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Choosing a spot for your water garden

Purple fountain grass sways in the breeze in the water garden in the backyard of Monte and Deanna Ireland’s home near Solon. (shot on 9/13/05)
Purple fountain grass sways in the breeze in the water garden in the backyard of Monte and Deanna Ireland’s home near Solon. (shot on 9/13/05)
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Water gardens are a wonderful addition to landscapes, but it’s critical that you choose just the right spot. A good site sets you up for easy care, maximum enjoyment, and minimal expense and hassles.

Good Sites for a Water Garden

• Full sun. Most water garden plants need full sun — six or more hours of unfiltered light each day. If it’s a location where vegetables or full-sun flowers such as marigolds or petunias or zinnias have thrived, it’s a place where water garden plants will thrive.

• Flat terrain. If you are thinking about a pool or pond, remember — water always seeks level. That means you can’t build a pond on a slope unless you first do considerable reshaping of the slope. You would need to excavate the slope and carve out a flat spot so that you can create the pond. Even then, it is critical that you have a good retaining wall and erosion control in place or soil will wash into the water.

Even a slightly sloping spot can present a problem. Nothing looks worse than a pond with a water line that is lower on one end and higher on the other. Granted, few sites are naturally completely level, but don’t worry about minor changes in grade. You can make minor adjustments during installation.

Of course, if you are building a stream or water fall, a slope is an asset.

• Visible from the house. You can’t enjoy your water garden if you don’t see it. Position your water feature where you can view it from French or sliding glass doors, large windows, or your deck or patio. Being able to see your water feature easily also is a safety issue, in case someone or something falls in.

• Easy electrical access. Most water features require electricity to power any pumps, fountains, or filters. Electricity also is necessary for low-voltage lighting.

If there isn’t an electrical outlet close to the site, you can hire an electrician to run a free-standing outlet out to the area. Depending on the project, that usually costs a few hundred dollars.

To prevent electrocution, all outdoor wiring must be protected by a GFCI or GFI (“ground fault circuit interrupter” or “ground fault interrupter”), a type of outlet that automatically shuts off power when it detects a leak in the electrical current, thus preventing shock. These also are commonly found in bathrooms.

Problem Sites for a Water Garden

• Low spots. In nature, it’s true, ponds usually are found in low-lying areas where water naturally collects. However, in an artificial water feature, too much rainfall or water from a sprinkler is likely to wash in dirt and debris (and possibly lawn chemicals) and perhaps even flood your pond. In low areas, water also can collect underneath the pond, rise, and then form pockets of trapped water that appear as bubbles in the liner.

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If your yard has a swampy low spot, consider instead turning it into a bog garden. Bog gardens simply are planting beds filled with moisture-loving plants that thrive in standing water.

• Areas with trees or large shrubs. Choose a spot that’s in an open area. Otherwise, the feature will become littered with twigs and leaves. Areas around trees and large shrubs also have substantial roots systems that can make digging difficult. If you slice through too many roots while digging, it can damage or even kill trees and shrubs.

• Underground cables, lines or pipes. For most water gardens, you’ll need to dig fairly deep across a significant stretch of yard. Before deciding on your water garden site, call your utility company or city or county government to have a trained professional come out and check and mark them. It’s usually a free service.

Underground cables, pipes, sewer lines, or a septic field can be obstructions or even worse, unsafe, if you disturb or rupture them. And they also can ruin your design because they might run right through your planned feature.

• Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at theiowagardener.com.

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