Imagine the cooling, soothing splash of a small waterfall or fountain... colorful water lilies bursting into bloom¹inquisitive birds stopping for a drink. If you think you have to travel to Hawaii to find this water-filled paradise, you're wrong. You can create a water garden in your own backyard.
Water gardening is environmentally sound since you can structure your garden so any foundations or pools you use recycle the water they use. Water gardening is also versatile and can be designed for a small section of a patio or balcony or a large area in your yard.
Although you don't need a lot of room for a water garden, location is important. Choose a spot that will get a moderate amount of sun (about five hours a day), and consider the views from inside the house.
You may want your water garden to sit squarely in the center of your patio, visible from several rooms in the back of your house. Or you could put the water garden near your bedroom, so you can fall asleep to the peaceful sounds of the bubbling water.
It is generally not a good idea to locate your water garden directly under trees because leaves and other debris will fall into the water. Shade also may not be suitable for some water plants.
Most water gardens consist of soil-filled containers that are submerged in water inside of larger, waterproof containers such as half barrels or plastic or fiberglass pools. For your garden, choose an outer container at least one foot deep. If it is more than one foot deep, use bricks or rocks to prop up plant containers, so they don't fall too far below the waterline in the outer container.
Be creative in selecting the outer container. For example, give your garden a southwestern flair by using a waterproof terra cotta pool. For an oriental motif use a big black marble vase. If you select a wine or whiskey barrel, line it with PVC sheeting to avoid problems from bacteria left in the wood during the fermentation process.
Another option is to put in a fountain or pool. Visit your garden center to see the range of shapes available in fiberglass pools. or create your own pool using a waterproof liner.
If your aquatic landscaping includes a small pond, avoid locating it in the lowest spot in the yard because the surface runoff may wash mud and other contaminants such as lawn fertilizers and pesticides into the pond.
A pond that is well-balanced with plant and animal life will not require filtration. The recommended size is a minimum of 40 square feet and eighteen inches deep with about 60 percent of the surface covered in aquatic plants. Choose from hardy water lilies, lotus, water hyacinth, water fern, and others.
A smaller pond will be subject to rapid and frequent temperature changes, resulting in excessive algae growth. It may be too small to support the fish and animal life needed to keep it healthy. If you don't have adequate space for a pond, consider a container or tub water garden or fountain or pool instead.
If you decide to build a complex water garden featuring an underground water line and drip stone, first call your local utility companies to make sure you will not be digging where power or gas lines are buried.
A wide variety of plants will flourish in a water garden, providing they get the proper amount of sunshine or shade. Ask the professionals at your local garden center for suggestions and advice on follow-up care. To plant, fill the inner container with garden loam and supplement with a slow-release fertilizer.
Finish off your water garden by arranging rocks and stones around the edges. Add a statue or two, some fish if there's room, then sit back and enjoy your new water garden!
Leonard Perry is the Extension Greenhouse and Nursery Crops Specialist at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vt.