Rich Sacher Photo
and Specialized Ponds
by Joel Police
New Haven, Indiana USA
Authors Note: My articles serve only as general
reference for prospective and new water gardeners. They represent
my perspective as a water gardener and business owner. Midwest
conditions influence my views that may not apply in other geographic
What is a water garden? If gardening is cultivating ground, then
water gardening is cultivating water. To me, a water garden is
a beautiful aquatic ecosystem that you cultivate. Water gardening
involves the care and nurturing of an aquatic ecosystem. Confusion
often arises with words like pond, water feature, fountain, bog,
and koi pond in the same context as water garden. To avoid confusion,
I divide this article into the following topics: water features,
water gardens, and specialized ponds.
Water features have a long history
dating back to ancient civilizations. People in any civilization
readily appreciate the sight and sound of water. They go to great
lengths to include fountains and reflecting pools in public and
private spaces. Modern societies value the soothing, calming
effect of water; this helps explain todays vast array of
garden fountains, wall fountains, indoor fountains, tabletop
fountains, and fountain accessories. Add assorted bowls, basins,
pottery, bamboo, millstones, and statues involving water and
you have countless choices of water features.
Basic water features offer simple setup, relatively low cost,
and easy maintenance. A freestanding fountain or a bowl and fountain
combination quickly introduces the sound of water to your living
space. Check with your local garden center or water garden retailer
to see their offerings. With a shovel and a level, you can install
a fountain unit rather easily. Ask the salesperson for installation
tips; always inquire about care instructions.
Protect pottery and concrete pieces from freeze damage in
cold climates. Re-level them if the ground shifts or settles.
Clean on a regular basis to prevent algae and debris buildup.
Birds make a mess if they use your fountain as a birdbath. Environmentally
friendly products control foaming, algae, scale, and mosquitoes
in fountains. Consider an outdoor timer to limit electrical consumption.
Always use a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) with a pump.
On a larger scale, consider a disappearing waterfall. Essentially
a scaled up fountain, think of it as a pond-free water feature.
Without having to install a pond and manage its fish, plants,
and algae, promoters claim it is a breeze to maintain. It creates
a much greater sound and visual impact than a small fountain
provides. Of course, the total price is usually higher than a
fountain since a disappearing unit typically involves additional
landscaping to integrate it properly into your landscape.
Rich Sacher Photo
Use a do-it-yourself kit or call a professional installer.
While not as simple as a fountain, a pondless waterfall unit
is a straightforward system. Remember to use a GFCI outlet or
circuit for the pump. Consider water source location when choosing
a site. Finally, match the pump size to the desired sound to
achieve your planned effect. You dont want Niagara Falls
thundering roar in your backyard when you seek a meadow streams
Like a fountain, a disappearing waterfall re-circulates a
limited water supply. Therefore, regularly monitor algae and
debris in it. Maintain a steady water level to avoid pump damage
or failure. A timer, low water shutoff switch, and automatic-fill
valve ease operational concerns. Nevertheless, make periodic
checks making sure everything runs smoothly. An advantage of
a disappearing unit is less (not no) maintenance.
Operate your pondless unit year round in any climate. In freezing
weather, the pump must run continuously to avoid damage from
ice*. If you discontinue operating the unit during winter, remove
it to a non-freezing area. As with fountains, use environmentally
friendly additives to control algae and reduce debris buildup
Water gardens expand on our features
theme by introducing the element of life. The aquatic ecosystems
vibrancy transforms a sterile water feature into a dynamic water
garden. Moving from a feature to a garden, you strive for a healthy
environment for a wide variety of organisms.
Water gardens can take many of the same forms as water features.
A few water hyacinths added to a bowl-and-fountain unit create
a different look and feel to a space. Not only do plants add
color through the foliage and blooms, but butterflies, bees,
and dragonflies become regular visitors. While water gardens
exist in many types and forms, here I consider three categories
for our discussion.
Kit Knotts Photo
The first type of water garden utilizes a physical vessel
to contain the water volume, hence the name container garden.
Consider any watertight item you wish for a container garden.
You may use a pump (optional) to circulate the water. The amount
and type of plants depend on the containers size. Water
volume determines the size and number of goldfish to stock safely.
Exercise care to avoid any container made of material potentially
toxic or harmful to plants or fish.
Small container gardens enable homeowners to begin water gardening
with limited space and budget. These miniature ecosystems contain
many components larger water gardens have. They rarely use a
filtration system. The small water volume can benefit gardeners
raising tropical lilies and lotuses. Since daytime water temperature
rises higher in little container gardens, certain plants may
thrive better in them.
Container water gardens introduce many people to water gardening.
Tasteful pottery (with blocked drainage holes) makes a welcome
habitat for a waterlily, a few marginals, and a peacefully floating
For the green thumb seeking a bigger challenge, consider a
bog garden. It removes the constraints of containers
and limited volume to create a managed wetlands area.
While bog gardens cannot support waterlilies or fish due to
the lack of sufficient water depth, they can make an amazing
showplace for a wide variety of marginal plants. In addition,
bog gardens attract a variety of wildlife that adds as much interest
as the plants do. A bog can exist independently or as an addition
to a conventional water garden. While most bog gardens use flexible
liner construction, you can transform naturally wet ground into
an impressive bog garden.
Besides beautifying the landscape, bogs perform environmental
benefits. They reduce runoff and help limit erosion by binding
the soil together with their extensive root system. Some homeowners
employ bogs to disguise leech fields for septic systems. The
bogs marginal plants work as natures highly effective
filter. Finally, bogs make habitat for wildlife.
Bog gardens require the least maintenance of water features
and water gardens discussed in this article. Pruning, thinning,
and dividing plants encourage vigorous growth. Pay attention
to invasive marginals that strive to take over the bog. During
long dry periods, natural bogs might require watering to prevent
plant damage. Remember that bogs can be a mosquito breeding ground.
Use an environmentally friendly aquatic insecticide to address
Water garden systems combine a container water
garden with a biological filter. What most people call a pond
is actually a water garden. I define a pond as a small body of
still water; the average garden pond is 10' x 12' (3 x 3.7 m)
with a volume of 2000 gallons (7500 l). Use a pump to generate
water movement that adds oxygen to the system. Oxygenation improves
water quality, promotes beneficial bacteria growth that breaks
down waste and sludge, and encourages a healthy environment for
fish and other wildlife.
Biological interaction between plants, fish, and beneficial
bacteria distinguishes a complex water garden from simpler container
water gardens and bogs. Called the nitrogen cycle, the interaction
involves water chemistry and aquatic biology. Given time, this
natural process develops in any water garden. Technology can
reduce the time factor.
The common thread for most water gardens is using equipment
to enhance filtration and oxygenation. Skimmers, biofilters,
and aeration -- including waterfalls, streams, fountains, piped
statuary -- encourage the nitrogen cycle. The nitrogen cycle
involves many scientific principles and processes. However, a
simple explanation suffices here. Fish produce waste, beneficial
bacteria convert waste to a form plants absorb, plants take up
the nutrients, and fish eat the plants to continue the cycle
Remove any part of the cycle and the chain stops. If the water
garden has too many fish, or too little bacteria, or insufficient
plants, problems occur (low dissolved oxygen, foul water, and
stressed fish in each case). Notice that plants play a vital
function in the cycle. Floating plants, submerged varieties,
and marginals provide the key to swinging the water garden back
to equilibrium if other factors get out of balance.
Two distinct schools of thought address maintaining a balanced
water garden. One technique seeks a balanced water garden with
equipment and additives. Skimmers, biofilters, UV clarifiers,
settling chambers, bottom drains, and other devices exist to
keep a water garden ecosystem clean and stable. The other school
favors minimal equipment use. This method relies instead on a
well-planned aquatic plant and fish selection to balance the
Regardless of which method you agree with (or some combination
of both), the trick remains keeping your water garden healthy
and balanced. This is not always as easy as it sounds, no matter
what equipment or plants you use. One of the great, sometimes
stressful, challenges for many water gardeners is keeping algae
growth in check. Beneficial bacteria start growing and thriving
as the water temperature rises above 55° F (13° C). However,
algae begin growing at lower water temperatures. They usually
turn the water green before beneficial bacteria begin their work
within the nitrogen cycle.
This leads us to the area of maintenance. Any water garden
requires frequent observation to ensure the health of the ecosystem.
Dont rely on equipment or plants alone as the cure-all
solution for every water garden ill. You must clean skimmers
and filters, remove debris, seed bacteria in the spring, prune
and divide plants, monitor water chemistry, and add or change
water as needed. Once in balance, a water garden requires less
work and gives genuine enjoyment. In a mature water garden, maintenance
tends to be proactive instead of reactive to problems faced in
Most installers today build water garden systems with flexible
liners and a standard skimmer and biofilter setup. Other new
water gardens systems include preformed units, PVC liners, concrete-
or fiberglass-formed excavations, and the conversion of existing
structures like swimming pools or stock tanks into water gardens.
Rather than using commercially available filters and skimmers,
you may design and build your own filtration systems. Refer to
extensive information readily available in books and on web sites.
Many ways exist to design and build a water garden system.
Future articles cover various components and materials to use.
Then make the decision that best fits your situation.
is a misnomer since I stated that a pond contains still water.
Yet, saying, specialized water garden is less accurate
since, to keep the system in balance, mechanical means often
supplant nature. You build a specialized pond -- a koi pond being
the most well known -- to meet a specific need such as re-circulating
filtered water. Equipment controls the ecosystem instead of merely
working with it.
Koi put a heavy demand on an ecosystem. Many koi enthusiasts
counter their bio load (fish waste) with extremely efficient
filtration networks powered by high volume pumps. You recognize
a koi pond as the farthest thing from still water once you analyze
the filtration units. High water turnover and flow-through rates
are vital to healthy koi. Their pond construction usually involves
concrete or fiberglass-impregnated concrete walls and floor with
integrated bottom drains, water intakes, and returns.
Sometimes koi, especially larger ones, eat ornamental aquatic
plants. Many owners learn this the hard way. Most serious koi
keepers either do not grow aquatic plants in their koi ponds
or else limit their use to protected areas or a separate water
garden. With this limitation on plant participation in the nitrogen
cycle, it becomes obvious why koi ponds require so much filtration.
To support the overload of fish relative to plants in the system,
the only way to balance the equation is to maximize filtration.
A well-constructed koi pond not only a delights the eye, but
is also an engineering marvel. A dedicated owner -- one committed
to stringent maintenance and monitoring of all relevant equipment
-- accounts for the clean, healthy water.
Other specialized ponds include displays in botanical gardens,
custom-built indoor ponds in homes, and commercial designs in
malls, offices, and other public places. These units dedicate
large spaces for filtration units that depend on mechanical filtration
as much as, if not more than, on biofiltration.
Kit Knotts Photo
These specialized ponds are perhaps the most misunderstood
among water features, water gardens, and ponds due to their complex
construction and potentially high cost. However, I consider them
a relevant part of water gardening even though relatively few
of us ever own a specialized pond.
I hope that
my article makes water gardening a little clearer. The numerous
names and terms you find in literature, the internet, and general
conversation can be confusing. Nevertheless, as you learn, you
can easily distinguish between water features, water gardens,
and specialized ponds. More importantly, knowing what you aim
to achieve with your own use of water helps you choose what to
build. Regardless of type, style, size or location -- public
or private -- water features stimulate the senses.
Remember to match your ultimate objective to your buying decisions.
If the sound of trickling water coupled with minor maintenance
is your goal, do not be talked into an elaborate water garden.
On the other hand, if you must have waterlilies and fish, a bog
will not do the job either. Be honest, know your expectations,
and then learn and plan how to achieve those expectations to
maximize your satisfaction.
to this multi-part series
* Editor's note: A power outage during freezing
weather may result in ice-caused damage. Water that freezes inside
the water line forms a plug that blocks the pump from re-circulating
the water. Operating without being able to move water through
the blocked water line can damage a pump.
How long does it take to freeze a water line?
It is highly variable. Freezing the line depends on temperature,
water line diameter, and water pressure/flow rate of water through
the line. Each of the following factors mean quicker freezing:
lower temperature, smaller diameter water line, lower water pressure/flow
If you are at home when power fails during
freezing weather, after a few minutes (since power often returns
within a few minutes) remove your pump to a frost-free area.
Make sure that all water drains out of the water line so that
it does not break as ice forms inside of it.
If you live where winter brings freezing weather,
check with your manufacturer or retailer to see if your pump
and water line can survive an unexpected power failure during
Your Water Garden
Planning: Location, Design,
Materials and Components
for your Pond >
Filtration Systems for Water Gardens
and Koi Ponds >
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