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water garden with lilies and lotus flowers

Backyard Water Gardens: Get Your Feet Wet!

Everyone loves a water feature in the garden. They attract wildlife, imitate the soothing sounds of a tumbling brook, and give friends a place to make idiots of themselves when they've had too much Scotch. What's more, they open up opportunities for gardeners to tinker with water-loving plants. 

Don't get hung up on "ponds" when you imagine garden water features. They're not for everyone, especially those with small kids, limited space, or dogs that love to pretend they're otters. You've got options, including those that can move with you if you relocate, or garden zones that are either difficult to irrigate or already get too much water for traditional bedding plants. First, let's look at the major groups of soggy-bottom species.

Water garden plants by zone

Let's approach water garden design from the perspective of nature, taking into account the ecosystems surrounding and within bodies of water. Many of our Seed Needs customers live on properties with existing ponds, creeks, and lakes, and you might want your own water feature to reflect your area's native environment. The big-picture view lets you get a sense of how you might blend your water feature — in or above ground — into your landscaping scheme. 

Border (or buffer) species

Riparian plants are those that thrive near bodies of water. These can be shrubs, grasses, or trees on dry ground or a short distance from banks. They assist with erosion control, provide cover for wildlife, and help absorb runoff from surrounding areas. Border species are important transition plants between surface water and high-pollution zones such as roads and agricultural fields, absorbing chemicals and fertilizer that would otherwise reach and pollute natural water sources. As a bonus, tree canopies that reach over the water drop caterpillar snacks for amphibians and fish. 

These shrubs and trees usually withstand seasonal flooding or spots with slow-to-drain soil. Try them near downspouts and birdbaths, low areas, or in a spot that will satisfy your compulsion to overwater. (Hey, we get it; hoses are fun if you don't have to irrigate by hand all the time!)

  • American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
  • California sycamore (Platanus racemosa)
  • Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)
  • Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
  • Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)
  • Huckberry/sugarberry (Celti spp.)
  • Northern arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
  • Red maple (Acer rubrum)
  • River birch (Betula nigra)
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
  • Weeping willow (Salix babylonica)
  • White ash (Fraxinus americana)

Most of these are fast-growing species that also provide erosion control, slowing the amount of water that flows over and through the topsoil. Some, especially the willow species, have shallow, aggressive roots that can wreak havoc on underwater plumbing, irrigation, and sewage lines so take care where you plant them. 

Marginal species

Plants with soil-bound roots that require consistent moisture but that have stems and foliage that grow above the surface create a transition between the bank and deeper water. Marginal plants slow down moving water, therefore sheltering amphibian eggs, harboring fish fry (baby fish, not breaded cod) and providing camouflage for herons, cranes, and fish-eating critters. Birds will perch on marginal plants, snapping up emergent aquatic insects. 

Marginal plants help shade shallow water, giving fish and other aquatic species a place to dodge the heat of the day. Here are a few of our favorites: 

  • Bulrush (Scirpus spp.)
  • Canna lily(Canna spp.)
  • Cattail (Typha spp.)
  • Egyptian paper rush (Cyperus papyrus)
  • Flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus)
  • Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)
  • Mosaic Plant (Ludwigia Sediodes)
  • Pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata)
  • Watercress (Nasturtium officinale
  • Water poppy (Hydrocleys nymphoides) 
  • Yellow or blue flag iris (Iris pseudacorus, Iris versicolor)

Honorable mentions include most mints, particularly water mint, bee balm, peppermint, and spearmint. Water poppy, by the way, is sometimes used as a floating specimen though it prefers being planted. 

Public service announcement: You might see purple loosestrife seeds advertised on pond websites. It's a gorgeous plant, but highly invasive. Do your local wetlands and waterways a favor and take a hard pass on growing this water-loving plant. 

Emergent plants

When you think of ponds, you probably think of lily pads and lotus flowers. These iconic plants sink their roots, rhizomes, and tubers into the boggy bottoms of still or slow-moving water, sending their broad leaves to the surface on thin stalks. These are classic emergent species. 

Some of the plants we included in the marginal category also qualify as emergent pond plants, but the following are less freaked out about growing in deeper parts of a pond. Many never peek above the water's surface. 

  • Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia)
  • Spatterdock (Nuphar spp.)
  • Water hawthorne (Aponogeton distachyos)
  • Water lily (Nymphea spp.)

These plants do well in submerged containers if you have an artificially-lined pond. This is a bonus if you want to overwinter your pond plants indoors or in a sheltered spot where they won't freeze, or move them around to suit natural currents. Most emergent and marginal plants don't do well in currents so protect them by artfully placing rocks and ledges to slow currents or shield them from direct water flows. 

Floating species

Some aquatic plants don't take root at all, growing entirely on the surface and drawing nutrients from the water itself. Their primary ecological "job" is providing cover for fish and, by blocking sunlight, keeping water temperatures and algae loads in check. 

Popular floating plant species include: 

  • Duckweed (Lemna spp.)
  • Fairy moss (Azolla spp.)
  • Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes)
  • Water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes)

Water hyacinth is one of the most invasive of aquatic plants, with the fastest growth on record. They're less a problem in colder regions where they only winter indoors, but in Florida and California, they're an enormous ecological problem.

The Azolla genus has its own foundation dedicated to promoting the plant as a livestock food supply, renewable energy source, water regulating plant, and essential habitat feature. Duckweed, while not as bulky, also grows quickly and can be fed to chickens and other small livestock. 

Research before diving into your new water garden

If you already have a body of water on your property — a creek, livestock pond, or the margins of a wetland — justify your gardening obsession as conservation by enhancing and restoring existing surface water features. Take care to contain any species considered invasive to the area. Plants can spread through runoff, flooding, and by hitchhiking on (and in) wildlife. Even if your pond is "landlocked," pond plants do find a way to escape. 

We're always advocating for pestering your local agricultural extension agent. Here's what you should ask: 

  • Are there legal restrictions on using or altering existing surface water resources?
  • Which riparian species are native or invasive to your area?
  • Would you violate downstream water rights or conservation legislation if you altered stream banks or diverted water to ponds or pools?

Some states, such as Colorado, are incredibly finicky about surface water management to the point of once having outlawed rain barrels

Container water gardening 

You can build your own in-ground pond using flexible EPDM liner material or rigid ABS drop-in forms, but for a lower-maintenance scheme on a smaller scale, look into above-ground containers. Large pots, old clawfoot bathtubs, corrugated steel livestock troughs, and that giant satellite dish that's been sitting in the backyard since the early 80s all make suitable water environments. You can even find pre-molded drop-in liners for half-barrels. 

Get creative with containers designed for individual pond plants. Floating baskets and submersible pots let you play around with your aquascaping aesthetic, and recirculation pumps come in every size and flow rate for that relaxing sound of falling water. Just keep the path clear when you're on the patio drinking beer because you know what the sound of water does after you've had a few. 

Fending off unwanted wildlife

Koi pond and water garden

If you decide to keep turtles or fish in your ponds, be prepared to sacrifice a large portion of their population to herons and raccoons. Some of the same solutions we suggested in "How to Keep Cats Out of Your Garden" will work around your backyard pond. Raccoons are smart, though, and will outsmart motion-activated sprinklers. If you share your neighborhood with wild martens, mink, or weasels, well, kiss those pretty fishies goodbye.

Your best bet if you plan to keep expensive koi? Build deep and create hidey-holes where critters can't reach them. The downside is that doing so will make it more difficult for pets and kids to climb out. 

During drought, larger animals will be more inclined to drink from your pond. Deer will do it anyway because they're jerks with no respect for boundaries. 

Barley straw, either loose or in compressed pellets, is a popular natural solution for reducing algae. Store-bought "dunks" or pellets will discourage mosquitos from breeding in your ponds, or you can ask your extension agent or pond supply store if they supply tiny mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis).

Start planning your water gardens now!

Grab a beer and wander around your property. Decide which water features or conservation projects suit your environment, budget, and aesthetics, and decide if you're up for the effort and investment. We won't fib and say that elaborate water features enhance a home's value, but they can expand the scope of your gardening obsession and make you feel good about giving back to your local ecosystem. 

We don't sell and ship emergent and floating pond plants, but many of the species in our seed catalog love water and will work beautifully along borders or in boggier spots on your property. Contact us for suggestions, and feel free to share your favorites! 

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