Planning A Water Garden

Planning A Water Garden

A water garden has a subtle and insidious charm. If you have one you will know exactly what I mean; if you haven’t you may well have wondered just what it is that pond owners get so obsessed about.

The water lilies they grow are undeniably beautiful, but can they compare for sheer flower-power with your border of floribunda roses? And those plants growing in shallow water at the edge of the pool, with fleeting bursts of bloom among leaves of exotic shape and the slender stems of reeds and rushes. Do they dazzle the eye with a riot of colour to equal your display of bedding plants?

The answer is that they do not and therein lies at least part of the secret of the fascination of a garden pool. The eye turns at last from the more vivid colour masses to linger gratefully over the restful beauty of the pool. The oasis-like character of the water garden, where exquisitely shaped water-lily blooms float among the reflections of clouds and irises and reeds, is cool and relaxing. There’s pleasure, too, in the soothing sound of water splashing from a fountain or murmuring over a cascade; there’s delight in the metallic brilliance of a darting dragonfly; and there’s endless fascination in watching fish weaving hypnotic patterns beneath the lily pads.

The pleasures of the garden pool, indeed, are so many and so varied – some apparent from the moment the pool is first filled, others being discovered as season follows season – that it becomes more and more the centre of interest, increasingly the point towards which the footsteps turn, the place to linger and observe, to settle down comfortably and relax, lost to all sense of time and urgency. The garden pool – and I claim this as a virtue rather than admitting a fault – is undoubtedly a time-waster. For many people gardening offers the perfect antidote to the increasing stresses and pressures of the times, in its contact with basic natural processes and the steady, unhurried rhythm of the seasons. And nowhere is this boon of relaxation and unwinding and refreshing of the spirit more strongly felt than in the water garden.

To anyone who owns a pool these satisfactions are so self-evident that they wonder why other gardeners do not share them. If they think back to the days before they had a pool they will remember, perhaps. That the most difficult part – indeed the only difficult part – of the whole business is taking the first step; deciding, as it were, to take the plunge. It needs a stout heart to drive the spade into the lawn to make the first bite of the excavation when it is your very first attempt at pond making. And if it turns out to be all that you’ve hoped, won’t it mean a lot of hard work, not to mention expense?

Just how difficult is it, in fact, to make a water garden? I think it is probably a far less difficult job than you imagine. There was a time, and not so very long ago, when it would certainly have meant mixing and shifting concrete and that’s as much like hard work as anything I can think of. If a waterfall arrangement was required it would have called for the construction of a pump chamber, and a plumber’s tools and expertise in assembling metal pipework. You might have had to go a long way from your own doorstep to find suitable plants and sound advice about what you needed.

But that was in the past and things are now very different. There will still, I am afraid, be the need to dig a hole, but after that the rest is child’s play, as a result of the new materials and the simplified techniques that have been developed over the last few years. You can go to a water garden specialist – or probably to your local garden centre – and choose the shape you prefer from a selection of glassfibre pools, take it home on the roof of the car and have it installed and filled ready for stocking the same weekend. If you do that you will, of course, have to shape the hole to fit the pool. If you want to decide your own shape, or have a larger pool than the glassfibre designs offer, you can use instead one of several types of plastic sheet which, when stretched over the hole, will be moulded to the shape of the excavation by the weight and pressure of the water run on to it. This method offers you the freedom to make your pool not only any shape but any size you want to. The best of these sheet plastics are very tough and durable materials and, like glassfibre pools, are not only far easier to use than concrete but far more likely to remain trouble-free for many years.

Plastic pools can be stocked without any further treatment and there are many suppliers of water plants who offer, in addition to a large selection of lilies, marginal plants, oxygenators and other aquatics, a range of’complete collections’. If you are an absolute water gardening novice who would not know a pontederia from a potamogeton you need only give your supplier the surface area of your pool (or the dimensions, and let him work it out), and he will provide a collection which will include suitable numbers of all the desirable categories of water plants, and probably snails as well.

Most pond plants are incredibly easy to grow, and they go on growing year after year so there is no expense in annual replacements. Some grow with an enthusiasm which might become embarrassing if it were not for the modern technique of container planting. Instead of the earlier practice of spreading soil all over the pool bottom and shelves (often resulting in a tangled riot of exuberant vegetation) the method now is to plant in plastic containers and have no soil elsewhere in the pool at all. Far less soil is needed this way, fish can’t stir up mud, plant growth is tidily limited and you can rearrange the plants whenever you feel inclined to experiment with different colour associations. The plastic containers last indefinitely.

After the plants have settled in, fish can be introduced. They can be purchased, like plants, in the form of a collection, the number of fish being based on the surface area of the pool, and calculated to allow plenty of margin for subsequent growth and breeding. There is a good practical reason why every pool should have fish: they eat insects. Even if they did not perform this useful service, they would be essential for the life and movement and colour they bring to the pool.

At this stage you can stop. You have made a pool and it has its community of plants and fish. It is a going concern and it could all have been achieved (even allowing for an interval between planting and introducing the fish) within a month. It has everything that is essential and you can sit back and enjoy it. You will be fascinated by the details of its development, be alarmed perhaps when it goes through the green water stage – but that’s only a passing phase -be delighted by the flowers of water lilies, water irises and many plants that will be quite new to you, be entertained by the fish, which turn out to have surprisingly individual personalities, and be astonished to find even after only one season that there are tiny home-grown goldfish lurking in odd corners. You are already, with such small expenditure of effort, well on the way to becoming a proud pond owner and confirmed pond watcher.

And there, if you wish, you may rest content; but if you do leave it at that you will be missing a good deal of fun. The ‘optional extras’ are moving water and light after dark. Neither is essential to the community and the ecology of the pool; both can be effective in increasing its contribution to the garden’s character and the gardener’s enjoyment of it. Both can be added very easily with equipment now widely available.

The refreshing splash of water can be in the form of fountains or waterfalls or both, but these should be employed witn restraint. They oxygenate and freshen the water and this is very good for the fish. Water plants, however, prefer static water and will not flourish in strong currents or in cold water. Fountains and waterfalls, therefore, are permissible but should not be overdone. They can be arranged, as will be seen later, so they do not create strong currents across the pool, and they must never be supplied from cold mains water, but only by circulation of the water from the pool itself.

To produce this circulation a pump is necessary. It may be a surface pump, housed in a pump chamber beside the pool, and feeding fountains and/or waterfalls via polythene tubing. Its installation is well within the capability of anyone who is handy with a sharp knife and a screwdriver. An even simpler alternative is provided by submersible pumps. With these plumbing is reduced to the minimum because they work in the water, submerged and silent. There is an excellent range available nowadays and, given details of the effects you want, a water garden supplier will be able to offer you a complete kit to provide anything from a single fountain to a combination of several fountains and waterfalls.

Making a watercourse (the channels and small pools through which the water pours before splashing back into the pool) used to be a tricky job when concrete was the only material available, and was frequently unsatisfactory because of leaks. Now a watercourse can be made with the greatest of ease and no fear of leaks by using either plastic sheet or -even simpler- glassfibre stream sections and cascade pools craggily shaped and coloured to blend with rockery stone.

Fountains and waterfalls are a delight to the eye and the ear, but their full decorative possibilities are not completely realised until they are illuminated after dark. There are a number of garden lighting systems available nowadays which can be used safely out of doors, but it needs the sort specially designed for use in the pool to make the most of the possibilities. Even a single underwater lamp placed below the drop of the waterfall, or shining up into a fountain from below, will astonish you. Use two, of different colours, close under a fountain, and the beauty of myriads of droplets of mixed colour will enchant you.

To some gardeners, I suspect, this talk of pumps and lights may seem close to heresy, an unnecessary gilding of the water lily, not real gardening at all. I respect their view, and I am sure they will find that a pool without these features will give them all the satisfaction of real gardening, though in a novel medium, and still have enough additional charms to make the water garden the most rewarding part of their domain. The great thing is that the pump kits and the underwater lighting, like the glassfibre pools and the plastic pool liners, are readily available to everyone who wants to make a garden feature of outstanding character. The modern water garden has all the virtues of the traditional one with some additional possibilities of its own. Whether your pool is simple or elaborate, large or small, you will find that modern materials and methods will make its creation almost absurdly easy.

If you ask whether your garden is the right sort to include a water feature my answer is that every sort and every size of garden would be the better for the addition of water. What large acreage would not be transformed by a stretch of lily-studded water? What rock garden would not be improved by a pool at its foot and a splashing cascade? What patio would not be enlivened by a small pool and an illuminated fountain ? The scope with water is infinitely variable and the design possibilities adaptable to either formal or informal settings, and to whatever square footage you have available.

One thing you do not need before you can enjoy the pleasures of a water garden is a natural water supply. It is an ironic fact that gardens which have streams or springs or badly drained hollows are not the easiest places in which to create a satisfactory water garden. The stream’s banks can certainly be planted with primulas, irises, hostas, astilbes and the like but the stream itself is no place for water lilies and other lovers of static water. An area bubbling with natural springs may make a fine marsh garden but is no place to try and construct a pool. Even if the problems of installing a liner or using concrete in waterlogged ground could be surmounted, a pool fed by cold springs would grow little in the way of worthwhile aquatic plants but, because of the mineral-rich water, a great deal of unsightly blanketweed. A hollow that has standing water in the winter and dries out in the summer is good for nothing at all. It won’t even make a marsh garden because the moisture is there when you don’t want it and not there when you do.

If you have no natural water in your garden you are lucky. It means you can start from scratch and choose your own spot. You can decide the size and shape that best suits the rest of the layout. You can create, because you have full control, ideal conditions for the finest water plants and the most desirable fish in a pool that will have few problems and be easily manageable.

The most successful pool is a body of still water that can warm sufficiently in summer to encourage water lilies and other flowering aquatics; that has enough capacity in relation to its surface area to avoid drastic temperature fluctuation; that has no continuous supply of water from outside to lower the temperature and upset the pool balance; that has

fountain or waterfall arrangements created only by the circulation of water from the pool itself. It is self-contained and independent of external water supplies once it has been filled, except for very occasional topping up in rare periods when rainfall does not make up evaporation losses. For the first filling and later topping up tap water is perfectly satisfactory. The construction of such a pool with the labour-saving materials available today presents no problems at all. There will, inevitably, be some points over which you may be undecided as to how to apply the principles outlined here to the particular circumstances of your scheme. You might, for example, want to know which particular type of submersible pump would be the best choice to supply a fountain ornament and a waterfall of a certain height.

For guidance on this or any other detail I strongly advise that you take advantage of the services offered by specialists in the water garden field. I emphasise the word ‘specialists’. Water garden equipment can be purchased nowadays from almost any nursery or garden centre in the country, and from many hardware stores and pet shops. Good as many of these suppliers are on the advisory side it is, in the nature of things, impossible for their staff to have expert knowledge of all the many products they handle. For real expertise it is best to consult one of the relatively few firms for whom water gardening is the main or only subject. A perusal of the catalogues offered by firms advertising water garden equipment in the gardening press will give a pretty clear idea which are the originators and which the imitators. A visit to one of the former will be well worth while; you will find them very ready to impart the knowledge they have accumulated over the years.

Do not be shy of admitting (if it is so) that you are a complete beginner where water gardens are concerned. The majority of their customers come to them with no previous experience of the subject, and they will certainly not look down their noses if you admit to being a novice. From what I know of the reputable water garden specialists it will only make them even more anxious to give you the best advice possible.

And do give them all the facts. I remember the dismay caused to one firm whose staff spent a lot of time advising a customer on a pool layout whose glory was to be masses of lilies and flowering marginals. The customer went away loaded with sound professional advice and made the pool and planted it. Later he reported that he was not pleased. The pool was clogged and foul, the plants were struggling, there wasn’t a single flower. When the pool was examined the reason became abundantly clear. It had been made in the middle of a beech wood. But that was a detail that the owner had forgotten to mention.

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