Thursday, July 7, 2011


            One of my dad’s favorite sayings was, “She’s a day late and a dollar short.” Having been a dollar short all my life, I can now add “a day late” to my many shortcomings. To all of you who live and breathe GFTGU, my sincerest apologies. Since I suspect that number is pretty close to zero, I’m already kicking myself for mentioning the tardiness of this post at all.

Seen any of these guys lately?

            Okay, Fourth of July weekend was probably not the very best time to run a poll—only six people voted. And one of them was Tim. In order to beef up the numbers (I hope), I extended the response period by seven days. Now that all the street fairs, fireworks displays, family reunions and heat-related trips to the emergency room are over, maybe you’ll take a second to share your lightning bug sightings.

Now, as promised, some things to think about before adding a water feature to your garden.

A birdbath with a solar bubbler
does double duty, providing
water for wildlife and sound

      1.      What is it you want water in your garden to do? Is your aim to supply drink for the critters, or do you have something more aesthetic in mind? Both the sight and sound of water delight and calm overheated senses, but how to achieve them? A birdbath with a circulator? A container water garden for the deck? A fountain? A pond? A waterfall? A small tinkle that draws you down a shaded path, or a large feature visible from inside the house and audible from the porch, lanai or deck? Give serious consideration to how big an investment in money and time you’re willing to expend on installation and maintenance.
This is not a good source of power
for your water feature's pump

2.      As to installation, think location, location, location. It may sound stupidly obvious, but you will need a convenient water source. Doesn’t matter what size feature you have in mind, evaporation happens. Nobody relishes dragging a hose or—worse!—hauling buckets and watering cans a couple hundred feet. All the damn time.

3.      If your chosen feature requires a pump, you will also need a convenient source of electricity. Those orange extension cords running from porch outlet out to the garden are unattractive, unreliable (think lawn mowers and trimmers), and unsafe. Have a licensed electrician install a ground-fault interrupter outlet near the site. Don’t scrimp on this step, kids: your homeowners policy may not cover any fire loss on your property if the fountain-pump line is a do-it-yourself job.

Koi add color and movement
to a pond, but also more work
    4.      Regarding maintenance: nobody enjoys a scummy water feature. Birdbaths require a weekly clear-out and refill; fountains the same. Ponds without fish need regular water-level monitoring and occasional algae treatments. Ponds with fish top the maintenance chart because consistently good water quality is essential to piscine survival. Elaborate filtration devices, like those for swimming pools (and just as attractive) help a lot: but they need maintenance, too. If you landscape around your feature—and who doesn’t?—the plantings will stake a claim on your time as well. Tim and I have talked ourselves out of any number jobs simply by describing the time-sink a water-feature can be.

Ponds mean wildlife:
a mallard laid her eggs in this pot
in the float we put on a client's pond
(and an otter ate them)
    5.      If you go the pond route, remember ponds are, by definition, ecosystems. Water attracts wildlife. Frogs, toads, turtles, lizards, salamanders and snakes are likely to visit and/or take up residence. With enough depth and surface area, ducks, otters and dreadful, dirty, pugnacious Canada geese may move in too. Still water, a necessity for water lilies, encourages mosquito breeding. If you plan on stocking your pond with fish, plan to protect them from predators like raccoons, herons, cats and hawks. At the same time, keep in mind that netting can ensnare unwanted diners or squatters, opening up a whole other can of worms.

This example is a little over the top,
but demonstrates the beauty
of low-voltage lighting
      6.      Consider safety. A little person can drown very quickly in very little water. Even the most meticulously cared-for pond will have a slimy bottom, which may result in slip-dunk-type accidents. Plan for nighttime illumination with low-voltage fixtures (solar stick-in-the-ground ones are too unreliable for this important purpose) to alert the oblivious evening visitor to the hazard.


     7.      If you’re going for a waterfall, please consider aesthetics. I’m rerunning the picture of the embarrassing monument to Tim’s and my stupidity as a reminder that nature never runs water uphill for the express purpose of having it flow back down. Scale your waterfall to the lay of your land, backing it into a natural rise or natural-looking constructed one. No matter how much you want it, you can’t convincingly pull off Yosemite Falls on the coastal plain. Or, indeed, any plain. Aim for a streambed effect, with gentle changes in grade marked by boulders for water to tumble over.
A dumb-looking waterfall

A non-dumb-looking waterfall


Features with small reservoirs
are prone to pump burn-out 
 8.      Pumps are always problematic (meaning, in this case, “probably a problem”). Make sure yours is rated for the gallonage of your feature. Too big a pump, it’ll empty the basin in short order. Too small a pump, it’ll burn itself out trying to move the water. Submersed pumps must stay submerged in order to work. We warned the owner of the cute little wall fountain shown here that she couldn’t leave it running unattended: the reservoir held only about a cup of water, and if the water level fell enough to expose the pump, it would burn itself out. Only took her a week to blow through two pumps and become disenchanted with the whole idea.

      9.      In water features as in life, be prepared. Anything that can go wrong, will. Pond liners and plastic reservoir basins spring leaks. Lightning strikes fry pumps and, occasionally, fish. Algal blooms develop overnight. Oxygen levels in the water can vary wildly. Reptiles get stuck in the protective netting and you’re left to puzzle how to get them out without harm to either party. Even birdbaths have their woes. Raccoons pull the dripline out of ours, so it goes bone-dry four times a week. When I refill it, the squirrels hold a splashing party in it. Grackles steal the pennies I put in the basin to deter algae formation. The list goes on and on.    

My best advice? Start small. Try a birdbath, a few lilies in a water-proof container on your deck, or a small fountain, just to get your feet wet (so to speak) before plunging into a larger commitment. Personally, I haven’t progressed beyond the birdbath stage. A bigger water feature means more work, which is something I’m not anxious to sign up for. If I want the sound of water in my garden, I pop outside and take a shower.

July is Smart Irrigation Month, so get out and make friends with your local contractor, and/or your system’s controller. Think about what you’re watering, and why.

Speaking of efficient users of water… The “Winter Weeds” post of January 4th has been a perennial favorite in the stats, so we’ll give the summer ones a go next time.

An astronomical fact of interest: on July 4th, Earth reached its aphelion with the sun, putting a distance of about 94.5 million miles between the orbs, measured center to center. (Didn’t cool us down any that I noticed.) Not to worry—Sky-Guy says we started inching back immediately, and will cozy up to perihelion on January 4, 2012. (Probably won’t warm us up any either.)    

Thanks for dropping by.



  1. Very informative!! I appreciate all of the well organized details presented here.

    Have a great weekend!

  2. Thanks, Barb. Read your profile--I'm a Scorpion, too. And Tim's a painter, mostly oils. And for years we vacationed in the Philadelphia area as major fans of Longwood, Chanticleer and the Museum of Art (where I once spent two hours staring at four Pissarros).
    As a biology teacher, would you explain to me what "Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny" means? I love the sound of the phrase--so poetic.
    Hope yours is a pleasant weekend too.