An Oasis in Your Own Backyard

One of the hazards of being a landscape contractor is, after completing a really interesting project for a customer, standing back to admire your handiwork and thinking, “I’ve gotta get me one of these!” Such a thing happened to us a few summers ago when we installed a water garden for a client, creating a wonderful focal point for an already interesting garden.  The combination of water coursing down a stream and over a series of waterfalls, the sound of that water splashing into the pond below, lush aquatic plants flourishing in the pool during an otherwise hot and arid summer and the calm effect of fish gliding about just under the pond surface was a revelation to me of the type of physical impact a water garden can have.

We therefore had high expectations when installing our own, attempting to turn a barren patch of driveway into a vibrant and vital feature near the main entrance to our home. The result of our efforts, a 2,200-gallon aquatic oasis, happily exceeded our visions.

Although water gardens can vary greatly in size and complexity, they all consist of the same basic elements: wat­er, plants and fish. We chose a method that was fairly simple and straightforward mechanically but allowed us to create as natural a look as possible by using boulders, rocks and gravel to disguise the heavy rubber liner, plastic skimmer box and biological filter. This is a simple recirculating system where the pond water flows into the skimmer and is pumped to a filter box that purposefully overflows and returns the water to the pond. The skimmer acts to catch leaves and other solid debris, the filter traps still more waste while beneficial bacteria in the filter media work to decompose and render that waste harmless. As the water flows from our filter back to the pond, it drops 16 inches or so, creating a waterfall that helps to aerate the water. While this is a closed system, the inclusion of water plants, fish and bacteria together help to create a relatively self-sustaining ecosystem and with this we have been able to maintain nearly crystal clear water.

Make Your Own Jungle
If you enjoy gardening and growing plants as much as I do, you will discover a whole new world of plants that grow in and around a water garden. Differing textures and colors, a lushness and rate of growth that is not possible here in this area with land plants, movement of foliage not just by wind but by fish and water currents; these are elements of aquatic plantings that make the water garden such an interesting endeavor. The water lily, probably the most popular and recognizable of aquatic plants, is available in a vast array of cultivars. We have only grown hardy varieties, ones that will survive the winter in our pond, and have had great success with them although they do tend to bloom only during the day when most of us are at work. Another deep-water plant, one that will lend a more tropical quality to the garden is the lotus. Large round leaves and showy flowers held high above the water are a prelude to the lotus seed pod, familiar to many for its use in dried flower arrangements. We decided not to utilize any lotus in our pond, as they are known to be aggressive growers. Both of these plants, though, can play an important role in the ecology and functioning of the pond as the large leaves shade the water, preventing the water from receiving too much sunlight while providing protective cover for the pond fish.

Just as interesting to me as the lotus and lily are the shallow water and marginal plants. This is where the real artistry of planting a watergarden is involved, as these plants grow around the borders of the pond, helping to blend the waterscape into the surrounding gardens, softening the boundaries of the pool, providing many additional textures and colors. Favorites of ours include pickerelweed, with its deep purple flower spikes, arrowhead and arrow arum with their (what else?) arrow-shaped foliage, sedges with grass-like foliage, needle-thin rushes, the exotic looking pennywort and true forget-me-not with its clouds of dainty blue flowers and gracefully trailing, bright green foliage. We also include tropical floating plants, such as water hyacinth and water lettuce, that float about the water surface propelled either by gentle breezes, water currents or playful fish.

A personal, sentimental, favorite of mine is spearmint, the fragrance of which stirs childhood memories of playing around my grandfather’s fishpond, one that he built back in the 1930s. In fact, the spearmint plants we have by our watergarden all originate as transplants from a boggy overflow area by that very pond.

Pond Pets Join the Family
Fish are an essential component in our water garden, providing not only a vivid kinetic presence but also as a major component of the ecosystem, by consuming insects and algae while their wastes benefit the bacteria and plant-life. We originally planned on stocking the water garden with koi, a large and multicolored Japanese relative of goldfish, considered by many people to be the most desirable of pond fish. However, when a neighbor offered a bucketload of eight inch-long goldfish rescued from a leaky farm pond, we gladly accepted the free bounty. They have actually turned out to be a complete joy, being graceful and playful swimmers, sociable (coming to eat out of your hand when called) and interactive, allowing themselves to be picked up and petted. We did purchase some inexpensive koi locally on Mother’s Day 2003, and though they were only 2 to 3 inches long then, most are now over 10 inches, and we expect that they may reach 18 inches in length by the end of this summer.  It is truly difficult to describe the sense of majesty that one of these large and colorful fish exhibits as it glides about the pond.

I vowed at the outset that we would not be naming any of our fish as we had heard many people do. Well, we now have “Elvis” and “Roscoe” and “Calico.” In our defense, it is easier to point and exclaim, “Look at Twinkie!” than to say, “Look at the golden yellow one with the creamy white markings!” And yes, we have developed an emotional attachment to them – so much so that when that most dreaded predator of pond fish showed up, the Great (curse word) Blue (curse word) Heron, we all go on full alert as these stealthy and crafty birds can easily wipe out an entire fish population within a visit or two. If you happened to be driving through Bristol at daybreak last September and saw some guy sitting on a rooftop in a red metal folding chair (in the rain), that would have been me. Likewise, that was also me running down the driveway yelling and waving my arms trying to drive the (curse word) bird off. Before I left for work that day we completely covered the surface of the water with a fine black plastic netting, protecting the fish from the heron and our neighbors from my alarming behavior. One of the goals this year is to develop a physical barrier that is artistic and decorative by itself that will allow us to freely enjoy all areas of the water garden while providing a level of safety for our fish and peace of mind for us.

Just How “Maintenance Free” Is It?
Aside from the visual impact on our landscape that we were hoping to achieve with the water garden, I personally was interested in learning the realities of water garden care, as this type of feature is often marketed as “care-free” or “low-maintenance.” In my mind, the truth is that the level of care required is best described as a “stewardship,” a higher degree of vigilance and responsibility than for any other common landscape feature, due in large part to the inclusion of the pond fish. While goldfish and koi may be able to self-subsist by eating algae and the like, at least a cursory glance is needed every day to check on water quality. Spent blossoms and leaves from lilies may need to be removed, algae may need to be harvested by hand, beneficial bacteria often needs to be added, additional water may be needed, filters and skimmers require periodic cleaning. Not all of these need to be done every day, but as I said, attention is needed as there is a rapid, daily change of the garden throughout the growing season.

Actually, it is that dynamic and ever-changing quality that makes water gardening so enjoyable for us. Most of these daily changes are positive and welcome: the discovery of the first frog or salamander, “interesting” fish behavior resulting in the appearance of swarms of offspring, the ephemeral nature of the lily blooms. Care-free? Probably not.

Boring? Never.

I certainly don’t mean to dissuade anyone from water gardening by virtue of the last paragraph. I think that if you truly enjoy gardening or are pet- or nature-oriented, you would probably find a water garden as fulfilling as we do. All of the maintenance issues be­come a labor of love.

It is difficult to convey the mixture of emotions that we associate with our water garden. We’re proud of a job well done, delighted by the wonderment on a child’s face when he or she sees the pond for the first time, and satisfied when adult visitors relax by the water as we do. We enjoy the almost hypnotic melding of sights and sounds, and conclude that any time spent by a water garden is time well spent.


by Del Cronise
Del Cronise, of Cronise Landscape & Design, works throughout the Finger Lakes region. Call him at (585)229-4776 or visit his website at www.croniselandscape.com.