Compact, Attractive, Serene
by Sonoma County Master Gardener Sandy Metzger
In the middle of a typical hot, dry Mediterranean summer in Sonoma County, do you ever get that craving for a bit of water in your yard? Something you could swirl your fingers into, creating small concentric circles of tiny waves? Or see little fish scooting between leaves and rocks? Or see the clouds reflected in the surface? I do.
You can, too, and it won’t require a backhoe, an artesian well, a pump, or year-round stream. Perfectly lovely and satisfying water gardens can be created in many common containers. An ideal one is a watertight half wine barrel, preferably an unused one (cleaning a red wine barrel is a challenge). Other excellent vessels could be a large ceramic pot or bowl, or galvanized tub or horse trough, whatever matches your garden, patio, or deck décor.
Consider the character of you garden. Decide what look you want: hardy water lilies or hyacinths floating on the water, unusual grasses, dwarf cattails or bog plants, or floriferous perennials for splashes of color. Whichever way you decide to go, I think it's important to see some of the water. As small an area as it may be, there's a certain calming aspect to the water with its reflections of trees and clouds. And don’t be surprised if you see butterflies or birds drinking from it or even a couple of dragonflies buzzing around.
You may be immediately concerned about what else your water garden will attract: mosquitoes. You can deal with that in several ways: add year-round mosquito fish (free from the Mosquito and Vector Control District or local nursery), or a "mosquito dunk" or other similar product. Mosquito fish readily reproduce and overwinter very well here. A pond or fountain "cleanser" helps keep the algae at bay. During the hotter months, you'll have to add water once or twice a week to keep it level with the top of your pots.
If your water garden is in a large trough, use bricks or cinderblocks as a base upon which to set your ceramic or terra cotta pots, adjusting them to the height of the trough’s top edge. Plastic nursery pots do not work well as they tend to float and tip, spilling soil or mulch into the water.
By their nature, container gardens are theoretically moveable gardens; however, relocating a water garden is a challenge, unless it’s already on wheels. It's best to begin in the right location: in the sun and away from trees and plants dropping debris. If you use residential water with added chlorine and other chemicals, fill up your container and let it sit for three or four days to allow the chlorine to dissipate. Rainwater, of course, is perfect for water gardens, but you’ll have to top it off as the water evaporates.
There is a wide range of emergent, submergent, and floating plants for water gardens. If you design a larger, in-ground pond, specialists recommend using several of each category. However, in a small container water garden, you need not worry about that. Some of your choices include reeds and rushes, water lilies, grasses, lotus, water hyacinth, irises, cattails, and cannas.
You can go to any "big box" or independent nursery to find healthy and appropriate plants for your water garden. Depending upon the size of your container, select about three to five plants for your little "pond". For example, Equisetum hyemale (Horsetail) and Lobelia cardinalis (Cardinal Flower), can thrive in or out of water, can reach two to three feet and lend a vertical aspect to a container; each will likely have to be divided every two years or so. The lobelia attracts both hummers and butterflies but is deciduous; the equisetum doesn’t flower but is evergreen.
Your water garden does not have to be an expensive project or one that gets you frantic about “doing it right”. Just do it. Place an attractive container where you want it, fill it up,
and put some appropriate plants in it and perhaps some unusual rocks. If you would like professional advice or specialized plants, try the Pond and Garden Nursery on Stony Point Road at Highway 116 in Cotati. Otherwise, get that old trough out from behind the garage, clean it, and create a lovely little water garden for the birds, butterflies, dragonflies—and yourself!