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Small-space water gardening for big impact


Astute observers will notice that there is distinct focal point in my vegetable garden plan. But the fact is, I don’t know what that focal point is going to be.

veg garden plan

It might be a small café set, so I can sip a coffee surrounded by my growing vegetables. But I’ve also entertained the idea of a small water feature. Problem is, I know nothing about water features of any size, and I’ll be honest, I’m intrigued.

So I talked to Brian Helfrich, vice president of Aquascape Inc. in St. Charles, Illinois, about water feature options for people who either don’t have room or don’t care to have a more typical water feature such as a pond.

“Not everyone has the space or budget for one of these big dream back yard oasis, but everyone wants a water feature. They just don’t know it yet,” Helfrich said. 

container water garden
Fill a container (without a hole, obviously) with water, throw in a fountain, a pump, plants and maybe even fish, and you’ve got a mini water feature. Aquascape photo
water plants
Bright, beautiful plants combine with a bamboo fountain. Now this is what I’m talking about! Aquascape photo

And that’s where mini water features come in. At Aquascape they are called patio ponds, but in the simplest terms they are just a vessel filled with water for decorative purposes. They might be small enough to sit on your desk or big enough to, say, be a focal point in the middle of your garden at 40 inches in diameter or so. When you get to the larger sizes you can do almost anything you can do in a big water feature just on a smaller scale. Flowers, water plants, fountains and even fish are all part of the fun. 

And my thought when Brian dangled this tantalizing idea was that these things must be a lot of work right? Because let’s be honest: Most of us aren’t really looking to spend more time maintaining gardens.

Not so, he said. “Patio ponds are 10,000 times easier than maintaining a fish tank. A fish tank looks like it goes bad when you see algae, a patio pond. But you can’t see the algae in a pond and the fish like it.”

They’ll need to be topped up with water to make up for water lost through evaporation, and either brought inside or emptied for winter. And that’s about it, Helfrich said. 

container water garden
Brian Helfrich / Aquascape photo

And Helfrich was quick to dispel many water feature myths:

  • On mosquitos: Good ponds actually decrease the local mosquito population, he said. They only like stagnant water (which is why it’s important to have a small “feature” to move water), and if you have any kind of water feature, dragonflies, which eat mosquitoes, will be around to help control the population.
  • On predators: If you have small fish about the length of your finger, which is an appropriate size for a container water garden (and you can have up to six in a big container), predators like raccoons aren’t going to bother with them. “It’s just not a meal for them,” Helfrich said. “If you put in 6- to 8-inch fish, they will grab those.”
  • On electrical cost: The cost to run a small pump for a patio pond is just a few dollars a month, he said. I asked about solar-powered pumps (which would be the only option for me as I don’t have electrical capabilities at the vegetable garden) and Helfrich said most patio pond pumps are small enough that they could be run on solar power.

But let’s be honest here, I wanted to know more about the plants. Because why else would one  have a water garden other than to have water plants (and specifically a water lily)? Helfrich says plants typically associated with water gardens work well and I was particularly taken with the idea of a dwarf water lily with silver-dollar sized leaves. Horsetail, papyrus, sweet flag and iris all work as well. But other plants that Helfrich suggested surprise me: sweet potato vine, creeping jenny, pothos and impatiens, to name a few. 

impatiens in water garden
Impatiens can be planted right in a water garden. In this example, a container water garden turns into a fountain leading into a larger pond. Brian Helfrich / Aquascape photo

“It’s really in the eye of the beholder as to how much they want to plant a patio pond,” he said. “Some people want it full of plants so it just looks like a giant container, otherwise want to see more water.” They look great when combined with other containers on a deck or patio, he added. 

patio pond
Aquascape photo

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Helfrich is a fan of the petite but powerful container water garden, which is saying someone for a guy who builds massive water features for customers who want waterfalls and swimming ponds and just about anything else you can imagine. 

“I built this pretty incredible pond in my backyard solely for my children,” he said. “Then we put a 40-inch patio pond in the front yard and the only thing they care about is that patio pond. They are responsible for decorating themselves and they can’t screw it up. They get to choose the plants and they each get to choose a fish.”

water garden with glass tabletop
Container water garden or outdoor coffee table? A glass tabletop makes it both. Brian Helfrich / Aquascape photo

A note about those fish: Helfrich advises that you need to have a plan for them at the end of the season—perhaps finding someone with a pond where fish can overwintered—because in most places they can’t survive the winter in a patio pond. 

Beyond that, it’s just a matter of what you can dream up. Add a bamboo fountain, a spitting frog fountain, underwater lights, even a glass tabletop that turns it into a cocktail table. It’s enough to get a gardener dreaming of an entirely different kind of gardening. 

12 Responses

  1. I love the idea of a little pond. I have a fountain which I love – and so do our dogs, who splash away in it. It’s always so nice to hear water moving in a garden. Of course, all I’m hearing in mine lately is water rushing through the gutters!

  2. One thing that wasn’t mentioned is that it’s not OK to through fish into local waterways at the end of the season unless they are native.

  3. Been working on a large garden in the middle of our driveway. Trying to make it more maintenance free by putting in some shrubs and small trees. Thought about putting in a fountain as a focal point and your article gave me some ideas. I have a big cast iron stew pot and am thinking about using it for a water feature. It is certainly sturdy and leak proof. Any thoughts on this idea would be appreciated. I have access to electric for a small pump.

    1. Honestly I think it sounds great. I’ve always been a little wary of water features, but after talking to Brian about some of the options available to do it on a small scale I’m intrigued. The only thing I can think of is that you’ll have to figure out a way to get the water out at the end of the season, which I supposed you could do with a hose and a bit of suction.

  4. We had a big water lily pot but it lost its sunny spot when we redid the driveway. But we still have a big bowl with water for the birds. We stopped having fish so we did not have to deal with predators knocking the water lily pots over in the big pond. Since you will have sun for veggies you should have no problem growing water plants. I don’t know if mosquitoes would be a big problem if the bowl is half full of water. We finally got frogs etc this year (American toad and wood frogs) which helps with mosquitoes. But I don’t think our big pond causes mosquitoes; really depends on how wet and rainy a season it is. Or so I think! (I can’t get your comment boxes to retain my name which is why it’s different this time.)

  5. I think this is a great idea! About 15 years ago, we ordered a custom copper fountain and pump for my mother to place in an old family cast iron sugar pot. It’s still going strong, she fills it each spring, tops it off when the level gets low, and empties for the winter. She does not have any plants in hers, the fountain is decoration enough- it’s in the shape of iris, water lily, and cattails (from ). The fountain is in the flower garden next to her back porch- to help keep leaves and debris out, she has added a metal mesh screen (about 1/2″ grid) just under the water level that makes removing the leaves simple. As a bonus, songbirds love to use it as support while drinking and bathing. Oh, and we coated the interior of the pot with black waterproofing coating to prevent rust. Very little work required for a beautiful and great sounding addition to her garden. I love your idea of plants in the fountain as well- who knew you could use so many different kinds?

  6. These are intriguing. I will be very interested to see how your solar pump works. I am not sure I have enough sunlight to run one.

    1. I don’t know if I’ll get a container water garden or not. Just tossing around ideas at this point, but I do think it would be lovely. I wonder just how well a solar pump would work too. I know that I’m not going to spend the money to get electrical over there. Plus, I should probably worry about building the beds and getting things planted first! Trying to keep the horse in front of the cart!

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