Just add water

A pond can cool down your yard on a hot day, it never requires mowing and it will seldom require weeding.

by Ben & Mark Cullen | photography by Mark Cullen

We think that a great garden begins with basic elements: wind, sun, earth and water.

To a large degree, the first three elements are in place before we dig a hole or apply a pencil to paper for design. Water adds texture and life. Moving water adds relaxing sound.

There are practical reasons for adding water to your landscape, too. A large pond can cool down your yard on a hot day, it never requires mowing and, if properly built and maintained, it will seldom require weeding.

Environmentally, ponds are rich. A well-placed and designed pond can help manage storm run-off during the rainy season and provide essential habitat for birds, water bugs, amphibians and insects.

How can you build a soothing, ecologically thriving pond in your own backyard? We have some suggestions.

Hire an expert

It is important to hire somebody who knows what they are doing. Building a pond is not the same as digging a pool or laying interlock. We recommend contacting Landscape Ontario (LandscapeOntario.com), the association of horticultural professionals in Ontario, who can direct you to a pond specialist.

Establish your needs

Start by figuring out how much space you have for a pond and bear in mind that you will need to check with your municipality regarding zoning. Over a certain size and depth, you might be required to add a fence to keep children safe.

Let the ecosystem do the work for you

A pond is far more complex than a stagnant vessel of water, it is a living system that is constantly changing. Plants, animals, oxygen and water are interconnected. Follow basic principals to maintain a balance and to help keep the water healthy and moderately clear.

To help you get it right the first time we recommend the book Building Natural Ponds (New Society Publishers) by our friend Robert Pavlis of Guelph, Ont.

Go wild with plants

There are plenty of native plant species losing their habitat across our province, and your backyard pond is an excellent refuge for many important specimens. Ecologically, plants remove excess nutrients from the water and increase oxygen levels to improve the overall health of your pond and those living in your yard, including you.

Some waterplants that we love:

• Bulrush (Scirpus validus) is the classic marshland favourite, increasingly being pushed out of existence by the more aggressive and invasive phragmites. If you have ever crushed a bulrush’s antenna-like seedpod come autumn, you know there is something immensely satisfying about watching the seeds float off in the wind. An Ontario childhood memory worth propagating.

• Water buttercup (Ranunculus) thrives in shallow water and shorelines, popping out a yellow flower which is a favourite of bees, flies and beetles (all important pollinators).

• Large Blue Flag (Iris versicolour) is an Ontario native iris which grows in water and develops a large blue iris flower come spring. The benefit of planting water iris is that even when they are not blooming, their grass-like leaves have a nice visual effect.

• White water lily (Nymphaea odorata). We could not make a list of favourite native water plants without including the floating water lilies. They have majestic, perfect flowers floating on the water’s surface and they also serve a multitude of ecological purposes as native plants. The leaves shade out algae beneath the water’s surface while providing a hiding place for fish. A healthy pond should be half-covered with waterlilies.

Consider a water garden

If one of your garden goals is to maximize the attraction of beneficial insects, songbirds, butterflies and hummingbirds, consider a water garden.

The most impactful addition you can make to your garden is to add still water. A half barrel, a pond or any small container filled with water and “managed’” with oxygenating plants like water hyacinths, will attract amphibians, dragonflies and many more helpful critters in the local environment.

When you are successful in attracting frogs, toads and salamanders to your water garden, you have achieved a very special level of success. These creatures breathe through their skin and are very sensitive to environmental changes and pollution. Nurture them by not disturbing your water garden too severely each spring. Provide habitat by placing water plants in your water garden.

Locate your water feature in part sun. Ideally about 60 per cent of the surface of the water should be shaded. You can provide shade using a nearby shade tree, water plants that float and by planting broad leaved water lilies that produce leaves up to the surface of the water.

Enjoy the show

Butterflies and dragonflies love ponds. Especially where water lilies and other broad-leaved plants sit on the surface of the water.

These flying insects do not use bird baths to either drink from or bathe. They are both “top heavy” and prefer to drink from water droplets on the surface of water plants or in mud, which can occur at the margin of your pond. Note that dragonfly nymphs live in still water for up to four years before they mature into flying adults. Another good reason not to clean your pond too thoroughly each spring.

A water feature can add many hours of enjoyment to your gardening experience.

Mark Cullen is a Member of the Order of Canada. He reaches over two million Canadians with his gardening/environment messages every week. Receive his free monthly newsletter at MarkCullen.com. Ben Cullen is a professional gardener with a keen interest in food gardening and the environment. He is the owner of Cullen’s Foods CullensFoods.com.

You can follow both Mark and Ben on Twitter @MarkCullen4, Facebook @MarkCullenGardening and Pinterest: @MarkCullenGardening

Ben and Mark Cullen