You may want to dip your toes in here first!
Joel offers his own experiences and things to consider before
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, Im 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
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 gardenings 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
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 didnt 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
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 dont 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 thats as far as their water gardening adventures
takes them. Fine. Wonderful. They enjoy spending time on an activity
that gives satisfaction.
Hindsights 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
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. Whats
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 librarys gardening section. Now you
can enjoy your water garden immediately without all that pesky
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. Youve 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.
Simply put, the solution lies with you. Its your yard,
your time, and your money. I cant 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
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. Its 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.
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
Caveat Emptor (let the buyer
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 gardenings growing popularity has just begun.
Misleading installation and product information from greedy contractors
profiteering on their advertised maintenance-free-serenity threatens
water gardenings 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
Im not saying you cant 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 its
worth the effort.
Consider hiring a professional installer if you cant
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 gardenings 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 whats 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, youll find
it easier and easier to cut through the hype and identify dealers
and service providers you trust.
Feel free to take issue with what youve 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.
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