nothing but net. If you keep only a few goldfish, cleaning can be as simple as scooping out fallen leaves and debris with a pool-skimming net every month or so and trimming dead leaves from your aquatic plants.

Put plants to work. Dig and line a long, narrow, shallow area next to your pond for bog plants such as Japanese or Siberian iris, taro, canna lilies, horsetail rush, or pickerel weed. Use a low-amp or solar-powered pond pump to circulate pond water through this channel so that after running past the plants’ roots, it re-enters the main pond. This is a better filter than any you can buy.


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