Home & Living

How to Create Your Own Water Garden

A little work (and money) can create the zen water feature you want.
Trowel Talk April
- Illustration by Heidi Berton

The view from the kitchen window into Kirsch Jones’ backyard is not what you’d expect in Charles Village, where rowhouses typically have postage-stamp-sized yards.

His vista reveals a lush sanctuary anchored by a water garden teeming with colorful fish. It’s a vision Jones had when he moved into the neighborhood in the 1980s—a peaceful refuge from the concrete urban jungle, with the sounds of water babbling in a fragrant, floral setting.

So, he began digging up the tiny yard to create a 1,600-gallon fish pond with stone waterways, a biological filter, a stream, a waterfall, and a mixture of perennials and tropical annuals. “It adds a lively oasis in the middle of the city and supports a diverse bird population,” Jones says.

“This backyard is like, ‘ahhh!’” concurs Jones’ friend Nancy Perlman. “The most Zen place I know. I swear it’s almost like being in church, but way better. It’s like the secret garden.”

Such reactions are the reason people create water gardens, bringing the landscape to life with the movement and sound of water and the animals it attracts, says Tim McQuaid, general manager at Cockeysville’s Valley View Farms, which has an extensive water-garden section. Of course, there’s some work and expense—between $500 and $3,000 for a self-install.

Where to begin? Well, you’ll need a source of electricity at the pond site. Then, McQuaid recommends a variety of materials. If you want to avoid concrete, you’ll need a layer of sand at the bottom of the garden excavation, a water-garden liner and liner fabric to protect the liner, plus fieldstone and flagstone to anchor and cover the liner and make it look natural.

If you want that waterfall action, you’ll need black waterfall foam, which seals the gaps between the rocks in your waterfall so the flow won’t be lost between the stones. Add to the list a pump, filter, and tubing, plus a shovel-handled steel tamper, used to compress soil or to create a raised area for a waterfall.

Next, you need a plan: Use a rope to lay out the shape. Now it’s digging time, requiring three levels: the rock shelf at four to five inches, a shelf—like a step—at nine to 12 inches, and the bottom at 18 inches or more.

“Cut the side walls of the water garden at a slight angle,” McQuaid says. “This will add support to the walls, so they don’t collapse. It’s also important that the ground outside the pond slopes away, so water from outside doesn’t come in.”

After the sand cushion has been placed on the pond floor, line the walls and shelves with liner fabric and install the liner. The pond should be finished by placing stones, known as coping, around the edge. Presto, it’s a pond—making your backyard, like Jones’, the most Zen place you know.