Water Gardens are for Everyone!
first printed in Pond & Garden Jan/Feb 2001
By Josh Spece
Ask any water gardener what the best part of having a back yard pond is, and I bet most will say the peaceful, relaxing atmosphere it creates. The soothing music of running water, the lushness of floating lily pads with their rainbow-like flowers, and the playful movement of the fish are just what the doctor ordered after a long day at work. Not only is it beautiful to look at, but being able to get down close to the water to feel the different textures of the plants and “play” with the fish while you feed them is also a very rewarding part of water gardening.
For most people, getting close to the water is no problem, but for many it’s just not that easy. Millions of people, both young and old, have physical limitations due to aging, injuries, or as in my case, diseases. Are we just not supposed to feel the softness of Parrot’s Feather or let a friendly koi nibble our fingers? NO!
I have used a wheelchair my entire life (all 20 years of it!), because I was born with a form of Muscular Dystrophy. My interest in plants goes back as far as I can remember and I have been fascinated by water gardens almost as long. The fascination was so strong that my mother and I opened a small nursery specializing in water gardens and hostas in 1998 and I graduated in 2000 with an AAS in Horticulture. My family’s first water garden was a traditional in-ground pond. Like so many first time water gardeners, we made the mistake of making it too small. The next spring out it came and in went a larger pond, but this one was unique.
With a little creativity, my parents, grandparents, and I came up with a plan to make the new pond handicap accessible. The site where we put the pond had a slight slope to it. We started at the lowest point and dug back into the hill. This gave us a three-sided hole about twelve feet by sixteen feet by about two feet deep. We wanted the pond to be three feet deep, so we took out another foot in the center.
The next step was to build a retaining wall on the open side of the hole. We used pressure treated, tongue and groove 1x6’s with 4x4 posts set in the ground at each end and a 6x6 post in the center. The 6x6 post and the 4x4 post on the west side of the wall were used to construct an arbor. The final step was to finish digging the plant shelves and install the liner.
I am able to pull right up to the retaining wall with my wheelchair and hand feed the fish or work with any plants that are within reach. Because the pond is built into a small hill, the wall isn’t visible unless you are at that end and the rest of the pond looks very natural, like any other in ground pond.
If you don’t have a hill on your property to build a partially raised water garden, you can build a completely raised water garden on any flat area. Instead of just one retaining wall you will have four. Depending on how large you want the pond, you should have a 4x4 or 6x6 post in each corner and possibly one in the center of each wall for extra support. Water is very heavy and exerts a lot of force!
If wood doesn’t fit with the rest of your landscaping, other alternatives for constructing the retaining wall exist. Landscaping timbers and railroad ties are two more wood options. Though more costly, brick and retaining wall blocks also make nice, sturdy walls and have the added bonus of coming in a variety of colors.
So far, the accessible water gardens I’ve discussed have been pretty labor-intensive to install and would probably require the help of others. Many people who live on a small city lot or in an apartment simply don’t have room for such an extensive, permanent structure. The solution? A container water garden or patio pond.
Container ponds are becoming increasingly popular with everyone, not just the physically challenged and those short on space. Containers allow you to add a little bit of paradise to any corner of your yard or patio. Any container will work as long as it will hold water. Some that I have used include different sized plastic flowerpots, granite bowls and pans, Rubber Maid storage containers, and of course lined whisky barrels.
The plantings are just as diverse as the containers themselves. Upright plants that I like to use in my containers include dwarf umbrella palm, dwarf cattails, water iris, corkscrew rush, and for larger containers, taro. For variety, I also like to use a lower, spreading plant. Parrot’s feather (both the common and miniature forms), water snowflake, floating heart, pennywort, and variegated water celery are great choices.
The stars of most traditional water gardens, lilies and lotus, are certainly not out of the question when it comes to container ponds. There are many small to dwarf growing water lilies that will work just fine. Two of my favorites are Little Sue, with 2”-3” rosey-apricot flowers, and the tiny Helvola. This cheery little lily with its purple splotched leaves and quarter-sized yellow flowers is small enough for all but the tiniest container ponds!
The small lotus ‘Momo Botan’ will also live in a patio pond quite happily and the new “Bowl Lotus” varieties should work well to, but they are a little harder to come by. Unless your container is large, the lotus will probably be about all that it will hold. A nice combination that I discovered by accident is underplanting a lotus with parrot’s feather. They will grow together peacefully and the parrot’s feather will eventually drape over the edge of the container. An impressive display for a patio or deck!
In all but the smallest container water gardens, a fish or two will add a little movement. Use common sense when stocking a container pond. Nothing very large and no more than one or two.
Water gardens are more than just beautiful to look at. They are a retreat from every day life that no one should be with out. Water gardening can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of physical ability. The possibilities are endless with a little imagination and creativity!