Garden design begins with water.
Well, many garden designers would argue this point, but we think that a great garden begins with basic elements: wind, sun, earth and water.
To a large degree, the first three elements are in place before we dig a hole to plant or turn a pencil to paper for design. Water adds texture and life. Moving water adds a relaxing sound.
There are practical reasons for adding water to your landscape, too. A large pond can cool down your yard on a hot day, it never requires mowing and if properly built and maintained, it will seldom require weeding.
Environmentally, ponds are rich. A well-placed and designed pond can help manage storm run-off during the rainy season and provide essential habitat for birds, water bugs, amphibians and insects.
How can you build a soothing, ecologically thriving pond in your own backyard? We have some suggestions.
– Hire an expert. It’s essential to hire somebody who knows what they are doing. Building a pond is not the same as digging a pool or laying interlock.
– Establish your needs. Start by figuring out how much space you have for a pond, and bear in mind that you will need to check with your municipality regarding zoning. Over a certain size and depth, you might be required to add a fence to keep children safe.
– Let the ecosystem do the work for you. A pond is far more complex than a stagnant vessel of water, it is a living system that is constantly changing. Plants, animals, oxygen and water are interconnected. Follow basic principals to maintain a balance and to help keep the water healthy and moderately clear.
To help you get it right the first time we recommend the book Building Natural Ponds (New Society Publishers) by our friend Robert Pavlis: http://www.buildingnaturalponds.com/?page_id=17.
Go wild with plants: There are plenty of native plant species losing their habitat across our province, and your backyard pond is an excellent refuge for many important specimens. Ecologically, plants remove excess nutrients from the water and increase oxygen levels to improve the overall health of your pond and those living in your yard, including you. Some water-plants that we love:
– Bulrush (Scirpus validus) is the classic marshland favourite, increasingly being pushed out of existence by the more aggressive and invasive phragmites. If you’ve ever crushed a bulrushes antenna-like seedpod come autumn, there is something immensely satisfying about watching the seedlings float off in the wind.
– Water buttercup (Ranunculus spp.) thrives in shallow water and shorelines, popping out a yellow flower which is a favourite of bees, flies and beetles (all-important pollinators).
– Large Blue Flag (Iris versicolour) is an Ontario native iris that grows in water and develops a large blue iris flower come spring. The benefit of planting water iris is that even when they are not blooming, their grass-like leaves have a nice visual effect.
– White water lily (Nymphaea odorata) we couldn’t make a list of favourite native water plants without including the floating water lilies. They are majestic, perfect flowers floating on the water’s surface, they also serve a multitude of ecological purposes as native plants. The leaves shade out algae beneath the water’s surface while providing a hiding place for fish. A healthy pond should be half-covered with waterlilies.
With some of these ideas in mind, we add one more piece of inspiration: if you haven’t already decided to build your own waterfront — no traffic. Pull up a Muskoka chair, we can ‘cheers’ to that.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.