The calming effect of the sight and sound of a waterfall or fountain may be enough motivation to create your own water garden. But what about also having a place to grow unusual plants and watch beautiful fish leisurely swim around? Soothing sounds of splashing water and blooming, floating plants such as water lilies are among the many reasons to add a water feature in your yard.
Creating a beautiful water feature is easier than you think. They can be large or small, in-ground or tabletop, inside or outside—accessible to those with yards or perhaps just a balcony. Whether it’s just a container of water or a full garden designed to show off fish, plants and even plant roots, your imagination is the only limit!
Basically, a water garden is a big aquarium. And like aquariums, you are creating a miniature ecosystem. The first important decision is choice of location. If you include plants, they will need sunlight, although an excess of sun will accelerate algae growth. If built in-ground, be sure it is level for proper drainage and filtration. Most ponds need electricity for pumps and fountains, so make sure you have an electrical connection nearby. Also take into consideration the reality that outdoor water gardens will accumulate leaves and debris that will sink, impacting the ecosystem and causing formation of muck at the bottom. Wildlife critters will also be attracted to your water garden, so make sure you have protected any fish or plants you do not want to be harmed.
You may have thought you found the right location with these tips in mind only to find that you cannot see the pond from the house. Be sure it is in a location where you will enjoy it every day. And please consider the safety of children and pets!
Basic Steps to Create a Water Garden
After selecting a location, you’ll need to determine the size of the water garden. You can opt for a container garden using large barrels, tubs or planters. If choosing a ceramic container, ideally find one with no drainage hole, although those holes can be caulked shut. Whether you decided on an in-ground pond or a container, your water garden will need a secure liner. Most liners are a heavy plastic material that can handle shifting rocks and other objects.
Before adding any water, arrange rocks and pebbles along the bottom to provide fish with hiding places. Multiple levels, either in the pond structure itself or created via added platforms as simple as an upended pot, allow for use of different potted plants. In addition, you will need to have your electrical components placed. It may be only a small pump, but it could also be a fountain and underwater lights. Take care to align these components so they do not shift after filling with water.
There are many potential plants to consider. Water gardens do best when including the three basic types of water plants: floating, submerged and edge plants. A sound water ecosystem should incorporate all three types. Not only are these plants good for the pond’s balance, they will also attract butterflies and other pollinators. The leaves of the plants shade the fish on hot days and help to prevent algae growth. Floating plants need no soil, as their roots obtain nutrients from the water. Many edge plants can be either in the water or out. Be careful to avoid any invasive aquatic plants. For example, water hyacinth, hydrilla and water spinach are prohibited plants in the State of Florida. The University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Science (UF/IFAS) houses the Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants. Search their website at www.IFAS.UFL.edu, where you will find useful, Florida-specific information. Additional information on prohibited aquatic plants is available at www.flrules.org, searching under regulation 5B-64.011.
Care and Maintenance
Just like any garden, water gardens require care and maintenance, even with a balanced ecosystem. Algae is considered a microscopic weed. Left unchecked, it can cause real damage to your water garden, killing fish and other plants. Algae requires sunlight and grows in water with excess nutrients. To prevent excess nutrients, be diligent and only fertilize plants if necessary, using a slow-release fertilizer. In addition, having too many fish and overfeeding them is a prime culprit in fostering algae growth.
A good rule of thumb is to try to maintain 40 to 60 percent plant coverage over the surface of the pond.
Preventing mosquitoes is another key consideration for any water garden. Mosquitoes like standing water, so having a pump to circulate the water is critical. If you have a small container garden with no pump, be prepared to flush out the water on a regular basis to kill the mosquito larvae. Gambusia are small native fish that eat mosquito larvae and can be a nice addition to your water feature as well. Another option are mosquito “dunks,” available at garden centers and online, which are added to the pond and release bacteria, killing the mosquito larvae.
When All Else Fails
So, you love your water feature, but feel overwhelmed by the maintenance? Thankfully, there are many resources available that can help. The UF/IFAS online portal includes specifics on water garden design and care at www.gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/design; search for “water gardens.”
There are many good sources online for inspiration, including YouTube and Pinterest. You may find that plant choices are difficult to find locally, although big box stores usually carry basic components to construct your garden. There are many places to buy suitable ceramic containers and order plants online.
Just as with lawn and pool care, there are also companies that provide maintenance, cleaning and repair of your pond. Rick Jensen, owner of Mystic Falls and Pond, LLC in North Port, has been servicing ponds all over Southwest Florida for more than 12 years. Jensen cites the number one mistake that pond owners typically make: having poor filtration systems, resulting in unwanted algae blooms and placing strain on other pond components, such as the piping. Because of our harsh summer weather, Jensen recommends a minimum once a year thorough cleaning of your pond to remove algae and restore the proper balance of bacteria and fish.
Jensen adds that doing your research upfront is vital to having a successful water garden. Check out his YouTube videos (Richard Jensen Sr.) and Facebook page (Mystic Falls & Ponds LLC) for guidance, or call (941) 456-8833.
A water garden is a wonderful ecosystem to cultivate and observe, and it is well worth the effort!
Water Garden Additions
These photos depict some of the most lovely, appropriate and available components for your Florida water garden. Aquatic plants suitable for the Southwest Florida climate can be difficult to find at local garden centers, but one of the largest sources in Florida is in Sarasota. Wonderful Water Lilies sells a variety of aquatic plants and products by appointment only. Visit www.WonderfulWaterLilies.com or call (941) 378-9146.
Fish: The most attractive fish for a water garden are called Koi, an informal group name for colored varieties of Amur carp, bred and kept for decorative purposes and easy to maintain. Major Koi color options include solid or patterned white, black, red, orange, yellow, blue and cream. The systematic breeding of colorful carp in Japan led to the wide range of colorations available worldwide today. They are sold in many pet aquarium shops, with higher-quality fish available from specialist dealers. If adding Koi, take that into consideration when determining pond size.
Water Lily: Water lilies are perhaps the most familiar pond plants, and they can add stunning glamour. These beautiful floating plants come in a variety of colors, such as lavender, pink, yellow or apricot. There are many hardy hybrids that grow well in the Florida climate.
Water lilies can be either night or day-blooming and can have a fragrant aroma. They grow from a rhizome or tuber and are usually in pots set a few inches deep in water. They are fast growers, rewarding you with beautiful blooms all season long.
Photo source: www.gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu
Louisiana Iris: A native iris, this beautiful plant comes in a variety of colors from blue, yellow, pink or white. They grow wild in ditches and bogs, making them an easy plant to grow in your home water garden. You can grow them in pots with large drainage holes that are placed in shallow water. Like all iris, they grow from rhizomes and bloom in the spring, growing into clumps over three feet wide. This Iris variety is best when grown in standing water.
Photo source: www.gardeningknowhow.com
Swamp Lily: A beautiful native lily that is excellent for water gardens, rain gardens or drainage swales is the Swamp Lily. It is related to the Crinum lily seen in many gardens. It is a large plant, with equally large bloms of fragrant, spidery white flowers.
Photo source: www.gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu Swamp Lily (Crinum americanum). ©Kerry Dressler, UF/IFAS