Just Add Water:  Create Your Own Backyard Oasis with a Pond

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

Hidden away among the sheltered canyons of the Texas Hill country, countless springs bubble up from the deep recesses of the Edwards aquifer. The water spills into pools that form streams, attracting all sorts of plant and animal life. Foxes and ring tailed cats pay nocturnal visits to quench their thirst and hunt. Maiden hair ferns cling to the dripping cliff faces, providing a touch of tropical lushness. The brutal heat of the Texas sun makes these verdant oases all the more precious. Water- it changes everything.

From ancient Delphi to modern Austin, mankind has long held springs “sacred”. It shouldn’t surprise us then that so many people are creating their own backyard versions of these places by adding ponds and other water features. When I talk with folks about garden design, I encourage them to use their favorite places in nature as their guides and, in this case, I actually followed my own advice. I fell in love with Central Texas in a canyon very much like the one described above, so, when I designed my current garden, I decided to include my own version of a Hill Country spring.  However, I was unprepared for the impact my “spring” was to have on both my garden and my life.

What I have learned is that adding a pond or other water feature will transform your garden more completely than any other single thing you can do. Once our pond was finished, it immediately became the heart of our garden. My partner and I were drawn to the soothing sound of our small waterfall and would sit for hours enjoying the plants and fish.  The tensions of the work day simply melted away and the water seemed to make even the hottest of days bearable. The old saying that “All great garden paths lead you to water,” certainly rang true for us, all of our trips to the garden seemed to end beside our pond.

We worked with a contractor to install our pond and feel as if we got much more than we ever expected from the collaboration that resulted. We had a firm idea about the design we wanted, but he brought his own sense of artistry to the project, along with construction experience. Hundreds of Central Texas gardeners, however, are building their own ponds with excellent results. A good friend of ours recently completed a pond that is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in Austin, it is a deep brick-lined pool with a waterfall and stream, it works like a charm and he did all of the labor himself.

Everyone asks us how much time we spend maintaining our pond, they assume that ponds are difficult to keep clean and ‘balanced.’ However, the truth is that ponds require about as much time and effort as a simple perennial bed. For most of the year, it takes just a few minutes a week to keep the pond maintained. The key is to find the right balance of plants and fish and then the pond will settle into its own self-sustaining routine.

We chose a contrasting mix of flowering and foliage plants for our pond. The bloomers include several different varieties of hardy water lilies, Louisiana iris, and pickerel rush. The water lilies add a spectacular show of color to the pond. We chose hardy lilies because we didn’t want to baby the tropical varieties through the winter. However, this limited our selection to day bloomers which tend to close by late afternoon. The hardy lilies also lack the deep purple hues of some of the tropicals, but the color selection is still wonderful- ranging from pure white to hot pink.

Louisiana irises have long been among my favorite plants. They are a bog species and are well adapted to growing in permanently soggy spots. Their bloom period is relatively short, just a few weeks in early spring, but their dramatic leaves add interest to the pond throughout the year. Pickerel rush is one of the hardiest and most fool proof of the water plants. It rewards you with purple flower spikes all summer long.

Fish are a must for any pond- they add their own unique beauty, help keep the pond balanced, and provide natural mosquito control. The big question here is which kind, goldfish or koi? Koi are actually a form of carp and can grow very large. They are prized for their myriad of colors and forms and many people choose koi as the centerpieces of their pond. The downside to koi is that they will eat hardy lilies and can be very expensive. Goldfish, on the other hand, can cost less than a dollar and will still provide lots of color and movement. And despite your experiences as a kid with them going belly-up in the goldfish bowl, they are super hardy in a pond setting.

One of the best features of any pond is that it is certain to turn your garden into a wildlife refuge. All sorts of critters will be attracted to the water. Just be sure that your pond is deep enough to discourage swimming, otherwise the neighborhood raccoons may mistake it for an all you can eat sushi buffet.

There are lots of helpful local resources to get you started with water gardening. Probably the best is the network of other “ponders” that make up the Austin Pond Society. This group mixes together professionals, dedicated amateurs, and beginners. They love to share information and sponsor one of the biggest garden events of the year, the annual Pond Society Tour. You can reach them via their web address: www.austinpondsociety.org. Happy pondering!

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