Felder Rushing: It doesn’t take a lot to build a water garden

Published 5:00 pm Thursday, February 21, 2019

Got water? When it comes to making a water garden, you don’t have to dig a whole hole — or even have plants.

In fact, if you’ve ever grown mold in a neglected cup of coffee, you’ve generally got the basics of watering gardening down pat.

I don’t think I enjoy any garden additions as much as water and fire; we’re hardwired for both. But water has lots of benefits, including to wildlife. Honestly, just a big birdbath does all this.

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Over the years my big, dug-out ponds have given way to smaller pools and containers that look great with a fraction of the labor, cost, and upkeep.

But even my first big one was only partly sunk Rather than dig a deep hole, I simply tilled a foot deep, piled the excavated soil around the edge like a levee, and voila! – a whole hole, with a third of the digging…and I didn’t have to haul any dirt away. When I finally removed it, I just pushed the sides into the hole.

Along the way, I found that shaping and leveling the hole – important to keep water inside – was made a lot simpler and easier by building a sandbox-type frame of pressure-treated 2×12 boards. It was easier and a lot sturdier than dirt walls.

Flagstone was laid to protrude over the edge a bit to hide the liner and were instantly steady enough to walk on. I disguised the side facing my garden by sloping the soil up to it and planting with liriope and other clumpy little plants studded with interesting rocks and a moss-covered log.

This can be done any size or scale. Heck, it can be done without even digging at all, just a wooden box set atop the ground or patio, with pond liner. The edge bit can be made of 1×4 facer boards and even painted. My mother’s pond was topped with broken sidewalk bits, misted with overlaps of brown and green spray paint for a remarkably natural look.

Personally, I favor kitschy ones made from inexpensive prefab kits, iron cooking kettles, galvanized steel containers, painted five-gallon buckets – singly or in groups – or even antique claw-footed bathtubs.

For added interest, two or more water gardens can be positioned so water can flow from one to another, with or without a fountain. To make a small waterfall noisier, have it cascade over a flat rock atop a small cave; like cupping your hands around your mouth, it aims and projects sounds.

Speaking of moving water, a simple pump with various changeable fountain features costs less than a steak dinner. Main thing to consider is how to hide the power cord, and making sure it’s plugged into an outlet with a ground-fault interrupter circuit, the kind with a button that pops out if an electric short occurs.

And by the way, moving or splashing water negates mosquito breeding. But you still get birds, butterflies, honeybees, dragonflies, frogs, and other critters that are drawn to water. Even container of still water can be easily emptied from time to time.

As for plants and fish… I personally just say no. Yeah, there are lots of interesting aquatic plants that require water for growing, and pet fish can be entertaining, and they can both be pulled off in even very small water gardens. But I already have plenty of plants; I use my water features as oases of reflective light and soothing sounds.

All sizes and styles of instant but attractive water gardens can be seen in every flower show. Why not one in your own backyard?

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to rushingfelder@yahoo.com.