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Gardening With Water

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 21, 2010

I don't live on a lake or own streamfront property, so, I decided to do the next best thing. I brought water to me.

I couldn't afford the installation or upkeep of a pond or pool, nor do I have the space. Instead, I put in a water garden. Water gardens can be installed in a weekend and, if done properly, will provide years of pleasure - and you can do it on a budget.

First, decide what you want, and how much time and money you're willing to invest. You can plan a shallow garden for salamanders and birds or a larger, deeper garden for plants, fish and other wildlife.

Then decide the location. Your garden needs to receive a bare minimum of 3 hours of sunlight, preferably 6 - the more the better. Cleaning leaves and branches can be a chore, so you'll want to stay away from any overhanging trees. How about visibility? Will you view it from inside the house, a deck or the ground? Make sure you can see it when you want.

Having a level spot that doesn't receive much run-off also is important. If the area is often wet, your pond could literally end up "floating away" during a heavy rainfall. Finally, you'll need access to electricity for the pump, filter and, possibly, lights.

Also an important consideration is what substrate to use. Four are available: concrete, pre-formed, plastic liner and natural. Concrete and natural water gardens are complicated and, in my opinion, best left to the professionals.

Pre-formed and plastic liners will be easiest for amateurs. I chose a plastic liner substrate for my water garden. It was inexpensive and easy to work with. Liners permit you to shape your garden, which isn't possible with the hard plastic pre-formed liners that are set in a matching hole. Liners, however, are more vulnerable to tears and cracks than the pre formed.

You will also need a pump and filter. The pump recirculates the water while the filter keeps it clean and prevents damage to the pump. Optional items that will customize your garden include statues, fountain heads, edging material, lights, bird feeders and lawn furniture.

Decide your garden size and construction material and then talk to a salesperson to make certain you get the right pump size, liner size and wiring.

I've talked to a lot of people about ways to build a water garden. The following steps worked well for me.

Determine location

  • Lay your garden hose on the ground in the outline of your choice. Stand at a distance and see how it looks.
  • Dig the hole. Make the center deepest, with stairlike "shelves" on the sides if you plan to have water plants. Save the dirt (on a tarp or something similar) for use later.
  • Use an old blanket, the same size as the liner, to ensure the liner will fit.
  • Line the hole with sand, then newspapers or old carpet. This will prevent tears as rocks move upward with frost heave.
  • Place the liner in the hole. Spread the liner, making sure to have at least 12 inches excess for edging on the top.
  • Slowly fill with water. Make adjustments in the liner, as needed.
  • Complete the edging by securing the liner with rocks.

Follow the manufacters' instructions for installing the pump, filter and other accessories. Safety should always be most important, therefore, I recommend using a certified electrician for any wiring.

Now you're ready for the "fun" part - plants and animals.

A water dechlorinator will be needed if you have used chlorinated water. As with any commercial products, be sure to follow the manufacturers' instructions. Try a variety of fish. Native fish are fun to watch and hardy for our weather. Fish can be obtained from many commercial fish hatcheries. Check your yellow pages or contact Missouri Department of Conservation Water Garden Information, PO Box 180, Jefferson City 65102-0180 for a listing of commercial fish dealers and a list of recommended plants.

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