Designing Your Backyard Water Garden

Water gardens can be very different.  Some are formal; others informal. They can be small or huge, lush with greenery or sleek with none, extremely contemporary or deeply traditional. What kind of water garden do you want? Collect all the ideas you can. Flip through water garden books and magazines. Search online. Go on water garden tours in your area. Then take these elements into consideration:

Your Home's Architecture

As a rule, it’s more harmonious to create a water garden that matches or complements your home's style and building materials, as well as any existing features, such as a deck, patio, or porch. If you have, for example, a flagstone patio attached to a brick home, a water feature made with the same type of stone and brick would fit in beautifully. Gain inspiration from your home’s materials, too, including painted wood, stucco, stone, brick, and shake. Take a look at your home’s style also, and design a garden that complements your home’s style, such as Mediterranean, mid-century modern, colonial, country cottage, or Tudor.     

Regional Considerations

Consider your region's history and style when designing a water garden. Lava rock, for example, can look jarring in a Midwestern garden.     On the other hand, in the South, there is a rich tradition of formal, symmetrical gardens to draw on and a formal, traditional water garden looks right at home. In the arid Southwest, a tradition of Mediterranean-style gardening translates beautifully into fountains and other features.

Informal and Formal

Formal water features are usually symmetrical, that is, if you cut them in half they'd be exactly the same on one side as the other. Circular, rectangular, and square water gardens are all formal water gardens. Informal gardens are more casual in shape and more versatile for planting schemes of all kinds. They’re usually a more irregular shape, and often incorporate naturally shaped stone, boulders, and other elements for a relaxed look.

Contemporary and Traditional

Some water gardens have a traditional feel, such as a lion’s head fountain or a circular or rectangular formal lily pond. They’re classics and for good reason are found in many home gardens. Contemporary water features usually have a sleek, modern look about them, or feature abstract elements, such as rough columnar fountains. Many contemporary water features make inventive use of traditional features, such as copper, slate, and stone.    

Aboveground vs. In-ground

In-ground water features are just that—they are created by digging a hole in the soil. Aboveground features include pools and ponds with raised sides, held in place with stone, brick, wood, concrete, or other steady materials. There are many styles of in-ground and aboveground water features, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Both can fit with a wide variety of styles and suit many different tastes. Aboveground features are ideal in situations where digging would be difficult because of rock or roots. They’re also desirable if you want a ledge to sit on. In-ground features are more natural looking and are better insulated against extremes of hot and cold. Some gardeners mistakenly believe they are easier to install than aboveground features, but that's not necessarily so. It all depends on the design and the building materials.

Designing for Fish and Plants

Nearly any style of water garden can host plants and fish. Even a small container garden can host a goldfish or two and a floating plant. You can put nearly as many plants as you want in a water garden. Some will float on the surface; others grow in pots set on the bottom of the pond or on a stand or on a more shallow area, created as part of the pond design. For more fish or plants, as a rule of thumb, you’ll need 5 gallons of water for every “inch” of fish. So, if you want two 3-inch goldfish in your pond, you’ll need a capacity of at least 30 gallons. Fish also do best if the water is aerated with a pump and kept clean with a filter to make sure the water has plenty of oxygen for them and to keep their waste in check. Plants also help oxygenate and filter the water of high-nitrogen fish waste.


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