How Does Your Water Garden Grow?

How Does Your Water Garden Grow?Watergardens are Bubbling Up at Many Emerald Coast Homes, Adding Elegance and Tranquility to Any Outdoor Design

By Jennifer Walker-Journey

Two years ago, J. Dean Martin bought his first home — a fixer-upper in Santa Rosa Beach. A handyman by trade, Martin built the steps, laid the floors, put in the sod and created a cozy place to call home. But the outdoorsman in Martin wanted the landscape to make a statement of its own. Standing on the small deck he built and gazing at his modest-size backyard, Martin saw potential. He visualized lush plantings, bubbling waterfalls and orange-and-white ornamental fish kicking ripples in the water with their tailfins.

 Today, Martin’s dream is flourishing in a generous-sized corner of his backyard. Recirculated water runs through a winding river path, spilling over rocks and falling into a pond edged in ferns and steeped with water lilies. A cypress hangs overhead, shading patches of the pond where goldfish and koi contently swim.

“Oh, I love it,” Martin says in a slow Southern drawl. “I love the sound of the water. It’s just nice to come out here and enjoy it. We open the windows, and you can hear the waterfall from inside the house. It’s really very nice.”

For a man who works “from 5:30 in the morning to dark-thirty every day,” and whose finances are at the whim of the housing industry, building his own backyard watergarden was a luxury for which Martin found the time. The project has taken several months, and it’s still a work in progress.

“I want to add a fire pit and flagstone trail there,” he says.

 While he has done much of the work himself, Martin also knows when to call in experts, such as Jason Daniel, owner of Eastern Lake Nursery in Seagrove Beach.

“Jason helped out with the majority of the garden. He definitely led me in the right direction,” Martin says.
Watergardening 101
Watergardens can enhance any space, Daniel says, but the first factor one should consider is where to put it. Placing watergardens close to the house can give them year-round appeal by allowing the garden to be enjoyed not only while outdoors, but also from inside the house through a nearby window.

  Shade, which goes hand-in-hand with location, also is an important consideration. Whether from floating plants or neighboring shrubs or trees, shade inhibits the growth of algae and should cover about two-thirds of the pond. However, be mindful of neighboring trees that can drop leaves or other debris in your garden, which may result in the need for more cleaning.

And while some shade is desirable, be sure the area you are considering does get some sunlight, especially if you want to fill your garden with versatile plant life, Daniel says.

The next step, he adds, is to determine how large you want the garden to be and design the water feature accordingly. If you are installing an in-ground pond, be sure it is deep enough to accommodate any plants or fish you want to include. Because of the mild climate along the Emerald Coast, ponds here need to be only 2 to 3 feet deep to accommodate fish and/or plants such as waterlilies.

Style is another factor, says Patty Williams, owner of Potagers Gardens & Verandas in Miramar Beach.

“You want to be sure you get the right design for your home,” she says. Williams’ quaint shop offers countless varieties of fountains – in-ground or surface – in functional materials ranging from cast concrete to hand-carved stone.

The cost of watergardens varies greatly, depending on how large or elaborate they are. Smaller fountains with modest plantings can cost less than $100 and can easily be done without the help of a professional, while more substantial features can cost thousands.

“There are fountains to fit everyone’s budget,” Williams says. What you get in return, however, is priceless.

Plant with Care
Once a plan for the watergarden is in place, the plant selection follows, Daniel says. Plants add color and shading that soften the appearance of the water feature and make it more inviting.

There are different types of aquatic plants that work well in watergardens. Submerged plants, such as waterlilies, live underwater, with just leaves or flowers breaking the water’s surface. These plants also can help to oxygenate the water, which makes them particularly beneficial in ponds that contain fish. Marginal plants, such as cattails, are rooted in the water but grow above the surface.

And floating plants, such as water hyacinth, float freely on top of the water. These plants provide shade for fish and discourage the growth of algae. They also can spread quickly; thus, these types of plants are not sold at many nurseries because of their tendency to become invasive, Daniel says.

 For plants that grow in soil, placement is key. Taller plantings such as cypress trees should be toward the back of the garden, while the front of the garden should be layered with smaller, less intrusive ones, such as dwarf horsetail.

“Imagination takes [it] where the customer wants to go,” Daniel says.
Waterfalls or fountains keep the water circulated, slow the growth of algae and can keep surrounding plants healthier. Without movement in the water, it can become stagnant, inviting mosquitoes. The addition of waterfalls, fountains and fish to a pond requires a pump, which also can add to the cost.

 Over time, water can spill, splash and evaporate and will need replenishing. In addition, the growth of algae can turn the water green and murky, requiring regular cleanings. A dechlorinator can keep the water clean and fresh, but even with the aid of chemicals, if you’re planning to build a watergarden, expect to do some regular upkeep.

 If you want the look of a watergarden without the hard work and hassle of a lot of maintenance, Daniel recommends surrounding small water fountains or birdbaths with potted plants. This relatively low-cost alternative also allows you to bring plants inside when the temperatures drop. It also can be easily set up inside a home.

“You just need to make sure there is plenty of sunlight for the plants,” Daniel says.

Ornamental fish such as goldfish and koi are hearty and do well in the mild climate of the Emerald Coast. But adding them to your watergarden requires special attention to both the size and depth of the pond. Fish also may limit the volume of plants you can put in the water. In-ground ponds are best for fish, Williams says, as many fountains and containers can contain chemicals that may harm them. The addition of fish also requires a filtration system to keep the water clean, which also can increase the cost and time you spend on maintenance.

Watergardens naturally attract a variety of wildlife, including birds, squirrels, frogs and butterflies. Fish, on the other hand, can lure a host of other predators, such as raccoons or even the neighbor’s cat, which may want to go fishing for dinner in your backyard pond.

“I haven’t lost any fish yet,” Martin says of his watergarden, though he has made provisions to keep his fish safe. “One day I was working out in the pond, and a guy says I’d better make a cave for the fish to hide. There was a blue heron hanging out behind my house, watching me. I didn’t even know it.”

Martin made the cave, which now gives the fish shelter. “I don’t want to lose any,” he says. “I mean, those koi are expensive!”


Tending Your Garden

Now that you have your watergarden, it’s time to dress it up. Check out these cool watergarden accessories:
Islandscapes – These living, floating islands are an attractive addition to any pond or water feature. Made of recycled plastic biomesh that is bonded by buoyant foam, these floating shapes provide a sturdy foundation for a wide variety of plants. They also are pesticide and herbicide free and can replace biological filters in smaller ponds. $89 to $289,
Gator Guard – Keep those watergarden pests at bay with this life-sized, mirrored-eyed, floating alligator head. At 25 inches long, herons, raccoons and most other wildlife are sure to be scared away as the Gator Guard moves and buoys around the water, propelled by the wind. $67,
Decorative Poly-Resin Koi – Love the look of fish in your pond but don’t want to deal with the upkeep? Check out the Decorative Ploy-Resin Koi, one of the whimsical water feature accents. Each faux fish is 20 centimeters long and comes in a variety of colors and styles. $9.95,