Backyard Zen

People fall in love with their home water gardens

There's nothing quite as soothing as the sound of a backyard waterfall splashing onto a small pond, its spray sending ripples across the water's surface that stirs a delicate dragonfly resting on a lily pad.

"I call it the Zen of water," explains Albert V. Short, a nationally prominent Virginia-based designer of high-end residential and commercial ponds and other water features. Short is continually amazed by the powerful effect a water garden has on the psyche.

"The benefits are both aesthetic and psychological," he says.
You don't need a lot of property to create your own pond, adds Short. Go for a natural look, choosing a size that fits into your home's overall landscaping design and living pattern. "Too big and it will look like you parachuted Lake Erie into your back yard. Make it too small and it will look like a teacup!"

Size, in fact, is where most first-time pond builders fumble.

"They build them too small," Short says, frequently picking the wrong location too, such as a wet spot or a site that's difficult to see unless you're standing directly in front of it. Treating your rear garden as if it were a room can help you choose the best site for the water garden.

"Check it from every angle," Short says, to see how it will look when you're seated or standing or viewing it from various areas of your home.
Cost can be a driving factor and can vary widely, depending on how big you make the water garden, the materials used, who does the planning and who does the work.

If you're doing it yourself, limit the pond to a depth of about 20 inches, enough to allow fish to winter over. Go too much deeper and your pond will be considered a swimming pool.

You don't have to give up a water garden because of the inherent dangers a pond can post to tots, Short says.
"You can make a pond-less waterfall by filling the basin with gravel," he says. Water filters through the gravel, recirculating back to the waterfall. When the children are grown up, remove the gravel and convert the basin to a traditional pond.

"A water garden requires about the same amount of maintenance as a perennial bed of the same size," Short adds. Once filled, its low-voltage pump recirculates the water.

Short uses a 45-mm thick Firestone EPDM PondGard liner for his installations because it's easy to repair, has a long life span, and is flexible and strong, even in cold weather. Other types of liners don't last as long, he finds, or can crack like a potato chip. Whether you build it yourself or have a contractor construct your pond, "don't use a cheap liner. It's like putting cheap tires on a race car," he warns.

The veteran water garden designer also suggests:

boulders and a backdrop of evergreens to define the area. Small trees like a Japanese maple are an especially good choice near a waterfall. Grasses help connect the design.

. Using mosquito larva-eating goldfish and shubunkin to keep the area free from the flying pests. Avoid high-maintenance koi that grow rapidly and are heavy consumers of food.

. If you don't want fish, add Mosquito Dunk to the pond each month to halt mosquito growth.

Don't have space for a permanent pond? You can create a water garden out of almost any type of container, from a plastic tub to a wooden barrel. Most garden centers sell the parts you'll need or ready made containers. Fill them with water and aquatic plants and plug them in.

"Such ready-made fountain features have become very popular," says internationally known horticulturist Philip Swindells, whose 320-page tome, "The Master Book of the Water Garden," is considered a must-have for pond builders and owners. It's one of many books about water gardens available in stores and libraries.

You can also find answers to your water garden questions online at sites run by organizations like the Colorado Water Garden Society ( or the International Waterlily and Watergardening Society (

State horticultural extension services also provide Web-based water garden advice like those offered by the University of Illinois Extension ( and the University of Georgia Extension (

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