What Is A Water Garden? (Plus 11 Ideas To Get You Started)


If you’re looking for something that will satisfy your love of water and plants while improving the visual appeal of your property, a water garden just might be the answer.

A water garden is an enclosed area on a landscape that features aquatic plants. Ponds with or without waterfalls, fountains, or above-ground containers filled with plants can all be considered water gardens. 

While starting a water garden is simpler than you might think, much strategic planning is required for it to flourish. This article will tell you what you’ll need to get started building your ideal water feature. 

What Is A Water Garden?

A water garden, also known as an aquatic garden, is an enclosure containing submerged plants as the main feature. These eye-catching features have been around for centuries, originating in ancient Chinese and Persian gardens.

water garden Naples Botanical Garden Florida
A water garden (or aquatic garden) contains submerged plants as the main feature.

Although water gardens vary in size and depth, most are typically small and shallow. Submerged plants have specific depth requirements for optimum health.

It’s also easier to control the temperature and nutrients in the water on a smaller scale.  No matter what you grow in your water garden, consideration of size, temperature, and circulation will lead to a thriving ecosystem. 

What Is The Purpose Of A Water Garden?

There are several reasons one might start an aquatic garden. Water features can be a stunning focal point on a property and help create a peaceful, relaxing atmosphere. Most homeowners use them for aesthetic purposes. 

Italian water garden Longwood Gardens
Water gardens and other water features make for a peaceful, relaxing atmosphere.

Building and maintaining a water garden also allows plant enthusiasts to care for species they may not otherwise own due to their required conditions. Many beautiful plants thrive in an aquatic environment but don’t do well in soil. 

Another common purpose of a water garden is to provide a healthy environment for fish and other small water-dwellers such as waterfowl. Not only do the plants add visual interest, but they also filter excess nitrogen, control algae, and are sometimes a source of food for fish. 

(You can learn about some popular fish for aquaponics here).

How To Make A Water Garden

Building a water garden could be a fun, easy project depending on the size and complexity of your vision. As with any project, strategic planning is essential for long-term success. Here’s how to get started:

Step One: Design Your Garden

Before you do anything else, figure out what you want in your garden – just plants? Ornamental fish? Other aquatic creatures? These questions will determine the materials needed and the required size of the enclosure, among other things. 

fish
In addition to water-loving plants, you might also include fish in your water garden.

Step Two: Decide Which Plants To Look For

You will need to research aquatic plants and their required environments to make sure you can meet their needs. There are three main types of plants that grow in water:

  1. These plants remain on the water’s surface and pull nutrients from the water. They control algae and remove excess nitrogen from the water. 
  2. Submerged plants grow underwater. They act as food and shelter for fish and help to control algae growth. 
  3. In their natural environment, these plants root in the bottom of lakes or ponds and extend out of the water. 
algae in water
Some plants help to control algae, which could become a problem in some water gardens.

If your water garden will house living creatures, it’s important to make sure the plants you choose are safe for them. You should also consider what is already growing on your property. For example, oak leaves and acorns are poisonous to fish, so an oak tree hanging overhead isn’t the best idea. 

Step Three: Get Digging

This is the most labor-intensive part of the project. Map out the area for your garden, mark the border, and dig to your desired depth. 

shovel
It takes longer than you think to dig a big hole for a water garden, so hire a machine for the day to speed things up.

Step Four: Line The Area

Use a thick plastic liner for the bottom of the water feature. Many home improvement stores sell both flexible and pre-molded pond liners. If using a flexible liner, add a couple of inches of sand beneath the liner to prevent it from being punctured by rocks. 

pond liner water garden
You will need a pond liner to retain water in your water garden.

Step Five: Install Equipment

If you’re using a filter, pump, lighting, or fountains, add them now.

Install any pumps, filters, or lighting before you add water.

Step Six: Edge The Enclosure

Fill in the edge of the liner with your choice of bricks or rocks, making sure they are stable. 

Step Seven: Fill With Water

Fill the enclosure with water and turn on your pumps and filters. Wait at least 24 hours before adding anything to the pond so that the chlorine in the water can evaporate. 

pond liner with water
Fill the pond with water after the liner, pumps, filters, lighting, and rocks are in place.

How Deep Should My Water Garden Be?

Many factors will determine the recommended depth of your aquatic garden, such as geographic location, type of plants, and whether you’ll have wildlife in the pond. In most circumstances, two feet is a sufficient depth.

Shallower water heats up more quickly in the sun, causing undesired bacteria growth. The exception to this rule is wildlife ponds, where animals only visit for a drink and a swim. These types of water features only need to be about 12 inches deep. 

If you live in a cold climate where your pond might freeze in the winter, your garden should be at least three feet deep. The water at the bottom will stay warmer than the surface, thus protecting plants from harsh winter temperatures.

fish tank
Your water garden should be at least 12 inches deep, or 3 feet for a colder climate to provide water water below the surface for plants to survive the winter.

Three feet is also ideal for koi fish, which need ample room to grow. Fish like koi and goldfish enter dormancy during the winter and stay towards the warmer water on the bottom.

It’s important to note that many local governments require that you have a fence around your yard if your pond is 18 or more inches deep. Inspections of your finished enclosure are compulsory for some municipalities. 

The bottom line: research is critical. A good way to plan is to make a list of what you want in your garden, followed by the growing requirements. If some of their needs conflict, you can remove or replace elements depending on your priorities. 

koi fish
Koi is one type of fish that makes a great addition to a water garden.

Do Water Gardens Need A Pump?

Pump systems recirculate the water in aquatic gardens, adding much-needed oxygen for your aquatic life. Although it’s not always required to have a pump, most experts emphasize the necessity.

Stagnant water can lead to mosquitos laying eggs on the water and algae, which could harm your plants or fish. 

mosquito
Take steps to prevent mosquitoes in stagnant water.

11 Water Garden Ideas

Now that we’ve covered what to consider while planning your water garden, the fun part is next: choosing its inhabitants. Here are some options to consider:

  1. Water lettuce is a floating plant with beautiful, flower-like foliage. It needs at least part sun and is annual except for in zones 10 and 11. 
  2. Cannas are a popular garden plant, but not everyone realizes they make great water plants. Perennial in zones 8-11, cannas prefer full sun and can live pondside or submerged in a shallow pond. 
  3. The deep green foliage of mosaic plants makes their bright yellow flowers seem even more beautiful. They also create the perfect hiding spot for small fish. Mosaic plants are tropical, so they are annual except for in zones 11-12. 
  4. These plants can grow up to 6 feet tall, creating an eye-catching display when submerged in a water garden. Papyrus requires full sun and is considered an annual except in zones 9-11. They can also be planted around the pond’s edge as long as they stay moist. 
  5. Most people think of water lilies as soon as aquatic plants are mentioned. These gorgeous flowers are hardy in zones 4-9, prefer full sun, and grow submerged. 
  6. Cattails are tall, fast-spreading plants that love wet, swampy conditions and as much sun as possible. You can plant them pondside or submerged. Cattails are perennial in zones 2-11. 
  7. These plants are typically used as ground cover in terrestrial gardens but work wonderfully in ponds. Many gardeners use them to fill in spaces around and between rocks, which helps to give artificial ponds a more natural look. 
  8. Lotus flowers are time-honored aquatic stunners that bloom throughout summer. They require full sun and live submerged in zones 4-9 for hardy varieties.
  9. Koi have become classic pond fish for a good reason – they’re made for outdoor life. These fish are hardy and can handle a wide range of temperatures. 
  10. Goldfish are another common pond fish that are tolerant of various living conditions. Many goldfish species exist, but comets are one of the best options for aquatic gardens. 
  11. The weather loach is peaceful and durable, making it an excellent choice for a water garden. It will not tolerate water temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so they aren’t appropriate for cold climates. 
water lettuce
Water lettuce is just one option for a water garden.

The best place to start is with your local garden center. You can ask whether they carry a particular plant or ask which aquatic plants they have that will work with your setup. 

cattails
Cattails are another type of plant that goes great in a water garden.

Conclusion

Whether you’re interested in leveling up your plant care skills or creating your own backyard retreat, a water garden can significantly enhance the beauty of your landscape.

It may seem like an ambitious undertaking, but your garden should thrive as long as you educate yourself on building and maintaining a healthy enclosure.

You can learn more about ways to grow plants without soil (with or without fish) here.

You can also get some other ideas for garden projects here.

About the author:
Kathryn is a plant enthusiast and freelance content writer who specializes in home and garden topics. Based in New York, you can get in touch with Kathryn at https://kathrynflegal.journoportfolio.com/.

Kathryn F.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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