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Creating Your Own Water Garden Oasis

The Winthrop News
By Jeannine Timp
May 2, 2002

Despite the wind, cold and rain Saturday, over 65 die-hard gardeners went to the Open House at In The Country Garden and Gifts. However, Sue was prepared for the weather with a huge, sturdy tent and a loud speaker system so the guests could be heard over the wind and rain. There was plenty of seating and even a space-heater to make it as comfortable as possible. The coffee was hot and there was a wide variety of treats.

The first speaker was Ken Lafferty, a Landscape Consultant from Center Point. He gave great advice on using plants for shade, wind shields, and fertilizing. He shared about which plants and trees work best for Iowa and which ones work well with ponds. He stressed the importance of keeping things natural and avoiding using chemicals which may work great quickly, but can have long term negative penalties. Some of the chemicals, if sprayed in the fall, can still remain in the soil in the spring and poison or kill everything from your small perennials to your large maple trees!

Mr. Lafferty recommended using rabbit or chicken manure, above all, for fertilizing, as well as horse and cow manure. He said if you purchase it from a store and it has lost its stink, it has lost its nutrients. So, he advised getting it from a farmer. For hostas he recommended alfalfa meal. It's dry and powdery so it won't burn. Corn gluten meal is a better alternative to Preen, you can get it at any elevator (available at Ag IA Co-op), it's cheaper and healthier.

Ken also encouraged gardeners to keep their gardens hospitable to worms, which play a very important role in the garden and even the lawn. They aerate better than mechanical methods and even fertilize. He also advised against using a bag when mowing the lawn. Keeping the grass three inches long, and mowing it when it is four inches, keeps a lawn healthy and lush. The one inch clippings of grass fall to the earth and become a natural fertilizer. He doesn't like grass as mulch, if it is green it will burn and act as a water repellant, just like thatch roofs in the tropics. He also suggested using common sense when using wood chips; don't use them for alpine, rock garden or ground cover plants or on a hill, because they will act like boats and float downstream during a heavy rain. Ken also shared which plants work best under different trees like evergreens and maples.

Basically we should use plants in the way that God created them for. Don't fight against the natural order of things by trying to plant rock garden plants in a wet area or water plants in a sun soaked dry spot.

Jamie Beyer, a water garden, fountain and pond consultant of Midwest Waterscapes in Ames, IA was the second speaker. He is the President of the Central Iowa Water Garden Assn. and the co-author of the book Ortoho's All About Garden Pools and Fountains.

People add ponds and fountains to their garden because they add sound and movement and peace to the landscape. Jamie talked about formal and informal ponds and how they should reflect the style of the rest of the garden and flower beds.

He recommended Calico Shubunkin as his favorite and most hardy water garden fish. He doesn't care for Koi because they dig up plants and grow so big. Water garden fish should be brightly colored so they can be seen and enjoyed. He said that for Iowa a water garden with fish should be at least two feet deep for best winterizing conditions. Always quarantine new fish for at least two weeks, because if they are sick or carrying a disease they will kill all your existing fish.

Jamie supported Ken's advice to avoid chemical solutions and encouraged keeping a balanced ecosystem. Fish and plants support and feed each other. Water plants act as a natural filter system. Jamie invented a clever system using a dog kennel grate, PVC piping and yellow pseudacorus iris plants to control single cell algae. He discussed the different types of algae and the best ways of treating them.

There are a few things one must consider before installing a water garden. If it is on a hill, you must consider where a heavy rain will run off. If there is no diversion, it will run right through your pond taking your plants and fish with it! Where will the water drain if it overflows? Do you need a city permit? Is there enough sunlight in the area? Will it be seen from inside the house?

Jamie discussed the responsibility of safety when children are in the area. If you have small children or children in the neighborhood, you may want to consider a fence or rock fountain, instead. The thought of mosquitoes does not need to be a deterrent for those who are considering a water garden. Mosquitoes do not like running water, and the fish eat the larva in still ponds.

When doing any digging, always call your utilities company, and they will inform you, for FREE, where your wires are, to prevent you from cutting them or getting a good shock! You can call IOWA ONE-CALL (1-800-292-8989) for more information.

The Eastern Iowa Pond Society was also there and held their meeting during one of the breaks. One of the members brought up the issue that the biggest mistake people make when installing their first pond is making it too small, whether it be because they don't want to spend too much money or to see if they will like having a pond. Most people then end up spending more in the long run by making it bigger later. No one has ever gone back and made a one smaller! Keep in mind the fish and plants multiply!

Having a water garden is a little bit of work, but the joys and pleasures far outweigh it. If you do things right the first time, and do a little weed pulling and leaf skimming each week, the work will be minimum. They you can sit back and enjoy feeding your fish (only a tiny bit, because they actually don't need it if the ecosystem in the pond is balanced) and listening to the water trickle after a long stressful day. Water gardens, the right amount of shade and wind-blocking plants can make your yard a welcoming living space for the whole family to enjoy!

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