This water garden was created for a local actor/celebrity, who is a client of Duncan’s Gardening & Landscaping in Monroe. — Duncan’s Gardening & Landscaping photo

You can make your property come alive with the sound and beauty of a water garden, a fashionable element in garden design. “Water gardens enhance a landscape, giving homeowners the opportunity to create and enjoy their own backyard oasis while growing new types of plants. … They also provide an area of quiet reflection and can be a meditative place to relax,” explains Robert Flader, water garden specialist at Benedict’s Home & Garden in Monroe. “Depending on its size, a homeowner can install a water garden over the course of a weekend.”

According to Kris Barker, owner of The Gardener’s Center & Florist in Darien, interest in water gardens increased 30% in the last few years. “People are intrigued by the sound, feeling, and sense of Zen a water garden provides. People tend to start small, and once they experience the simplistic joy it brings, they expand or upgrade. There’s a water garden for everyone, since size and shape possibilities are endless,” says Barker, who often collaborates with Jeff Duncan, owner of Duncan’s Gardening & Landscaping in Monroe, on design and installation, from fountain rocks to swimming ponds to rivers hundreds of feet long.

Tess Massa, manager of Action Water Gardens in Tolland, believes that any type of water garden is worth the expense and work. Here, an example of the company’s work illustrates the beauty of natural elements.

“From a design standpoint, a water garden should fit within all of the elements of your garden or backdrop,” Duncan says. “It depends on the back yard, style of the planting, and your dream vision. When water cascades over the rocks, it reflects sunlight and moonlight to create an amazing ambiance.”

There are DIY kits for homeowners, but Duncan advises consulting a professional for large gardens because it’s important to understand it’s an ecosystem. “The correct selection of plants and gravel will act as its own filtration system and require little maintenance,” he explains. Basic supplies consist of a liner, underlayment, pumps, piping, biofilters, pump chambers, and check valves. A full ecosystem garden includes fish, but there are simpler gardens, like a pondless waterfall without fish. “The water disappears into a basin of gravel and recirculates to the top of the waterfall,” Barker adds, “all the sound and look of a larger system on a smaller scale.”

Tess Massa, manager of Action Water Gardens in Tolland, believes that any type of water garden is worth the expense and work. “The calming sounds of water, the beautiful plants blooming, and the gorgeous koi and goldfish swimming around provide an amazing experience for all ages,” Massa says. “Water gardens are meant to look as natural as anything else you see in nature. We create water features to blend in with their surroundings and have your yard feel like its own tiny oasis.”   

Keep it up

Although properly designed water gardens work with nature to maintain a balanced ecosystem, they require daily skimming, trimming, yearly clean-outs, and the addition of beneficial bacteria for clear water. Water clarity is a necessity. “Without proper maintenance it’s easy for the water to turn brown or green,” Massa says. To prevent discoloration or cloudiness, she advises homeowners not to overpopulate ponds with fish, keep a proper balance of plants, clean out debris, and make sure the pump and filter are the appropriate size and are kept unclogged.

Photo courtesy of Duncan’s Gardening & Landscaping

Water clarity can be achieved through an ecosystem approach or chlorination, according to Duncan. “To keep a pond clean using an ecosystem,” he says, “you just need plants, fish, good bacteria, and a pond circulating the water to keep the oxygen level up. If all these elements are present, each part feeds off the other and the pond stays clear. If one element is missing, the circle of life is broken and the clarity will suffer.”

Plants are also needed to balance the ecosystem. “Plants have valuable biological filtration that helps remove nitrogen, ammonia, nitrates, and other minerals that algae feed on. Plants also provide food, shade and protection for fish,” Massa explains.

There are three types of plants: floating, marginal and aquatic. All offer easy care because they’re already in water. “Popular floating plants, like water hyacinths and water lettuce, float around, roots and all, adding beauty and mitigating algae growth by absorbing nutrients algae need to thrive,” says Sean Corenki, manager of The Gardener’s Center & Florist. “During summer, they spread out and cover the water surface, providing shade and a cooling effect for the fish below. In August they have an incredible showy purple flower.”

Photo courtesy of Action Water Gardens

Marginal plants, such as cattails, pickerel rush, cardinal flower, and swamp hibiscus, live in shallow water on the pond’s edge. “Submerged plants, like water lilies and lotus, are sunk in the pond, pot and all. Foliage and flowers grow to the water’s surface, providing color and a place for frogs and dragonflies to rest in the sun,” Corenki says. Along with water plants, Flader suggests planting annuals around the garden for season-long color.

Decorative elements, including concrete statuary, birdbaths, lighting, and gazing balls complement a garden. “We have a pouring urn that filters the water as it pours into the pond, which provides an added bonus of keeping your water clear,” says Massa. For a serene setting, Corenki suggests a Buddha figure and Asian lantern, or, for whimsy, add elves, gnomes and fairies. “A bench or garden seat is a decorative and practical touch,” Corenki adds.

Most water gardens attract birds and other animals. “Birds love water gardens, especially those that feature moving water. They’ll visit regularly to drink and cool off on hot summer days,” says Corenki. “Aquatic plants attract dragon and damsel flies, and as flying insects discover the garden, frogs, salamanders and turtles will follow.”  

As Massa says, “You get to come home every day to something that’s relaxing and is an amazing tool to teach you about Mother Nature.” Duncan agrees. “Water features create a sort of Zen feeling, and their naturalist beauty gives a sense of peace,” he says. “It’s like a private vacation spot in your own back yard.”