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Creating Your Own Garden

This article was written by Catriona Tudor Erler and was featured in our June issue of Home By Design magazine. To visit the original Home By Design article and view more photos, click here.


Photography by Martin Wahlborg/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Water gardening is a popular pastime dating back to ancient civilizations. But why bring the practice into the twenty-first century? The benefits are plenty. Birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and other creatures are drawn to ponds, bringing life into the garden. On a hot day, the air is a little cooler near water. The sound of running water enhances relaxation and masks unwanted ambient noise. All these aesthetic and environmental benefits are easy to create with the right ratio of plants to fish and snails. Here’s how.

Principles for Balance.

The science is complex, but if you follow a few basic principles, you can have a clean, clear, attractive water garden that requires minimal work. Tish Folsom of Springdale Water Gardens in Greenville, Virginia recommends a ratio of plants to fish and snails that creates a healthy balance, minimizing maintenance. She talks of her own children, who each wanted to have his or her own personal water garden. “We gave them each a thirty-six-inch wide container and told them they must pick out one waterlily, one bog plant to plant near the edge, two goldfish, two snails, and four bunches of underwater grasses,” she says. That combination of plants, fish, and snails was perfect for the container size and would ensure an attractive, easy-care environment. “I don’t believe in changing the water,” Folsom added. “If you have the right balance in the pond, that shouldn’t be necessary.”

Whether you create your own water garden in a standalone container or an in-ground pond, it can be a relatively easy and fun project. The fun really begins when you start adding plants.

Water Plants.

There are four categories of water plants, and each type plays an important role in creating a beautiful, healthy water garden.

Waterlily (Nymphaea), which produces leaves that float on the water surface, provides beauty and benefits to a pond. There are two types of waterlilies: hardy and tropical. Hardy varieties grow in USDA climate zones 3 to 11, surviving winter dormancy if their rhizomes are planted below the freezing line. They are daytime bloomers, opening in the morning and closing in the afternoon. Tropical waterlilies are hardy only in USDA zones 9 to 11. They must be stored over the winter or treated as annuals. There are both day and night-blooming varieties. During the blooming season, which begins in late spring and continues through the summer, the night-blooming flowers will open about an hour before dark and close by morning, just about the time the day-blooming varieties are opening. Waterlilies aren’t just pretty; they are beneficial too. They shade the water, both discouraging algae growth and providing shelter for pond fish. They also absorb nutrients from the water, helping to starve algae.

Lotus (Nelumbo), also known as Indian lotus and sacred lotus, have leaves and flowers that reach above the water surface. Vigorous spreaders, they are suitable only for lined ponds.

Underwater grasses, also known as submerged aquatic vegetation, filter and aerate the water, helping to keep the environment healthy. Many genera of aquatic grasses are invasive if grown in soil-bottomed ponds.

Bog plants grow in shallow water and wetlands. Like the submerged plants, they also play a role in water purification and add design benefits such as vertical interest, texture, as well as foliage and flower color.


The three primary fish for stocking decorative garden ponds are koi, goldfish, and Golden Orfe. Golden Orfes are a schooling fish that gets on well with koi and goldfish. They are a particular delight when they leap out of the water to catch an insect that dares fly over the pond.


Snails in pond gardens and fishbowls are prized because they eat algae. Because some water snail species will reproduce out of control, the worldwide preferred species is the algae-eating Black Japanese Trapdoor Snail (Viviparis malleatus). They can overwinter in even the most northern climates, and because they’re live bearing (as opposed to laying eggs), they won’t overtake your pond.

Consider these marvelous creatures your pond’s personal daily maid. They’ll groom the plants, rocks, and pond sides, cleaning them of algae. They’ll also vacuum your pond bottom, consuming decaying matter such as leaves, leftover fish food, and even fish waste. The recommended population of this essential water garden component is one snail per every one to two square feet of pond surface. To allow the garden to establish its own natural bacterial as soon as possible, stock your pond with snails at the same time you install the plants. Organic debris will quickly form, providing the snails with their required nutrients.

Dip your toe into the fascinating world of water gardening and discover the rewards this special niche can bring.