How to create a water garden

by Ellen Goff

The serenity of floating water lilies nudging the edge of a stone-lined pond can seduce even the most jaded gardener. But before you build your dream water feature, stop to think about how much you know about aquatic and water-loving plants that will grow in Southern states ... and pond water biology ... and maintenance issues ... the list goes on.

Start your first season of water gardening in a container.

On a small scale, you can enjoy new plants and exotic blooms while controlling investment costs and failure losses. Choose a container that is watertight. The size will determine the scale and quantity of plants you'll need.

Consider displaying a single plant with striking features in a large glass vase. A larger urn or tub will accommodate a combination of plants resembling a natural pond.

In general, aquatic plants need plenty of light, so locate your container on a bright patio or deck or inside in a sunny room.

Plants that grow in and around water are identified by the depth they require:

  • Floating aquatics are free moving on the surface of the water;
  • Submerged aquatics grow completely under the surface;
  • Marginals grow in shallow and standing water;
  • Bog plants require rich, damp soil but no standing water.

The size and dimension of your container will guide your planting design. Tall, vase-like pots look dramatic with reeds and grasses mixed with floating plants or marginal plant foliage that spills over the sides. A wide, low tub is ideal for water lilies and surface floating flora.

Note that some aquatics are considered invasive or pernicious weeds when they "escape" from the garden.

When you're ready to plant, fill a clean container, such as a large bucket, with water. Let the water sit for at least one day to allow any chemicals to evaporate.

Next, line the bottom of the water garden container with gravel, which you can find at an aquarium supplies store. Be sure to rinse the gravel thoroughly before use to remove dust that may cloud the water. If you're using marginal plants, create a riser in the container using a brick or stacked plastic containers that will keep the roots just below the water surface.

Fill the container half full with the water from the bucket. Anchor pots of submerged plants in the gravel, hiding the pots by adding clean stones around them. Position marginal plant pots on the riser. Then fill the container to just below the rim, adding floating aquatics last.

After a few weeks, begin fertilizing the plants with tablet-style food available from aquatic plant retailers. Push the tabs into the soil around the plants.

Top off the water level in your container regularly with water left standing for a day. Remove yellowing and dying leaves. Change the water as necessary to control green water conditions.

As your interest and confidence grow, you can add a small water pump and spouting ornament or fountain, or even a few tropical fish. You can also just keep it simple and enjoy the singular beauty of this exotic class of plants.

You can find aquatic plant suppliers on Angie's List under categories Fountains or Greenhouse/Nursery. Check out Pondscapes Inc. in Tampa, Fla., Atlanta Water Gardens Inc. in Atlanta, Serenity Water Gardens in Alpharetta, Ga., and Pike Nursery in Charlotte, N.C.

Ellen Goff is a freelance horticulture writer and photographer. She's passionate about plants, water quality and protecting the environment. Aside from working with words and pictures, she stays busy with her home landscape and its inhabitants along the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.

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