How to Build a Water Garden

Gardeners can build a beautiful water garden without professional help. See more pictures of famous gardens.

Water contributes a sense of peace and tranquility to a garden, making it more inviting, more romantic, more livable. Whether the water garden is little more than an enlarged bird bath or an elaborate aquatic milieu brimming with plant and animal life, its presence alone makes your yard a more pleasant place. Water cools the air on hot days and helps keep frost away on cold ones. Activated by hidden pumps, moving water also supplies a relaxing background of natural music. And water in the garden attracts birds and butterflies.

In this article, we'll explore some of the aspects of building a water garden, including planning a water garden, planting a water garden and animal life in the water garden.


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Many gardeners put off plans for a water garden because they think water gardens require too much effort to start or a great deal of experience to maintain. Actually, water gardens require little care and are no more difficult to maintain than the average flower garden. Some knowledge of the care and maintenance of garden pools and aquatic plants is necessary of course, but all the basics are explained in this article.

So why wait? Even the smallest backyard or patio can host a water garden: for example, a half barrel containing a single dwarf water lily. There is no limit to how extravagant the project can be if you have the space: two or three levels interconnected by waterfalls, complete with wooden bridges and garden lighting, and brought alive by sprays and fountains. All that is possible in an average backyard.

In the next section, we'll show you how to plan a water garden.

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Planning a Water Garden

The shape of a pond depennds on the effect you wish to create.

Until recently, water gardens were beyond the reach of many gardeners. Concrete -- expensive and difficult to install -- was the main material used in construction. Concrete also required special care to use and maintain. Most people had little choice but to call professionals for planning and installation, adding to the expense. A water garden was something one dreamed of but did not actually own.

Times have changed. With more modern pool lining materials -- PVC and fiberglass are currently the main ones -- material costs have dropped enormously and installation is easily carried out by anyone. You don't even have to know how to nail two boards together to be able to install a water garden.


Although water gardens can be placed just about anywhere, you may find the choice of sites limited depending on the type of plants you want to grow. If your goal is a simple reflecting pool, the choice of a location is up to you. But most people dream of a water garden brimming with water lilies and other aquatic plants.

This places a major limit on where the water garden can be placed, since water lilies require at least six hours of full sun per day to grow well (a few species will tolerate as few as four hours). Most other flowering aquatic plants also require abundant light; plants grown for their foliage alone are more tolerant. If you want to get the most out of your water garden, select a sunny location.

The amount of space available is also a factor. Even the tiniest yards have room for a small water garden (people have been known to raise goldfish and a single dwarf water lily in a tub on a balcony), but a truly balanced water garden with a variety of plants and animals takes a fair amount of space.

Pool depth is also a consideration. For a simple reflecting pool, you'll need only a few inches of water, but very shallow pools are subject to extreme temperature change, which is not conducive to living organisms such as plants and fish. A minimum depth of 18 inches for much of the pond's area is desirable. To overwinter plants and fish in cold climates, at least part of the pond should drop to three feet.

The shape of the pond will depend a great deal on the effect you wish to create. Square, rectangular, round, or oval ponds give a formal appearance to the yard, an effect heightened by using fountains. If you keep your yard neatly mowed, if shrubs and hedges are carefully trimmed, and other plantings are in formal beds, a geometric pond will suit it perfectly. If, on the other hand, your yard is composed of mixed borders and naturalistic plantings, a formal water garden would look out of place.

An irregularly shaped pond, perhaps with a border planting of bog plants to soften its appearance even further, would be more appropriate. Sometimes rectilinear or circular pools fit perfectly into matched settings. If you're unsure, try laying out the pool shape of your choice with a piece of garden hose, then look at it from every angle. It is far easier to spend a day or so testing different pond shapes and locations with a hose than to move an established water garden.

The topography of the site should also be considered. Ponds should not be placed in the lowest section of the yard: Any overflow could quickly turn the area into a bog. Make sure there is some possibility for drainage. If you plan to include a naturalistic cascade or waterfall, a yard with a somewhat abrupt slope is most fitting.

Finally, check with your municipality concerning zoning laws and fencing codes. Many cities and towns make no distinction between a water garden and a swimming pool. Security fencing may be required. For further security, you might want to wait until your children are past the toddler stage before you install a water garden.

Learn about planting a water garden in the next section.

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Planting a Water Garden

Special pots, pans, and tubs can be used to plant water gardens.

Aquatic plants -- aside from being attractive in their own right -- offer numerous advantages to the water gardener. They help filter impurities from the water and, by cutting off intense sunlight, they keep the pond cooler for fish and reduce excessive algae build-up. Aquatic plants also help integrate the water garden into the rest of the landscape. There are several different types of aquatic plants, and each has its own use.

Floating plants are the most "aquatic" of all water garden plants. They simply float on the surface of the water. They help filter the water and cut out sunlight, reducing algae. Many of these are tiny plants, and they help nourish the fish in the pool. Typical examples are duckweed (Lemna) and floating ferns (Salvinia and Azolla). Floating plants may be beached by excessively strong currents, so they do best in still waters.


Submerged plants live out most of their life cycle underwater. Although not very visible, they are essential to a healthy pool because they oxygenate and filter the water, competing directly with algae. For maximum effect, calculate about one cluster of submerged plants per square foot of pool surface. Submerged plants are generally sold unrooted in bunches and should be planted in containers that are then placed at the bottom of the pool. For reduced algae development, about one-third of the pool should be filled with submerged plants.

Emergent plants are the largest and most popular group of aquatic plants. Their roots are solidly anchored in the soil underwater, but their leaves and flowers rise above the water level, where they are easily visible. They are generally grown in baskets placed at the proper depth in the pool. Some, like water lilies, have floating leaves. Others have leaves that rise well above the water. Emergent plants help filter and oxygenate the water and, by their shading effect, reduce algae by cutting off sunlight. Typical emergents include water lilies and lotus. Usually, enough floating-leaf emergents should be used to cover more than half the water surface of the pool.

Bog plants differ from emergent plants in that they grow in wet soil but not with their root systems entirely submerged. There is no clear distinction between bog and emergent plants; many plants are equally at home in wet soil (the official realm of the bog plant) and inundated soil (emergent plant territory). Many common "emergent" plants can also grow as bog plants, including cattails, pickerel rush, and arrowhead. They usually do not appreciate dry soil and should be kept constantly moist.

On the other hand, many so-called "garden plants" can grow in marshy conditions. This latter group includes such popular perennials as forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides), bee balm (Monarda didyma), moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia), and chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata 'Variegata').

Bog plants are most easily maintained by planting them in pots and placing them on low shelves in the pool itself. It is also quite easy to dig a shallow hole at the lower edge of the water garden and cover it with a piece of leftover liner. Filled with soil again, it will remain moderately moist at all times: a perfect habitat for bog plants of all kinds.

Besides being classified as floating, submerged, emergent, or bog, aquatic plants can also be grouped under the labels tropical or hardy. Hardy aquatic plants are those that can be left outdoors year-round just about anywhere in North America. Tropical ones are either treated as annuals in cold climates or brought indoors for the winter.

Special water lily pots, pans, and tubs (generally made of plastic or rubber) are available, but just about any container of appropriate size can be used for aquatic plants. Plastic dish pans, for example, are an ideal size and shape for water lilies and lotus. Plants with less extensive root systems will grow well in ordinary flower pots or even plastic pails. Generally, the containers should be wider than they are deep since water garden plants generally have shallow root systems that spread horizontally. There is no need for drainage holes in aquatic plant containers.

Water lilies and lotus need plenty of root space. Although they can grow in containers holding as little as 9 quarts of soil, 11 quarts is better. Larger containers will allow for future expansion without repotting. Other aquatic and bog plants can be planted in any size container suitable to their root system but give them some room for future expansion. Most aquatic plants will rapidly fill up any container you give them.

Avoid artificial soil mixes, which are too light and tend to float away. Even regular garden soil is likely to cloud the water. Instead, use a heavy garden soil with a fair amount of clay. Do not use soil from a natural pond since it may contain weed seeds or host unwanted pests.

Hose off the plant before potting it up. Carefully spread the roots in the container and fill with soil. Place the crowns at or just below the soil surface. Insert a slow-release fertilizer tablet for aquatic plants (about one per five quarts of soil) as you add soil. Cover the soil with a 1/2 inch layer of rinsed gravel to prevent the soil from floating out. Soak thoroughly before placing the pot in the pool. Containers are easily raised to the required depth by placing bricks or inverted containers under them.

Submerged plants are usually sold as cuttings. Insert the cut ends into sand or soil and cover with gravel as mentioned above. There is no need to add fertilizer tablets since these plants get their nutrients from the water around them.

In our final section, we'll talk about animal life in water gardens.

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Animal Life in the Water Garden

Fish add much enjoyment to a water garden.

Plants are not the only things you'll want to raise in a water garden. Fish are also quite popular. They need surprisingly little care and add so much enjoyment to the experience of water gardening that few water gardens are without them. They also help equilibrate the pool and eliminate unwanted insects.

Don't overstock the pool. You'll need only one inch of fish for every five gallons of water; the fish will grow over time. Don't introduce fish to a freshly filled pond: Wait at least a day for the chlorine to evaporate and preferably two or three weeks. Fish are generally sold in plastic bags of water. Let these bags float in the pool for about 20 minutes before releasing the fish. This allows the fish to adjust to the new water temperature. Feed fish lightly with commercial goldfish food. Fish will get much of their food from the animal and plant life that forms in any pool.


Goldfish and koi (Japanese carp) are popular fish for a water garden, and both make colorful and lively guests. They will actually multiply when happy with their conditions. Match the size of your fish to the size of your pond. Koi need lots of space.

Goldfish and koi will overwinter nicely in warm climates or in deep ponds in cold ones. Elsewhere, they can be brought indoors and kept in a large container in a cool spot over the winter. Fish remain inactive during cold weather and will not need to be fed during that time.

Most other animals for garden pools are considered "scavengers," meaning they eat detritus and other debris. This helps keep the water clean. Check with your local water garden supplier for snails, tadpoles, freshwater clams, and the like that are suited to your climate.

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