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Small-Scale Water Gardens
by Jerry Filipski
by Jerry Filipski


Gerald (Jerry) Filipski is the gardening columnist for the Edmonton Journal, a position he has enjoyed as a freelance writer for the past 12 years. Jerry also writes for Canadian Gardening, the new Alberta Gardener as well as for the lifestyle magazine of P&O ferries. Jerry also does numerous public speaking engagements including some major gardening conferences and workshops as well as question and answer sessions for Wal-Mart and Rona.

June 24, 2007

Water gardens are making an impact in small spaces. More and more condo and apartment dwellers are discovering the pleasures of having a water garden. Container water gardens are as much an alternative to larger water gardens as container flowers are to a full-size flower bed. Even a bowl can hold a small water plant.

Water is an element that belongs even in the smallest of gardens. The recent surge in the popularity of indoor fountains is a testament to the popularity of water in any setting be it indoor or out. The water garden can be the most simple in design. A completely containerized water garden can consist of the container and the plants that make it a garden. Adding a pump can transform the container water garden into one that has the soothing sounds of water associated with it whether those sounds be quiet burbling or more dramatic sounds from a fountain. Adding goldfish adds yet another dimension to the garden. The fish add colour and interest as well as the added bonus of helping to keep the garden clean and free of insects.

Choosing a container is important. A good choice is the half -barrel system with a plastic liner. These are easy to find and are relatively inexpensive as well as being large enough to accommodate several plants, fish and a small fountain. If your choice is a smaller container you can use terra cotta but this material is very porous and soaks up water. Ceramic is an option but the best choice because of its light weight is plastic. The plastic containers offered on the market today look remarkably like ceramic or pottery without the weight. If you are concerned about the drainage holes just plug them with a cork.

The container should be in proportion to the space it is being used in. Having a very large container in a small space is not a good way to go. Choose the container carefully for size so that its scale blends in well with the rest of the space. If your space is a very small one a deep dish may be your choice. Placement of the container is important. A sunny location is best. Most aquatic plants will do best with at least 4-6 hours of sunlight per day.

When designing your garden the best designs of small-scale water gardens are simple ones. The fewer the plants the better. An overcrowded container neither looks appealing nor is it healthy for the plants. Start with a focal point plant such as a miniature water lily, water poppy or floating heart. These plants make for a good anchor in your water garden. If you prefer a more vertical look for a focal point water iris, umbrella palm, cattail, cardinal lobelia, Japanese arrowhead, cotton grass or ribbon grass will do nicely.

These focal plants will need to be potted. This is a fairly simple process. Using a simple black, plastic planting pot from a nursery simply plant the plant as you would normally and then fill it with aquatic potting mix. Next, add a layer of pebbles to the top of the pot to keep the soil in place. Most water plants grow quickly so use fertilizer sparingly and when you do fertilize use the slow release tablets made for water plants.

Next, you should look at floating plants. These plants are important to any water garden but particularly for containerized ones. Algae is a concern in any water garden but even more so in a small container. Floating plants will go a long way to eliminating the algae problem. As they fill and spread out they will block most of the sunlight from reaching the water and this lack of sunlight will keep the algae at bay.

Some floating plants that work well and look great are water lettuce, water chestnuts, fairy floating moss and water hyacinths. Some of these will even add interest with some lovely flowers. You will need only one of these plants for a small container, perhaps 2 for a medium one and 3-4 for one as large as a half wine barrel. The floating plants will not need to be potted as they simply float under their own buoyancy. The water hyacinths, for example, have interesting air bladders to help them stay afloat.

These simple containerized water gardens are self-maintaining. They only need water added periodically to replace that lost to evaporation. Cleaning off any dead growth or spent flowers will be all you need to do in terms of maintenance. If you decide to add fish, they can easily survive in such an environment with or without a pump. They will help keep the container free of mosquito larvae and other insects. Fish in such a container will not need to fed regularly as they will have enough food from the insects if the container is an established one.

The nice thing about this type of water garden is it can be used as a focal point on its own or easily moved into a grouping with other plants to look spectacular in a grouping. So go grab a pot, buy a plant and start your own water garden. It really can be that simple.

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