Gardener: Building a water garden

There's something primal about water -- we're drawn to it. Watching clouds reflected on its surface, listening to the musical sounds it produces, seeing fish swimming lazily among rocks and plants, can sooth us like nothing else. Maybe that's why so many people have a water feature in their gardens.

A water feature is usually the focal point of a garden, and should match its style. An elegant rectangular or circular pool would complement the geometric beds and straight paths of a formal garden. Meandering pathways and easygoing planting schemes would favor a water feature with undulating edges and a natural look. The paving and planting at any pool's edge should blend the pool and surrounding landscape together.

If possible, locate your water feature where you can enjoy it most -- near a window close to your easy chair or next to the patio or deck where you can spend a pleasant summer evening. Once you've found the perfect setting, consider the needs of the feature and its occupants before you dig. Avoid low or poorly drained areas where rainwater runoff might contaminate the water.

You'll want at least five hours of direct sun daily to support light-hungry water plants. Still water is the ideal environment for many delicate aquatic plants like water lilies that can't take rushing torrents. A still-water pool makes a perfect mirror to reflect the colors of summer, the clouds in the sky and the fire of fall leaves. If your pool is large enough, a flowing fountain or waterfall at one end will leave the water still enough at the other for fragile plants.

Moving water's ever-changing sounds and shapes can have a relaxing effect. Water's sound can even be adjusted to personal taste: the farther it falls, the louder the sound. Dampen the tones with lush plantings or amplify them by building a small, cavelike resonating chamber behind the waterfall to reflect sound back.

There are several basic types of aquatic plants for a water garden. Oxygenators are rapid-growing, floating plants sold in clumps. They release oxygen into the water through photosynthesis, and shade the water to help prevent algae growth. Parrot feather, water hyacinth and water poppy are popular oxygenators.

Emergent plants like water lilies are the signature water plant. Hardy varieties have rounded leaves and white, yellow or rosy flowers that float on the water. They overwinter in Zones 3-10. Tropical water lilies also come in lilac and blue tones, have scalloped leaves and hold their flowers on stems that stand out of the water. They are either grown as annuals or removed from the water and stored in damp moss where they won't freeze.

Both have cultivars tiny enough for even the smallest water gardens. Hardy water lilies include bright red "Louise," bright pink "Pink Opal" and white "Walter Pagels." Tropical water lilies include deep blue "Midnight," pink "Texas Shell Pink" and night-blooming, white "Woods White Night." Arrowhead and dwarf papyrus provide a strong vertical accent to low-growing floaters.

For the edge transition zone between pool and dry land, plant moisture-loving ground covers, bog plants and perennials like lady's mantle, Siberian irises, yellow flag, lobelias, ferns and primrose.

If you want to start small or just create a showpiece container for a deck or patio, use a 15- to 25-gallon (or larger) lightweight fiberglass pot. Run the electric cord of a small submersible pump through the drain hole and seal the hole with silicone caulk. Fill the pot with water and plant with a mix of oxygenators, low and tall emergent plants. There are plenty of how-to articles and videos online that can take you through the entire process. It's a simple and inexpensive project that only takes an hour or two to set up and a great introduction to the many benefits of having a water garden.

(Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.)

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