Container Water Gardens

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Oh, my aching muscles...

Small but Serene: Water Gardens for Your Patio

By ML Dehm
Short on space but fond of ponds? Water gardening in a container may be just the thing for you. You don’t need a large yard, or even a yard at all to keep a water feature. A sunny corner on a deck or balcony can provide all the space you need You can use almost anything to hold your water garden—from a simple plastic tub from the discount store to elaborate ceramic creations costing hundreds of dollars. The basic principles are the same as full-scale ponds.

The Sound of Water
Do you want the sound of water dripping? Japanese-style bamboo fountains are available and affordable. Set up the bamboo pipes to deliver a steady musical drip into a stone or concrete basin. Wall fountains are another way to create the delightful sound of running water.

Do you like the sight of flowing water? Select a basin that overflows with water, sending  rivulets running down the outside? Drilled granite columns, available at many landscape outlets, can be set up in this manner. (A secret hidden reservoir under the container contains a recirculating pump.)
Fountain fixtures for recirculating pumps can be put into containers of almost any size. Fountain heads can bubble, sprinkle or spew water from the mouth of a frog or fish.

Choosing Plants
A container water garden can be a great way to showcase delicate tropical water plants we would otherwise have trouble growing in this region. Nelumbo nucifera (Lotus) requires warmer year-round temperatures than we have here in western Washington. The container water garden offers a gardener the ability to move the plant to microclimates in the garden that are warm enough to encourage the lotus to grow and bloom. The pot can also be brought indoors or adequately insulated to prevent winter freezing.
Papyrus and umbrella plants will also appreciate a little coddling in our climate. If your container is as at least as wide as a whiskey barrel, you can select a beautiful tropical water lily and enjoy its blooms and fragrance at close range.

Two bunches of oxygenating plants (ask your nursery person for a recommendation) will help to keep the water clear. A water lily for floating leaves and flowers, plus some reeds or horsetails to provide height, and —presto!—you have an  attractive container water garden.

The Portable Pond
If you plan on moving the container frequently, select a lightweight faux terra cotta or stone container on a rolling stand. These new plastics have the added benefit of not cracking and crumbling like terra cotta does.

One of the most widely used containers for a water garden is the half whiskey barrel. Few of these barrels are suitable for use without special preparation. Most are no longer watertight due to wood shrinkage. The wood may also contain residues which can kill fish and inhibit plant growth. Most home improvement stores carry flexible plastic liners or thin plastic barrel liners.

Super-Sized Mini-Ponds
For more surface area than a half-barrel, stop by your local feed store and check out their selection of galvanized metal or heavy plastic water troughs. If you find their appearance somewhat unappealing,  disguise the outer walls with landscape timbers or bricks.

First in eye appeal—but hardest on the pocketbook—are large ceramic jars. Because of their depth, (some over a meter tall) you will need to elevate the plants you place in these containers. Simply set a large flower pot upside-down inside the container to create a platform. You can fill the jar with gravel to the proper planting level, but it will make the pot impossible to move.

Practical Basics
Regardless of the type of container you use for your portable pond, some requirements will always be the same. When siting your water garden, make sure it will get several hours of sunlight daily. Avoid areas where dead leaves may fall into and foul the water. Make sure you are near enough to water sources and electrical outlets for convenience and that your outlet carries a ground fault circuit interrupter for safety.

Ceramic pots  can not be allowed to freeze in winter or they will crack. If this happens, or if you find a cracked jar you want to use for your water feature, aquarium sealant will make the jar watertight. Similarly, if you have a pot with a drainage hole on the bottom, aquarium sealant and a flat piece of plastic will plug the hole. Follow the curing directions on the package carefully.

Also, consider the possibility of a leak or overflow. Where would the water go and would anything be damaged? Frequently check pumps and fountains to make sure you don’t have any leaks. If your container water garden sits on a deck or balcony, be sure the structure is sturdy enough to support the added weight of your filled container. Another important safety precaution is to put screening over the water’s surface if you have small children or curious pets.

Finally,  invest in a floating mosquito ring that kills mosquito larva (organically) and can be easily hidden in floating foliage. A mosquito infestation is unpleasant at anytime but intolerable on your own patio.

Enjoy Your Mini-Pond!
The type of container and plants you select for a patio water garden is limited only by your imagination. No matter what style of portable pond you decide on, count on hours of pleasure for a relatively small investment of time and planning.

NWGN archive published July 1998

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