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The Enabled Gardener: Water Gardening In Containers

first printed in Pond & Garden May/June 2001
By Josh Spece

“Wow!” is a common response from visitors the first time they visit my ponds. Often, the next phrase out of their mouths is “I wish I had room for a water garden.” True, you may not be able to have a dramatic waterfall and meandering stream on a small city lot, but everyone, even an apartment dweller, has room for a water garden.

Container water gardens, or tub ponds, are the perfect choice for cramped quarters and are very easy to set up and maintain, making them ideal for the elderly and anyone with physical limitations. None of the components in a container water garden are terribly heavy and the entire thing can be easily drained and disassembled should you need to move it.

Ideally, your tub pond should be located where it will receive at least six hours of direct sun. This will allow you to grow the widest variety of plants. A little afternoon shade is fine and will help prevent the water from over heating during hot spells. If you don’t have a suitable sunny area, you can still have a delightful tub garden…you will just have to choose shade tolerant plants. The location should be fairly level and where you will easily be able to see and enjoy your little oasis. A sturdy garden chair or patio table makes an excellent stand to elevate a small container within easy reach for someone who can’t bend over or is in a wheelchair.

Next you will need to select a container for your water garden. Nearly any container will work as long as it holds water. Pick a container that is decorative and fits in with the overall feel of your garden. A container 18”-24” in diameter will give you enough room for several different plants, but even an 8” flower pot allows plenty of room to grow a tiny water lily!

Some of my favorite container water gardens are made in the new foam/plastic flowerpots that have the look of aged terra cotta (real terra cotta pots will need to be sealed). They have the added benefit of being very light weight when empty. Half whiskey barrels are probably the most popular and are available in most garden centers. They must be lined with either flexible pond liner or a regular whiskey barrel liner to keep the wood from leaching toxic materials into the water. A two tiered water garden can be created with whiskey barrel liners that have a built-in spillway.

Once your container is in place and filled with water, it is time for the fun part...planting! There are no rules set in stone when it comes to planting your container garden, but there are a few guidelines that will get you off to a good start.

  • Choose plants that are adapted to the sun and shade conditions of your tub garden.
  • Use bricks or overturned flowerpots to adjust the plants to the proper depth.
  • Try to pick plants that are in scale with your container. There are often smaller growing varieties of common, larger plants that will better suite a tub garden than the original variety.
  • Choose plant forms that contrast each other. An upright plant (iris), a mounding plant (water celery), and a surface growing plant (water lily) make a pleasing combination.
  • A single, large plant is just as attractive as a grouping of smaller plants. A favorite of mine is a lotus in an attractive container with parrot’s feather draping over the side of the pot.
  • Plants grow! Don’t try to grow too many different plants in your container water garden and don’t be afraid to prune them to keep everyone happy.

After the plants are in place, it is time to add the finishing touches to your tub garden. Fish will add a bit of movement to your garden, but aren’t suited for every container garden. I would not keep fish in a container much smaller than a half whiskey barrel and then only one or two small goldfish. If you choose not to include fish, be sure to use a mosquito donut to prevent mosquitoes from reproducing. If you want the soothing affect of running water, you can install a small pump and fountain. Be sure to locate your garden near a power source if you plan on running a fountain.

Maintaining your tub garden in tiptop shape is very easy and takes minimal time. The most important task is fertilizing the plants regularly to keep them growing and blooming. I recommend fertilizing water lilies every two weeks and foliage plants once a month throughout the summer with aquatic fertilizer tablets. Be sure to remove dying leaves and faded flowers regularly and prune excess growth to keep everything in bounds. If you have fish, a light feeding a couple times a week is appreciated and entertaining.

There you have it, your very own water garden! Container water gardens are an excellent way for the physically challenged to experience the exciting world of water gardening. They are easy to set up, easy to maintain, and best of all, they aren’t expensive. Yet, they bring all the joys of a full-scale pond within everyone’s reach.

Website by Josh Spece
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