Documents: Special Interest: Water Gardening:

Tub 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 6, 2004

Consider the use of a water feature in your balcony or deck landscaping plans. The sound and appearance of water can be soothing and relaxing. To many water gardens appear to be complicated, expensive and you need to have large spaces for them. This is simply not true. You can enjoy all the benefits of water gardening right on a small balcony or deck by using tubs.

Nearly any watertight container can hold an aquatic garden. Let your imagination be your guide. Floating water lettuce or shallow-rooted watercress will live in a birdbath, and a clump of cattails will be happy in a 20 liter bucket. Keep in mind that dark-colored containers can really heat up in the summer sun. You may consider shading the containers if your exposure is one that heats up. Placing the pots where they will receive an hour or two of shade during the hottest part of the day will help a great deal.

Chose containers that are made of nontoxic material, such as untreated wood, plastic, glazed ceramic, or terra-cotta. Half barrels previously used to store liquor or food should be lined with PVC sheeting to prevent harmful residues from leaching into the water. Set the liner into the tub, pleating it where necessary. Staple it into place around the top, and trim off the excess. Use liners to make leaky containers watertight, too.

There are many garden centres that carry tub kits. These kits consist of a half-barrel that is constructed of new wood, a pump, a liner and in some cases a replica old-fashioned hand water pump. If you choose to go the tub waterfall route, the hand pump adds a decorative touch in its use as the waterfall device. Remember, though, that you do not need a waterfall or re-circulating pump for your tub to work as a water garden

Select a site where the container will receive at least 6 hours of full sun in the morning or afternoon. Fill it with tap water, and let it sit for a day or two to dissipate the chorine and allow the water temperature to moderate before introducing plants. There are many ways to create a tub garden and a multitude of plants and fish to select from. For a thriving, low-maintenance container garden, the key is balance. Like any ecosystem, a healthy, self-sustaining water garden must contain a balance of essential elements.

The Tub Formula-

Here is a basic tub formula to help get you started with the basics of tub water gardening. (For our purposes we will work use the half whiskey or wine barrel tub):

  • 2 bunches of oxygenating or submerged plants
  • 1 water lily or floating plants that will cover 60 to 70 percent of the surface
  • 1 or 2 bog plants for height (optional)
  • 2 water snails, eg. trap door snails (Viviparus malleatus), to eat algae
  • 2 or 3 goldfish, or guppies (each 5 cm long) to eat insects

Fill the tub with water, and let it sit for a day or two. Place the potted oxygenating plants and water lily on the bottom of the tub. Set potted bog plants on inverted flowerpots or clean bricks so that the water level comes just above the soil line. Wait two to three weeks before adding fish. Remove dead leaves and plant debris regularly, and replace water lost to evaporation, but do not change any water. Within a few weeks, the aquatic plants will starve the algae, and the water should clear. If it doesn't, add another pot of oxygenating plants.

Choosing Plants-

Submerged or oxygenating plants, such as fan wort (Cabomba), anacharis (Elodea or Eyeria), parrot's feather (Myriophyllum), and eel grass (Vallisneria), live underwater where they supply oxygen and compete with algae for nutrients. Floating plants like duckweed (Lemna) and water lettuce (Pistia) move freely across the water surface and provide algae-suppressing shade. Like turf grasses or mulch, they are not the stars of the show but are necessary to the landscape.

Tall bog or border plants, such as marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), canna, sedge (Carex), taro (Colocasia esculenta), and cat tail (Typha), grow with their roots submerged and foliage above the water. Their size and height add structure and provide a backdrop for flowering plants.

When you think of ornamental water gardens, exotic-looking water lily (Nymphaea) and lotus (Nelumbo) blooms and intriguing foliage probably first come to mind. Sedges, grasses, Japanese iris, and scores of other plants also add beauty. There are even water lilies that are well suited to small container water gardens such as Red Pygmy, Perry’s Baby Red, and Aurora.

Water lilies will have to be stored over winter by cutting off the leaves, wrapping the pot in burlap and placing this into a plastic bag. The bag is then stored at 1-5 C. This may prove difficult for apartment and condo dwellers without cold storage facilities. Ask a friend for storage of the lilies and other aquatics in an old fridge or cold room. If this is not possible, you may have to buy a new lily each year.

Check out Alberta Yards and Gardens available from Alberta Agriculture. This gardening guide has an excellent section on water gardening.

A water garden for a balcony or small deck is only a few steps away. A little preparation will lead to hours of enjoyment.


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