Container Water Gardens

Water gardens in containers can create the illusion of a pond on your patio.

Water is an element that belongs in every garden, even a small patio garden. If you think you don't have the space for a water garden, or the time and energy to build one, or even a budget grand enough to afford one - think again. You can design and implement a water garden for under a hundred dollars, get the job done on a Saturday afternoon, and do it without digging. The answer is a water garden in a pot.

The most basic containerized water gardens consist of only two elements - a container, and the plants that transform it into a garden. From there you can embellish all you want, with goldfish, for example, or a small recirculating pump that will bring a burble of movement and sound to your garden.

First of all, choose a container. This may be your biggest expense. An easy and decorative option is a large, glazed pot, at least 24 inches in diameter. Half a whiskey barrel is also a good size for a water garden. Plastic tubs that fit inside are available, or line it with a PVC pond liner cut to size (pond liners are available at garden centers; don't use regular plastic).It's even possible to use terra cotta containers, but this material is porous and soaks up water, which might be a problem in hot areas. When in doubt about the size, bigger is better in this case. Remember, you want to create the illusion of a small pond or pool, with enough space to accommodate plants.

Each plant you grow in the container will actually be growing in its own small pot. If you're not using a pump, the goal is to cover the surface of the water completely with plant material, so that algae cannot grow readily. Choose plants that will combine well: try using an upright plant for height, a flowering plant for drama, and small floating plants to grow in between.

Some plant suggestions are as follows: water iris or dwarf cattails for height, miniature water lilies or water hyacinths for color, and floating pennywort as filler. When buying plants, keep in mind the mature size of the plant. A mature water lily can take up three square feet of space, so be sure you are buying a miniature variety.

When potting up plants that will grow submerged in water, do not use a commercial potting soil. This is the biggest mistake you can make, and here's why: potting mixes don't really contain soil, but a lightweight mixture of ingredients such as vermiculite, peat moss, and perlite. Their purpose in most container gardens is to add little weight and to drain well. If you use one of these in a water garden, many of the ingredients will float to the top and remain there. So, you want to use regular garden soil. If you cannot dig any from your yard, use bags of topsoil from the garden center - but remember, you are asking for topsoil and not potting soil.

To pot up your water-loving plants, use black plastic nursery pots. Fill the pot to within an inch from the rim with soil and top it with pebbles to help keep the soil in place.

Position your large container on a level site so it can be filled evenly with water. Then, submerge the planted cattails, water lilies, and whatever you're using, so that the base of the plant is just at the waterline. Sink them slowly, allowing air to escape so the soil doesn't float away. You will probably have to use bricks or inverted pots to raise your plants to the right level. Floating plants like water hyacinths need no soil at all - little air sacs in their roots keep them at the surface.

To keep mosquito larvae from breeding in your water garden, add two or three small goldfish from the pet store. To help with an algae problem, try snails. Algae can also be prevented from forming by placing the pot in partial shade, although too much shade will prevent water lilies from blooming.

If your pot is large enough, you can add a small pump to the bottom, with a length of plastic pipe that will just clear the water's surface. This will make a burble of a fountain, just enough to keep the water moving so it doesn't stagnate. The pump's electric cord can be camouflaged with foliage where it trails over the edge of the pot, but it will have to be located near an outdoor source of electricity. Submersible pumps can not be operated out of water or their motors will burn out - so watch your water level closely and top it off with the hose whenever necessary.

In areas that rarely freeze, the water garden can remain outdoors year round. Even during a period of light frost, the pump will keep the water from freezing. Water lilies vary in hardiness and tropical varieties will have to be overwintered indoors.

To make an attractive grouping on the patio, position similar containers of a smaller size around your water garden, and plant them with ferns or flowering annuals.

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