Downsized Aquatic Gardens

If you like the look of ponds and water fountains, then a simple container water garden is a good option.

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Dana Engel and her 10-year-old son, Chase, debate plant selections for their container water garden. Chase's favorite plant won over several others, and the future goldfish was bumped in favor of more plants. (SHNS photo courtesy Redding Record Searchlight)

Get a large ceramic container. Add a few potted aquatic plants. Fill with water. There, instant water garden.

The simplicity of container water gardens appeals to gardeners who like the look of ponds and other water features, but don't want to get in too deep -- at least for now.

Plastic containers make good risers, placing plants at different levels within the pot without adding much weight. (SHNS photo courtesy Redding Record Searchlight)
Nursery staffer John McCrory explains that plants may be placed in the water container while in the pot, with gravel placed above to weigh them down. (SHNS photo courtesy Redding Record Searchlight)
Plants may remain individually potted and weighed down with gravel when placed in the larger water container. (SHNS photo courtesy Redding Record Searchlight)
Water in large containers such as these should be refreshed about every two weeks. (SHNS photo courtesy Redding Record Searchlight)
Different gravel levels are best for different plants. (SHNS photo courtesy Redding Record Searchlight)

"I'm on Level One. I thought before I invest in a water lily, I'll try this," said Evelyn Hawkins of Redding, Calif., as she shopped for aquatic plants.

Hawkins had just finished a how-to class at the nursery on container water gardens. She was inspired to take the class after going on a pond tour. The ponds were beautiful, but Hawkins wanted to start smaller -- a container water garden with three plants for her patio.

"I think they are beautiful," Susan Arnold of Cottonwood, Calif., another class participant, said of container water gardens. "They seem fairly easy and that's what I need."

Dana Engel and her son Chase, 10, of Anderson also attended the class. They figured a container water garden would be a good summer project. Theirs will have a few plants and goldfish.

"I thought I'd give it a try," Engel said as she and Chase experimented with different plant combinations. "I have a very small area."

"These are wonderful for people who have limited space," said Sherry Rosen, Wyntour's events coordinator. "You can put them at your front door or on your deck."

Water gardening is very popular in the Redding area, Rosen said. Water features offer a tropical, cooling look. But adding a pond, fountain or other water feature to the landscape takes a lot of time, space and money. Container water gardens are an option for those who want a bit of cooling sensation without a big investment.

A large pot and three plants should get you going, said John McCrory, who taught the class.

He recommends using a ceramic container that's glazed both inside and out. The less porous the pot, the less seepage. If you have end up with one that isn't glazed on the inside, use a spray-on terra-cotta sealant, McCrory suggested.

Look for a pot without a drainage hole. But if you can't find one, plug the drainage hole with plumber's putty, McCrory said.

Use "pot feet" to elevate the pot. These small risers can be purchased or you can make your own. They're especially important if the container water garden will be on a deck, McCrory said. You don't want moisture from the container to ruin the wood below. Another option is to put the container on a base with wheels. That makes it easy to move.

Keep location in mind when selecting aquatic plants. Some can take the sun, but others will fry. Group plants that are compatible.

Aim for a mix of heights and forms, McCrory said. Combine spiky with spreading and cascading. "Look for different textures," he said.

McCrory said it's best if the plants have been potted in an aquatic mix. Regular potting medium can leave residues into the water. Use pebbles and gravel to keep the mix in the container when the plant is submerged in the large container.

Inverted plastic pots can be used to put the plants at various levels. The water should be 1 to 1-1/2 inches above the soil line for many aquatic plants, McCrory said. Some can go deeper -- their leaves will float on the surface. Experiment with plant placement before filling the container with water.

A beautiful container garden can transform into a pot of slimy green goo, if you're not careful. One way to control algae is algaecide. If you have a dog or cat that might view your water garden as a water bowl, make sure you use an algaecide that's safe for pets.

Changing or circulating the water is important. A small pump can be used to circulate water. Another option is to stick a hose in the pot and flush out the old water. With a small container garden, that should be done once a week, McCrory said.

Regular circulation keeps mosquitoes from using the water garden as a breeding lagoon. Goldfish and mosquito fish also can be added to prevent mosquito problems.

Some aquatic plants turn brown in the winter, but should come back in the spring, McCrory said. "Plants die down, but they usually do not die off," he said.

(Laura Christman of the Redding Record Searchlight in California.)

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