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The wonders of Water

Azola Fairy Moss, frequently found in container gardens, acts as a natural water filter.
 (no photographer / The Spokesman-Review)
Azola Fairy Moss, frequently found in container gardens, acts as a natural water filter. (no photographer / The Spokesman-Review)

Water – in oceans, lakes, rivers, ponds and small tabletop fountains – mesmerizes and calms us.

“Water is captivating, we get lost in it,” said Kathy Thompson, co-owner of Blue Iris Water Garden Nursery in Spokane Valley. “A water garden is probably one of the best ways to alleviate stress.”

To add this life force to your living space – without the toil and expense of digging – you can create a small water garden in a ceramic pot, half a barrel or glass bowl.

“I think people would get a kick out of how easy they are to do,” said Chris Shephard, an officer of the Inland Empire Garden Club in Spokane.

Small-scale water gardens are joy to make, bring instant gratification and require very little maintenance, she said. They’re suitable indoors or out and can be small enough to thrive without an electric water pump.

Courtney Battermann co-owns Greenacres Ponds and Plants. Her children inspired the business one summer by converting their kiddie pool into an aquatic plant stand offering starts from their backyard water garden.

“If you’ve got a child, you cannot go wrong with a water garden. They’re the best learning tools because kids are fascinated with water,” Battermann said, pointing to swaying aquatic plants, transparent freshwater shrimp and tubifex worms in glass vase she’d just planted.

Here are a few pointers from the three local water gardeners:

“Anything that holds water can be a water garden; the plants pretty much take care of themselves,” said Battermann, who uses her imagination when selecting containers.

Container depth and width will determine the number of plants it will support. “Don’t overstock with too many plants or too many fish. The simpler the better,” said Shephard, who prefers to make a big splash by grouping three smaller containers together.

Word of warning: Filled containers can be heavy. You may want to place your container in a selected spot before planting. Aquatic plants need a minimum of five hours a day of sunlight; seven is better.

If your water is chlorinated, fill a large container and let the water sit for 24 to 48 hours to allow the chemical to evaporate. Pet and garden stores also carry tablets that can be added to more quickly neutralize the water.

For small container gardens, fill about two-thirds of the vessel with growing medium such as Turface, a calcinated clay product available in many garden centers.

Buy plants of varying heights, textures and blossom colors. One at a time, wash most of the sticky soil from their roots, leaving about a fourth of it for nourishment.

Tuck tall plants in the back, anchoring them into the Turface. In front of them, add shorter filler plants with bigger leaves and cascading plants to drape over the pot’s edges. Fill in with more Turface.

Trim any damaged foliage. Bury a few aquatic plant fertilizer tablets, sold by water garden suppliers, just below the clay’s surface.

Finish it off with an attractive layer of polished stones or colored rock and fill with water until the container is very heavy. Untreated tap water should be added every day to compensate for evaporation, Thompson said.

To make a larger, more natural-looking pond in a pot, start with a big watertight container. Glazed ceramic pottery, horse troughs, old bathtubs, plastic-lined half barrels and their plastic, look-alike cousins, sold at many garden centers, are all fun and easy to set up, Thompson said.

Crave the sounds of moving water? Install a small submersible pump, which requires electricity, and a piece of plastic tubing to direct the water up to the surface. Pumps come in a variety of sizes and some include decorative fountains, from which the water flows.

On the container’s floor, place bricks, upside down pots weighted with bricks or other flat shelf-like surfaces on which to later stack aquatic plants in their nursery pots. The plants will be submerged and their pots will not show when the water garden is full.

Slowly fill the garden with water and add de-chlorinating tablets or let it stand a day or two. Then arrange the plants on perches.

Toss in some plants that will float on the surface for that pond look.

Maintain water levels with regular fill-ups, Battermann said.

To prevent mosquitoes, overfill the container regularly, allowing water to flow over the top. That will be enough to prevent larvae from hatching. Or frequently put mosquito bits – sold at water garden supply stores – in the water.

Fertilize the garden right away and then monthly thereafter, according to product recommendations.

Because plants grow quickly, be sure they never cover more than half the water surface. Later, they’re easily separated and can be shared with friends or added to a second water feature.

In the fall, some plants can be stored in damp plastic bags in a basement. Others will survive if buried a few feet below a flower bed. Water garden suppliers can tell you how best to keep plants over winter.

Just refrain from introducing aquatic plants into area lakes, rivers or other bodies of water, which may result in hefty state fines. Some water plants will invade natural landscapes and should either be stored or destroyed like annuals.

Once installed, water gardens may attract birds, frogs, turtles and other critters, Battermann said.

“Water gardens bring nature to us. It’s a life force for everything,” she said.