Friday , June 5th 2020
    A Garden Highlight

Water Garden Design

Water garden design is probably the most important step in creating a garden to suit your needs exactly although as you build your water garden, you will modify your original design. Pond design is a very exciting and stimulating stage as it allows you to conjure up the perfect garden for you, first in your mind’s eye, then on paper.

The garden should appear to ‘flow’ and draw the eye into the scene. In the project featured in this site, the Victorian bench is a strong focal point as shown in the image below.

The flagged path draws the eye into the rose arch at the bottom of the pond.

Victorian bench


Flagged path to rose arch

A flagged path to rose arch

That’s all very well but where to start?
It may well be that you already have a garden that you are happy with but need to enhance it with a garden pond or other water feature. On the other hand, you may decide to redesign your garden from scratch.


Whatever the case there are some straightforward procedures that you should follow to make the water garden designs stage rewarding, exciting, and above all achievable.

Before making decisions visit as many water gardens as possible and make notes, mental or otherwise, on any ideas or features that you like and may fit in with your plans.

Some excellent books are available with images of water gardens, and there are some very good sites on the Internet. Don’t forget that pond design, water feature design, and water garden designs need to be integrated to get a consistent and harmonious effect. Now get started.

Draw A Plan

Measure the garden dimensions, length, width, and any irregularities. Make notes about which areas get full light at what times of day and which areas are shaded.

Outline the space, to a suitable scale on a piece of graph paper. It is a better idea to use a large format, say A3 if possible, to enable you to add notes about features, planting, shade, etc.

Look where the light is and note any prevalently shaded areas of the garden. This will change according to the time of day and season but include as much detail as possible. A key including, for example, full sun, part shade, and full shade is advisable. Mark these on the plan. This will be useful when planning the planting of your garden.

Plan to show summer sun

For instance, my magnolia buds will not get damaged by frost in spring as it is shaded during the morning and is sheltered from strong winds

Design Pond

Decide on shape, size, and location of the pond. Consider access to all edges of pond for maintenance and planting, viewing points for pond, siteing of filter and waterfalls if needed, and how well the shape of pond blends in with shape of garden and intended ‘feel’ of garden, e.g., formal or informal, wildlife or child friendly or both, etc. Sketch this on the plan. It is also a good idea to make a cut out of various shapes and sizes of the pond and try these on the plan. We tried this on the computer and, although it may work well for many people we preferred the ‘old fashioned’ approach.

Decide on features of the pond, e.g., bog area, pebble beach, waterfall, fountain. Sketch these on plan or again make cut-outs and try them in position.

Finally, clarify the outline of the pond and the features on the plan. Remeasure if necessary to complete plan.

Add detail to plan including lighting, viewing points, planting, access to the pond and any other considerations you need to consider.

Rest Of Garden

Consider any additions and alterations which need to be made to the rest of the garden to accommodate and maximize the impact of the water feature. Remember that the pond WILL be the dominant focus of your water garden and the rest of the garden should not clash regarding feel and atmosphere. Mark these alterations on your plan.

At this point, you may want to use a computer to get a clearer idea of how your garden design will look. There are many garden design packages available although they are extremely variable in quality. The better ones even allow you to view your design in any season and even at different times of the day. These packages are certainly worth considering but don’t assume that the most expensive is best. The most popular ones will be reviewed shortly on this site

The earlier water garden design work showing sunny and shady areas should be considered carefully, eg. Would you need a shaded seating area and a full sun seating area for the summer? Ensure again that you have access to the pond from any angle for maintenance. Some areas, eg. the filter may be unsightly and need to be screened from the main viewing angles. On the plan below a trellis forms a partial screen and the picture shows how we used a gunnera to completely disguise this area in summer. Unfortunately, when the gunnera dies down in winter the filter partially reappears. The large pampas grass also helps screen the filter.

It is worth considering in water garden design how you are going to get some height into your garden as water gardens can by definition be flat. As well as using plants rose arches and trellis work can provide height and something for, eg. clematis, ivy and jasmine to grow up.

The water garden design is now almost complete apart from the most exciting bit, the planting

Place Plants

Roughly sketch in planting plans in any beds, exact plants are not required yet, but heights and colors would be useful.

It is essential to plan the position of plants so that they give the best possible effect. Obviously, a cottage garden theme would require a different approach to a more formal garden. Colour themed gardens are becoming popular where one color predominates while the flowers are in bloom. An example of this is the white garden at Sissinghurst.

Also worth considering is a water garden design plan based on variegated foliage as these remain attractive over a longer period. I have combined a cottage garden effect plants with a ‘background’ of foliage plants to give interest throughout the year.

In the main borders, I have tried with swathes of different colored plants, but this was not effective, probably because the borders are too small to allow this plan to work. What I tend to do now is mix and match concerning color although I do scale the plants in height from back to front, although there are exceptions.

Architectural plants can give height and provide focal points to the garden. I have used Acers, Phormiums, large Hostas, Pampas Grass, Cardom and Gunnera to good effect. Where possible it is worth thinking about putting some in pots initially to try the effect in different places. Large plants in pots are also useful for filling in holes in the border when other plants have finished. The perfect example of large plants in water garden design is Monet’s garden in Giverny in France.

No water garden design would be complete without the water plants themselves. Lillies, oxygenators, marginals are all placed in the pond. Details of how to use these plants are found elsewhere on this site.

I always keep my planting plans and redraw them every so often depending on the results. I wouldn’t know what to do without my planting plans and other water garden design plans as I’d probably dig everything up thinking it was a weed!

Your preliminary water garden design is now complete.

Building Your Pond

There are several methods of pond construction using different materials. The simplest method is to use a pre-formed shell or rigid liner, but you can excavate the soil in shape to suit yourself and use a flexible liner to construct the pond. For very large ponds concrete could be used to line the hole and make the pond.

Each material has its advantages and disadvantages: flexible liners are fairly easy to install, will mold to almost any design and are reasonably cheap. They are however the least resistant to damage of all the materials. Rigid liners are much stronger, but because of their preformed shape they are the least adaptable and can be very expensive. Concrete, while being strong and permanent is quite difficult to lay successfully.

Although a mature and well-balanced pond may be crystal clear for most of the year to ensure clear water, it is best to install a filter. The most effective are biological filters which can be expensive to buy but very cheap to construct yourself. Elsewhere on this site are full instructions on how to construct a filter.

A pump will also be needed to circulate the water through the filter and possibly back to the pond via a waterfall. Modern pumps are submersible, cheap to run and buy, and very effective.

If there is one single most important point to make clear about pond construction, it is to be absolutely sure that the ground is perfectly level before you excavate the pond. This will prevent hours of effort and frustration in trying to disguise an unsightly pond liner.

Pond Care

Much of the maintenance of a pond is seasonal although repairs may have to be made at any time of year in the event of accidental damage to the liner or filter. Any maintenance jobs requiring an empty pond are probably best carried out in spring. If necessary clean the pond and do the repair work needed as quickly as possible. It is a good idea to service and clean the pump and filter in spring and check they are working efficiently, although a well established biological filter is best left alone.

In summer water will evaporate from the pond and need topping up quite regularly. If rainwater is available from a water butt, use it to top up the pond, approximately once a week. If only tap water is available to top up the pond more frequently, every evening if necessary. Tap water will be colder than rainwater in summer and if used in large quantities may harm the fish. Tap water may also contain high mineral concentrations which will encourage algae. This is less likely to happen if tap water is introduced little and often as the other plants will absorb the minerals steadily. Blanket weed and silkweed should be removed regularly; the most effective method is by hand.

In autumn, it is important not to allowo many leaves to drop into the pond as these will decay and spoil the water quality. Although a net can be placed over the pond th,is is extremely unsightly and probably not worth the trouble. It is not difficult to periodically remove vegetation using a net.

In winter if a pond freezes there is a danger that gases from decaying organic matter may cause a problem for the fish as these gases will not be able to escape. The pond heater is a simple device consisting of a heated element attached to a float. A small ice-free area is produced through which the gases can escape. A hole can also be made for ventilation by placing a pan of boiling water on the ice and waiting for it to melt. On no account try to break the ice using force as the resultant shock wave will almost certainly damage fish.

Pond Plants

Planting, maintenance, and propagation of pond plants can be a nightmare, not because the information is not available but because there is too much unnecessary and often conflicting information out there.

This is a personal account of how I made sense of this conflicting information to produce our new water garden.

Pond plants are the “icing on the cake” once design, marking and digging, moving barrowload after barrowload of soil and debris, lining and filling the pond have been done.

I bought a couple of water garden books from, borrowed many many books from the library and searched for pond plant websites that gave me information on a form of planting that I had experience of but considered I needed more information to make the best of our new garden.

At first I was bewildered by the different groups of pond plants, but basically, there are 5/6 groups which do different jobs within the pond. (see below)

I think my bewilderment came from slightly differing information regarding depth, sighting, hardiness and label information on the pond plants. I did deliberate over what to place where for a long time over last winter but I eventually decided to stop worrying, follow instructions on pond plants labels, plant and see what happens. As in any garden planting scheme I ,could always move a pond plant if not happy!!

Pond plants are very easy to grow successfully and will start to look established within one season making all the hard work seem worthwhile, but there are a few rules which need to be looked at.

Pond plants should be introduced during the growing season. ie. Spring onwards.

  • You should wait a few days, after the pond has been filled with tap water, before introducing pond plants. Allowing the dissolved chlorine to disperse.
  • Leave a few weeks before introducing fish to allow pond plants to establish (this was not an option in our case as fish had to be reintroduced quickly from the old pond) the fish will tug and nibble at submerged plants – and they did.
  • You will need to make sure that a certain amount of the water surface (approximately half) is covered by foliage to discourage the growth of algae to keep the water clear and contribute to the balance of water, aquatic plants, wildlife, soil, and fish.
  • The best method of planting aquatic plants is in plastic containers specially designed for the purpose. This will control growth and plants can be lifted for dividing and repotting. Open-sided containers are lightweight, imperishable and help to make the task of cleaning out the pond a much easier one.
  • Marginals and deep marginal plants, in general, should be planted in containers following the recommended depth of water over the top of the container as said on the supplied label. For example, Caltha Palustris 0-10cm. This means 0cm is water flush with soil and 10cm is the depth of water over the soil.
  • Water lilies need to have all the old leaves and anchor roots cut back, then plant with the crown just above the soil level.
  • When the lily has a long tuberous root, plant horizontally with the new shoots just clear of the soil. Finish off by placing washed shingle, about half an inch, over the top, being careful not to cover the new shoots. To encourage growth, raise the container within six inches of the surface and gradually lower to the required depth as new growth progresses.

The Planting Groups

Oxygenating Plants / submerged aquatics/water weeds

Important for keeping the water clear and providing food and spawning area for fish. Although most books etc. say don’t drop straight into the water, and give planting in container information, in my experience, weighting and dropping into water works very well when needing to cover water area quickly. Plants grow fairly quickly and need to be weeded out regularly, which is much easier when dropped straight into the pond.

Deep Marginals or deep-water aquatics

Vital for keeping pond water healthy. Submerged leaves raise oxygen levels and floating leaves provide shade and keep fish cool in summer. Plants may grow completely underwater or have leafy growth both above and below the surface. There are deep-water aquatics for partial shade, disturbed surfaces, and very deep water. Young plants can be nibbled by fish (which happened with the 2 Apongogeton distachyos I put in the new pond in April)

Water Lilies

There are water lilies to suit most climates, size, and depth of the pond. They are available in a wide array of colors, shape, and fragrances suitable for any pond. They require sun, shelter and still or nearly still water. Water lilies provide surface cover which helps to discourage algae and give cooling shade for fish.

Floating Plants

Good for quick coverage of surface water before water lilies and deep marginals are established they are therefore usually introduced at the early stage of pond development. Floating aquatic plants do not need planting, just drop plants in water. They reproduce and grow rapidly so do need some control by removing unwanted clumps by hand or with a net. Roots are submerged, leaves and stems free-floating on or just below surface and flowers on the surface of the water. There are two types, carpeters such as common duckweed and non-carpeters which have large leaves and are less invasive. 5. Marginals – These are purely ornamental as they do not play a part in maintaining balance in the pond. Marginals are shallow-water plants which are grown usually around the edges of the pond. Most of their top growth is visible above the water and bases and roots under water. I found planting depths somewhat confusing so went for my ‘trial & error’ method, try it, if not growing well move or raise until better established. Raising young plants out of the way of fish is a good idea as the fish will nibble young shoots. Many marginals also grow well in permanently saturated water ie. bog garden.

Bog Plants or moisture-loving plants

It is difficult to distinguish between bog and marginal plants but in general plants prospering in standing water are marginal plants and the ones which require wet conditions, but will not tolerate long periods of being submerged in water, are moisture loving or bog plants. Roots are planted straight into the soil, leaves and flowers grow clearly above the surface. Plants require humus-rich soil which is never allowed to dry out. Follow garden rules rather than pond ones for these plants. Making and planting a bog garden around your pond will enhance the natural look of the pond and be a haven for wildlife.