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 For Beginners

You may want to dip your toes in here first!
Joel offers his own experiences and things to consider before starting

Your Water Garden

by Joel Police
New Haven, Indiana USA

Just as a water garden constantly grows and matures, so does our desire to learn and better understand water gardening dynamics. With this in mind, I’m sharing my tale of initiation and subsequent learning. The dual goals of this article are (1) to offer novice water gardeners insight as they figuratively dip their toes into the pond and (2) to serve as a call to discuss a serious issue threatening water gardeners.

We are all bound together by a common interest in water gardening. We enjoy tending an aquatic-based ecosystem hoping it not only grows but thrives. Like the child who sows sunflower seeds and takes great pride when the flowers tower above her, we achieve that satisfying feeling when our favorite waterlily blooms or the neighbors marvel at the finest Kohaku koi they have ever seen.

Talk with experienced water gardeners and soon you hear their personal tale of what drew them into this hobby. Striking magazine pictures, arresting newspapers articles, and captivating TV programs featuring water gardens lure many. Family and friends constantly introduce folks to the water gardening’s pleasures.

Dedicated innovators with names like Slocum, Strawn, McLane, Knotts, and Presnell, have worked tirelessly to enhance water gardening, thereby attracting countless thousands to our hobby. Without people like these making remarkable advancements in the field, far fewer of us would have stories to share about how we started.  

My Initiation Tale

My water gardening introduction traces back to an Alaska vacation trip years ago. While hiking through a bird refuge, I stumbled upon a hidden water garden. Nestled into a broad expanse of shrubs, small trees, and ornamental grasses, an Oriental gazebo overlooked a tranquil lily pond fed by a natural stream. I didn’t immediately comprehend the significance of my discovery.

Soon after my Alaska trip, a friend offered the “opportunity” to help build his backyard pond. With shovels in hand we started without sketching a design. After all, you just dig a hole and put in a liner. Right? Long story short, he quickly tired of the project and I ended up building something resembling a water garden.

My engineering marvel included three aluminum-covered Styrofoam panels liberated from a local frozen foods factory, a variety of two-by-fours, and plywood found in a shed, all capped with rock from a nearby river escarpment. The pond sat in a deeply sloped, shady corner of the lowest point in the yard.  

I used an undersized pump for a little waterfall, no filtration, and no provision for potted plants. At least I waited twenty-four hours for chlorine to escape dissipate. Then I was so excited with my masterpiece that I rushed out and gave a dozen goldfish a new home. Interestingly, the goldfish outlived the pond that was demolished six months later to make room for a new garage.


But don’t be hasty judging the outcome! I enjoyed that first pond and became a happy water gardener. No one bestowed a “Master Water Gardener” title on me. Nevertheless, I became thoroughly involved in the hobby, gained valuable experience at little expense, and related positively with fellow water gardeners. For some that’s as far as their water gardening adventures takes them. Fine. Wonderful. They enjoy spending time on an activity that gives satisfaction.  

Hindsight’s Essential Questions

Had I researched what I was undertaking in that backyard, I would have realized my lack of two essentials. First, I lacked the “how to” knowledge of building a water garden. Second, I had no handy source providing needed information. It was simpler to just dig first, ask later. Like myself, many people enter water gardening with that “dig first, ask later” approach, unfortunately including many landscapers and “professional installers.”

So you write out a list of questions, surf the web, hit the local library for a quick tour of pond books, and maybe stop by to pester the kid selling water hyacinth at Home Depot. What’s so difficult about that?

Alternately you call a truly reliable expert (check references), your local landscaper, and turn the project over to him. He builds ponds all the time; and you have more important things to do than hang out in the library’s gardening section. Now you can enjoy your water garden immediately without all that pesky research.

Pretend you do follow my do-it-yourself advice -- completing your research and developing a thoughtful plan. Now you are ready to build a water garden. You already grow a garden and maintain your landscaping. You understand zones, microclimates, annuals, perennials, etc. You’ve probably dug in the yard and have a good idea about your soil type, the amount of work it takes to excavate a few tons of earth, and what you are going to do with that fill. The garden hose easily reaches the site and your son-in-law will install power to the site. No sweat so far. It seems easier than you thought.

But you still must plan the plant element of water gardens. Consider what plants to grow. Are they zone appropriate? If not, are you prepared to buy new ones every year? How long a growing season do you have? Do you have enough hot days to get that spectacular lotus to bloom? Will oppressive summer heat cause that marsh marigold to wither and die? Have you picked out a plant list based on looks instead of how the plants perform in your specific environment? Do you have full sun or partial shade? What about algae? Use planting pockets or pots? Do you need oxygenators -- if so, how many? How many waterlilies are suitable?

Think about non-plant factors like safety, filtration, pumps, fish, scavengers, construction techniques, and location. The many questions raised and the resulting research becomes daunting. So what is the answer? Spend a year reading every book written and browse every site on the internet related to water gardening? Or rely on that friendly neighborhood retailer or garden center with a pond department to steer you in the right direction? Maybe scan the yellow pages and call the company with the biggest ad under the water garden heading?

Bottom line -- someone, you or the contractor, must ask and correctly answer oodles of essential questions for the water feature to succeed.

Your Solution

Simply put, the solution lies with you. It’s your yard, your time, and your money. I can’t say precisely what you must do to become a successful water gardener. I, and others much more experienced than I, can offer advice, knowledge, tips, and support. You determine your goals and how much time and money to invest.

As humorous as my own initiation into water gardening was, it illustrates a vital point. My minimal investment yielded a minimal result (but great delight, nevertheless). With proper understanding, my investment could have yielded a maximum result with greater delight for friends and me. It’s quite another matter when first-timers pay unscrupulous “professional installers” tens of thousands of dollars for rock-filled ponds that fail after a year or two.  

Accurate Information

Individually we must choose how deeply to assimilate our hobby into our lives. That choice affects how much time we invest in researching. Not everyone maintains a personal library with every relevant website bookmarked. Yet we all have one profound trait in common. We decide what goals our water garden must meet and then proceed to satisfy those goals.

Even the individual who digs without planning makes an implicit decision regarding goals. No right or wrong answers exist when it comes to this decision. For some, a twenty gallon tub garden on the patio is a dream come true. Others must have a state of the art backyard oasis. Reflect carefully on exactly what goals you expect your water garden to fulfill.

We require accurate, reliable information as a basis for contemplating decisions. Sources include advertising, books, articles, seminars, internet, and reports from friends, family, and co-workers. Without correct information, our expectations may be unrealistic (cost, maintenance free* claim, blooming period, etc.) and the outcome disappointing. Look around your house and see products that failed to meet expectations and now clutter shelves, closets, and the garage.  


 Caveat Emptor (let the buyer beware) Claims

What can be done to prevent the conflict between expectations and expenditures in water gardening? First, research with an open, questioning mindset. Be watchful for unscrupulous manufacturers and installers who promise a maintenance free pond using their equipment or having their system installed.

Talk with experienced water gardeners. Many can rattle off a list of companies they think take liberties with the truth about describing supposed advantages of their products. I fear that damage inflicted by deceitful parties looking to cash in on water gardening’s growing popularity has just begun. Misleading installation and product information from greedy contractors profiteering on their advertised maintenance-free-serenity threatens water gardening’s traditional tranquil image.

Caveat emptor means that consumers on their own must acquire accurate information to offset deceptive hype. Popular TV shows and other media mislead consumers when they focus on unbelievably easy water garden installation and maintenance.


Speed a Factor

Our steadily increasing thirst for speed compounds the situation. Installers advertise ponds built in a day. Consumers put aside their caution when the contractor assures them the “system” or “cycle” addresses any potential downside from quick installation.

I’m not saying you can’t build a pond in a day and have a healthy ecosystem. What I am saying is you stand a much better chance of enjoying a healthy problem free** water garden if you design it properly instead of buying a so-called “system.” Notice I said problem free, not maintenance free. Anyone who suggests that an intricate ecosystem is maintenance free either intends to deceive the consumer or has bought into the hype themselves in a blind pursuit of financial gain.

Keep expectations realistic by talking with active water gardeners, joining a club or group, subscribing to a water garden journal, and remembering that TV shows and pictures you see display idealized ponds. I have uttered many unprintable words creating a picture-perfect water garden. It takes hard work and perseverance, but it’s worth the effort.

Consider hiring a professional installer if you can’t do it yourself. Still, the aforesaid homework advice applies. Unscrupulous installers have enough knowledge about water gardening to spot an uninformed homeowner. Why can some installers charge and receive exorbitant amounts for the ponds they build? Because they sell an expectation and the more they convince a homeowner how amazing that expectation will be, the more the price rises.

This is not an indictment of capitalism, but suggests that most consumers are uneducated about water gardening. Water gardening suffers because too many “professionally installed” ponds fail (despite all those others that succeed). For most, disappointment comes when they discover how much work it takes to keep that “maintenance free” pond looking like day one. During four years as a conscientious water garden professional, I regularly receive calls from pond owners distraught by a “professionally installed” pond failing to match advertised expectations.

Water garden pleasures quickly fade when facing an algae-choked rock pile requiring hard work to clean and additional expenses to rectify installer mistakes. Under these circumstances, many gardeners throw up their arms in frustration and remove their pond. Dissatisfied consumers are not shy about voicing their displeasure to anyone who listens. Professional installers’ image suffers each time a “professionally installed” pond requires redesign or repair by a competent professional. So does water gardening’s image.  


Sadly, unhappy pond owners tell me their installer supplied no information on maintenance and cleaning tasks necessary to keep the pond healthy. When I began installations, I knew firsthand exactly what’s was involved with upkeep. My designs always reflect this, and my customers understand it also! Who enjoys cleaning ponds? I find great enjoyment designing and installing features that avoid pond cleaning.

The good news is that many manufacturers, suppliers, and installers do provide excellent services and products worth every penny they charge. Like any other industry, you find the bad with the good. Those that shine tend to let their work and products speak for themselves without making ridiculous claims and promises. As your water gardening education progresses, you’ll find it easier and easier to cut through the hype and identify dealers and service providers you trust.  

Answering Questions

Feel free to take issue with what you’ve read. I write these thoughts because not long ago, I was a novice in need of a crash course in water gardening. I was excited about jumping into water gardening with both feet. Today I am even more excited with water gardening and resources like Water Gardens International that add fuel to my fire.

The sooner we stop responding to fancy catch phrases and unrealistic expectations, the faster the industry will grow based on accurate and accessible consumer information. Until then, expect to see continued skimming (!) of consumers wanting to enjoy our hobby but lacking sufficient knowledge to make the best decisions.

Take advantage of reliable resources; share your thoughts and opinions. Write letters to the editor explaining what you think about the troubling issues this article raises. None of us can afford to stop discussing, questioning and debating these issues. Otherwise we interrupt the learning process.

What are we going to do about these challenges? Let us all work together, strive to further our knowledge, and advance our understanding of our hobby. Answers will come from each one of us as long as we are open to learning, share our experiences, and set realistic expectations.

* maintenance free - term some installers and manufacturers use meaning no action is necessary by the owner to control pond health; to imply no action whatsoever, including cleaning filters, removing debris, testing ph, etc., is required by the owner.

** problem free - no algae blooms, ph crashes, fish kills, etc. a pond that achieves a healthy balance requiring no owner action beyond routine maintenance and proper cares.

Water Features, Water Gardens, and Specialized Ponds >
Planning: Location, Design, Action >
Materials and Components for your Pond >
Filtration Systems for Water Gardens and Koi Ponds >
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