Water Gardening, Rediscovering an Ancient Hobby

June 20, 2001

WOOSTER, Ohio - Ancient Egyptians living along the Nile were lulled by the beauty and tranquility of water gardens, areas of water specifically designed to hold plants.

Times may have changed, but the importance of water in the garden remains. From fountains to reflecting pools, water is used as a focus of relaxation and as a natural element to support plants and attract wildlife.

Dale Bradshaw, an Ohio State University greenhouse supervisor at the Agricultural Technical Institute, said that a 50-gallon tub and less than $100 for materials is all that is needed to create a backyard water garden and experience what the Egyptians did.

"Water gardens create an environment that you normally wouldn't have," said Bradshaw, who has been growing water gardens at his home for over six years. "They attract wildlife, like birds and amphibians and are a focal point for people's attention because they want to see what's going on. And the plants themselves are absolutely gorgeous."

Hundreds of species of water garden plants are available and include water lilies; bog plants; grasses, such as papyrus used by the Egyptians for paper; lotus plants, grown by the Chinese as a food crop; and taro, grown by Polynesians as a starchy food.

"Water garden plants have an exotic feel to them," said Bradshaw. "Most are tropical and have outrageous colors and textures. Here in Ohio, they flower with great abandon because they have no idea winter is coming."

Creating a water garden can be fairly simple. A pre-formed tub of plastic, terra cotta or ceramic makes a basic design. A 45-to 50- gallon tub filled with 15-18 inches of water is generally enough to support potted plants that can be placed directly in the tub. "Many water gardens can get expensive and elaborate, but for people who are just starting out, this is the best route for them to go," said Bradshaw. "It allows them to experience the garden with limited commitment.

If they like it a lot, they can expand on it the next season. Or if they were wondering why they did it in the first place, then they can just remove the plants and dump the water out. It's that simple."
Maintaining a water garden can be relatively simple, as well, if you keep a few garden tips in mind, said Bradshaw. The plants in a water garden are generally warm season plants, and hence require direct sunlight and a water temperature of 70 degrees and up.

A water garden typically needs to be cleaned only once a year, even if it's standing water. "If you keep the surface covered with water lilies, the plants deny algae sunlight," said Bradshaw. "You can also buy snails from your local pet store and that helps to keep the water clean, too." Bradshaw also recommends keeping the tub above ground. "It's easier to clean up, especially when winter approaches."

Diseases and pests pose limited problems for water garden plants, and can be easily rectified through general plant maintenance and the introduction of fish to keep insects away. "Mosquitoes are the biggest problem for water gardens," said Bradshaw. "Guppies are a good fish for this. They have upward-facing mouths, reproduce rapidly and are small enough to feed on mosquito larvae. They are also tolerant of cool water temperatures."

Bradshaw said water gardening is going through a period of resurgence. "Fifteen years ago, you heard talk of perennials as being weeds and nurseries refused to stock them. You hear the same about water gardening," he said. "But it's generating a new interest. It's becoming more sophisticated. I tell people that it's not anything new. It's just a rediscovery of a practice that has been around for a long time."

Author(s): 
Candace Pollock
Source(s): 
Dale Bradshaw