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Disappearing fountains
Rich Sacher Photo

 Water Features,
Water Gardens,
and Specialized Ponds

by Joel Police
New Haven, Indiana USA

Author’s 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 regions. 

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 today’s 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.

Wall/floor fountain
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 don’t want Niagara Falls’ thundering roar in your backyard when you seek a meadow stream’s tinkling whisper.

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 (sludge).

Water gardens expand on our feature’s theme by introducing the element of life. The aquatic ecosystem’s 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.

water garden
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 container’s 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 hyacinth.

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 bog’s marginal plants work as nature’s 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 this situation.

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 again.

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 pond naturally.

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. Don’t 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 newer installations.

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.

“Specialized ponds” 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.

* 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 rate.

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 sub-freezing weather.

< Introduction to this multi-part series
Your Water Garden

Planning: Location, Design, Action >
Materials and Components for your Pond >
Filtration Systems for Water Gardens and Koi Ponds >
Pumps > | Lighting >

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