Cuttings: Water Works to Spice up Gardens

Water Works to Spice up Gardens - NY Times 2004


Water Works to Spice Up Gardens

by Barbara Paul Robinson

HERE is water in various forms in my garden and I love how it reflects the sky and how the sound of moving water adds music to the air. The smallest bit of water in my garden is a charming birdbath that sits atop a column under the kitchen window near the feeders. This past winter, when all else was frozen, a simple submersible device plugged into an exterior socket kept the water thawed for the birds to drink.

Nurseries offer an array of birdbaths,some equipped with small pumps that turn them into fountains. There are also birdbaths that can be hung on the wall, like the fountain in my greenhouse, its small pump creating the gentlest water circulation, just enough to keep the water moving and the sound sparkling.

Something as simple as a watertight pot can hold a few water lilies, and maybe a dwarf papyrus or a few other water-loving plants. And I am not alone in my desires.

According to Taunton Press, adding a water feature tied with building a deck as the No. 1 improvement that homeowners want to make with their yards. At the Philadelphia Flower Show this year, water was featured in nearly every exhibit. Water cascaded over a structure 25 feet high, clattering into a pool below. One display had a 12-foot-tall water wheel. Another had a huge marble ball rotating atop a waterfall. Almost every other one had a pond or rill.

Jane G. Pepper, president of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, which sponsors the show, says people these days are staying home in their gardens instead of traveling, and “there is nothing better than a little water bubbling in the background.”

The North American Water Gardening Society, which was founded last August in Batavia, Ill., under the sponsorship of Aquascape Designs, a water gardening manufacturer, had its first meeting in Chicago in January. There are already 30 regional chapters. Craig Marciniak, president of the Rhode Island-Massachusetts chapter, said that “having a water garden changes your life forever.”

I have a large fountain in the center of one garden underneath my bedroom window. It’s a figure of a young girl holding a spouting frog – I am a sucker for frogs. She stands in a scalloped basin above a small, circular in-ground pool that is two feet deep and eight feet wide, rimmed by flat stones.

The system works much like a doll-size swimming pool, complete with circulating pumps and filter. Where I garden, in northwestern Connecticut, as with most other places, full-scale swimming pools must be so tightly fenced for safety reasons that they seem more functional than picturesque. But many catalogs and nurseries offer fountains and basins, in many sizes, that are ready to be moved in and turned on.

Artificial ponds on a small or grand scale are increasingly popular, with many catalogs offering do-it-yourself instructions and materials. Artificial ponds, which is to say ponds that have a plastic or rubber bottom and water pumps, can support a wide variety of water loving plants, and if deep enough, a few goldfish or koi.

More than 20 years ago, my husband, Charlie, and I carved a natural pond roughly half an acre in size out of an abandoned gravel quarry. It is indeed a treasure, both for plants as well as wildlife – not all of which, like the pesky geese and the industrious beavers, are necessarily welcome.

Today, if we were to build or enlarge the pond, we would have to get permits from our state’s Inland Wetlands Commission and the Department of Environmental Conservation. Since my pond is spring fed, requiring no dam, it was relatively easy to construct and maintain. Mostly rimmed by mown grass, the pond has cattails and phalaris on one end providing shelter for red-winged blackbirds, ducks and other small birds.

Charlie recently decided to build some artificial ponds in our dry woodland. First, he excavated a series of depressions among the rock outcroppings, smoothing the bottoms with clay before laying down a heavy rubber liner. Each liner was covered with a layer of gravel to protect against sunlight filtering through the water and to provide a more natural look. Then flat stones, concealing the tops of the liners, ringed the ponds.

But you can get carried away with water. Charlie did. He built a tributary system with three separate headwaters involving 14 ponds, large and small, waterfalls, connecting streams and rills, all of which flow into a common pond at the end where a pump sends the water back up to the top of the three headwaters.

It’s really just a large recirculating fountain but spread over hundreds of feet. His challenge was to determine the right amount of additional water to push through the system to make it flow. This “`float” is essentially the amount of water in motion and can be surprisingly large. In our case, it is 3,000 additional gallons circulating at a rate of 6,000 gallons an hour.

In order to be able to turn the system off at night, we have to store 3,000 gallons of excess water in tanks covered with camouflage netting and concealed under some hemlocks.

It is not necessary to be that ambitious, but be warned. Once you have water in your garden, you are likely to yearn for more.