Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
July, 2004
Regional Report

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This hardy water lily grows year-round in a large weather-proof container on my patio.

Container Water Gardens

It all started with a mail-order pond kit many years ago: a large terra-cotta colored plastic tub, a submersible pump, a fountain head in the shape of a spitting frog, and a pink-flowering water lily. There were also some bundles of underwater plants and one tiny bog plant. I set it up on my brick patio the day it arrived. A Virginia creeper vine immediately grew all around the sides of the container, and the tub looked like it had been there forever. I soon added a feeder goldfish named Sparkle. I loved my little pond.

Shortly thereafter, the water turned murky green and looked disgusting. I couldn't see Sparkle! Panicky, I researched water gardening and discovered that this is normal for a new set-up. I waited, added more oxygenating plants, and in time the plants grew bigger and the water mostly cleared. Some frogs moved in (I have no idea where they came from) and I noticed snails cleaning the sides of the pond.

Container water gardens are self contained environments. If you create a balance within the pond it will be naturally healthy and easy to care for without much interference from you. Luckily, the kit I received included the basics for a healthy, balanced set-up. What it did not include was lots of prepackaged additives for healthy water. At the garden center recently I was astounded at all the -- need I mention expensive -- products now sold to clear water, kill algae and otherwise "treat" your water garden.

Over the years I have waited out a similar murky spell every spring as the weather and water warm and an algae bloom occurs ... and fades all by itself. I have learned skimming out excess debris such as autumn leaves and pruning faded plant foliage go a long way toward keeping the water quality high. Covering the water surface each summer with plants such as water lilies helps keep the water cooler and also blocks sunlight from entering the pond where it would encourage algae. You do need those so-called marginal or bog plants such as Parrotweed and Pickerel Weed as well as many underwater oxygenating plants such as Anacharis (Elodea) . These contribute to clean water and algae control and provide safe cover for tadpoles and fish.

And when it comes to fish, fewer are better. Just one or two ordinary inexpensive goldfish will eat mosquito larvae and keep you entertained, they also adapt well if you bring them inside for the winter. And unlike koi, goldfish can be kept without special filtration and aeration systems (if you have plenty of the underwater plants in your pond). One caveat: if you feed your goldfish, give them only a tiny bit of food each day. Leftover food will fuel algae in your pond. If you do not keep fish, you should use some other form of mosquito control. I find the donut shaped mosquito dunks containing Bt effective and simple to use -- mark your calendar and toss 'em in on schedule.

Whether or not to use a small recirculating pump is up to you. It requires electricity, but adds to the overall decorative effect of your pond. If you have goldfish, they will appreciate the oxygenating effect and birds will drink from the spray jet. Use a less powerful pump (or no pump) in small ponds because waterlilies prefer calm, still water.

The water in a healthy pond will not be crystal clear, but it will support healthy fish, frogs, blooming plants and the occasional visiting dragonfly. I now have several container water gardens in vessels ranging from stock watering tanks that hold hundreds of gallons (hardy waterlilies and lotus) to an antique tin bath tub (reeds and rushes) to an old and chipped enamel pan (a dwarf papyrus and one very happy fat toad). And maybe best of all, a container water garden is portable -- I still have that first pond, many moves and thousands of miles later.

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