For generations of Kentuckians, a pond has meant a small body of water, generally near the barn, where livestock drank, kids learned to swim, and catfish thrived. These ponds still dot the Kentucky landscape, but “pond” has come to mean something entirely different to more and more Kentuckians. To them the word brings to mind a water garden, carefully developed and planted to offer a new dimension to landscaping.
“Water has a calming, tranquilizing effect-we seek lakes and oceans for vacations,” says Tom Gladney, who six years ago turned his water gardening hobby into Enchanted Water Gardens, a LaGrange business. “Decorative ponds and water gardens make up the fastest growing segment of landscaping business in the United States,” he says.
Water gardens are certainly not a recent invention-ancient Mediterranean estates boasted elaborate spring-fed water gardens. In the early 1900s, many a city yard had a concrete fish pond. Memories of rural Kentucky childhoods abound with pictures of natural water gardens: frogs sitting on water lilies or armloads of cattails picked from the water’s edge to bring home. What is new is the flurry of small, human-made “ponds” being built in less-than-estate-size yards.
There is much more to “ponding” than just digging a hole. For starters the hole must have a liner, either a plastic one placed in the gardener-designed hole or a store-bought, fiberglass custom-shaped form. And ponds are far from free; beginners can plan to spend at least $400-500 for a small garden. The costs, like any project that includes the word “garden,” can, of course, go much higher, but the good news is that the continuing expense is light, and plants can often be traded among fellow ponders. In back yards and front lawns throughout the state, Kentuckians are finding that, armed with patience and good advice, ponding can be a delightfully rewarding experience.
Water Garden Basics
If you’re thinking about starting a water garden, here’s what you’ll want to know about:
John Michler, a fourth-generation Lexington horticulturist, suggests that the first consideration should be to place the pond so that it looks like it has always been there.
“Sometimes people put the water garden right in the center of the yard, so that it appears to be an object dropped from outer space,” he says. “Water seeks low space; the garden should be where water would naturally belong.”
While it is possible to have a water garden in full shade, blooming, colorful gardens require half to full sun.
Water plants can be divided into three categories, says Michler: uprights, floaters, and underwater plants. A survey of Kentucky water gardeners yielded the following preferred plants:
For uprights (also called “marginals”): water iris (Iris pseudacorus), lotus, canna (Longwood varieties), cattails (Typha laxmannii), and blue pickerel rush (Pontederia
For floaters: floating water hyacinths, water lettuce, and water lilies. While both tropical and hardy water lilies are easily available, the hardy ones will prove easier for beginners. (It is possible to keep tropicals over winter, but that requires a suitable indoor environment.) Arlene Alexander, a Henderson County gardener, suggests the hardy water lily James Brydon because of its vibrant red blooms. She also includes mosaics (Ludwigia sedioides) in her list of favorites, even though they must be treated as annuals and sometimes prove more difficult to grow than the other floaters.
For underwater plants (oxygenators): hornwort (Ceratophyllum) and anacharis (Elodea). These plants are vital to the ecological balance of a water garden.
Fish, tadpoles, and frogs. Fish add to a garden’s expense, and while they are lovely, they are not necessary to the success of a water garden. Tadpoles, treasured because they are scavengers, will show up-invited or not-in a Kentucky water garden.
Experienced water gardeners caution that beginners often start with too many fish, or use inappropriate plants (a sun lover, for instance, in half shade). But the greatest bane of ponders is algae. Mechanical filter systems can help keep algae under control, or gardeners can rely on biologically balanced ecosystems.
Michler compares a backyard pond to a science project. It
is, he says, a living ecosystem. “It’s not at all uncommon for algae to get the upper hand. People want clear water, and that takes a while. Oxygenating plants compete with algae for oxygen, and as the plants get better established they will clear the water. A healthy and not overfed fish population will help because fish eat algae.”-Gail King
Wintering a Kentucky Water Garden
Arlene Alexander, a psychology professor at Henderson Community College and a water gardener, offers surviving-winter advice:
Trim the foliage off submergible plants and leave them below the freeze line.
A child’s swimming pool topped with a shop light makes a good basement home for tropical marginals (upright plants) in the winter.
Place a tent-type net-covered frame above the pond to keep leaves out.
Do not let the pond freeze over completely-keep the pump running all winter or use a small heater.-Gail King
Water Garden Info
In addition to your local garden center-always the first choice for local expertise-the following can provide plants, equipment, and information.
International Waterlily Society: IWGS, Suite 328-612, 1401 Johnson Ferry Rd., Marietta, GA 30062-8115 (iwgs.org)
Lilypons Water Gardens: www.lilypons.com or (800) 999-LILY
Lori Frasier (a Madisonville water gardener): www.apex.net/users/lfrasier
Michler’s Florist and Greenhouses: (606) 254-0383
Ponds and Aquatic Plants forum:
Suite 101: suite101.com/welcome.cfm/water_gardening
The Water Garden: www.watergarden.com or (423) 870-2838.