Creating the Sustainable Water Feature

By Russ Swalberg

Within the landscape industry there are a myriad of methods of installing natural water features. They can range from a simple bubbling rock to a large pond with multiple streams. Regardless of size, however, the main goal is to create a feature that can mimic what occurs naturally. Having a passion for the outdoors, I often find myself analyzing small streams and rivers to see how they naturally flow, and what it is that creates the intrigue and mystery that causes us to stop and stare at falling water.

Creating a sustainable water feature — and one that will fit within the scope and scale of the client’s needs and wants — should be first and foremost when discussing the installation of a feature; things like how much time the client is willing to spend on maintaining the water feature and also the space required to implement a feature. It is tempting to upsell a huge feature to a client but at the end of the day, if they are not able or willing to maintain the feature, you will likely get calls back to deal with issues that arise due to neglect of the feature. Being honest with the client regarding what is involved in the feature will allow you to take the role as the client’s advocate.

When determining the location of the water feature, you must look for the location that will allow the client the best view. You will also need to consider how any hardscape or softscape elements will interact with the feature. Also, determine if the site has a natural slope or if you need to artificially create one. I have seen features installed where the direction the water flows away from the area that is viewable, making the most enjoyable element of the feature (the falls) not viewable. Look for the locations to which water would naturally flow or determine how changing the site would affect that, and consider that in the design of the feature.

When creating a natural water features, negative space is your friend. When you look at natural streams and waterfalls when the water falls it usually will erode the soil under the rock it is falling over, creating a natural void. Utilizing this concept in your features can be a challenge to the construct, but if done correctly gives and amazing effect. Having negative space allows you to show off the water as it falls, and is also great for back-lighting with underwater lights if that is in your scope. When selecting the rock for the feature it is always best to find rock that already has moss and lichens on it to give the feel that it has been there for years.

Plantings are always your friends in a natural pond and serve many purposes in a natural feature. When designing a feature, I always consider where the plantings would occur naturally and how best to mimic that with planning pockets. Remember to run irrigation to the locations in the feature that you have plantings unless they are actually placed in the water of the feature itself. The second purpose of plantings is they can use up some of the nitrates that can occur naturally in the water — the less nitrates in the water, the less you are going to deal with algae growth. You as the professional should understand the specific requirements of the plant you are using. Is it a bog plant that would naturally grow at the edges of ponds and streams (i.e. rushes)? Or is it a plant that requires still water (i.e. Water Lilies)? Asking these types of questions will help you identify the best plant for the water feature. Understanding your plants’ habits and how and where they naturally grow is key to a successful water garden and feature.

 One of the key elements in providing a feature that will be a success is setting it up with the proper filtration and using materials that will keep the water clear and prevent algae blooms. I can’t say enough about the value of proper filtration systems. That will make or break the success of the feature. When looking for filtration systems it is very important to consider the volume of the water and how the depth of the pool can affect the turnover of the water. To have a successful feature, you must be able to keep the water oxygenated both at the water’s surface and at the floor of the water feature. There are many products that allow you to turn the water over, thus preventing stagnation of the water. This is especially important to consider if you are planning on having fish in the pond.

Pump sizing is also a key element in keeping the water in good condition, and something that is often overlooked. Your local supplier should be able to provide you with the appropriate size of pump necessary to provide the desired flow of water. There are many types of pumps that can be utilized depending upon need, preference and energy usage. Submersible pumps are often the go-to for most people; but if the size of the pond is of adequate size, you may consider utilizing in-line pumps, which will give you considerable energy savings. There are a lot more plumbing and location considerations to consider with an in-line pump, but it can really pay off for you and the customer in the long run if installed correctly. If using submersible pumps, it is important to size the pump so you have enough flow to allow for back pressure on the pump. Most suppliers will recommend that you have a valve on the outflow side of the pump to provide back pressure. This will make the pump last much longer and significantly save on energy.

All in all, creating a feature that is sustainable for you as the contractor and easier for the client or service technician to maintain will truly pay off in the long run. Remember, cutting corners on something like a water feature never pays off in the end.

Russ Swalberg is design & sales consultant at Landscape East & West, he can be reached via e-mail at

Photos provided by Bjorn L. Nordquist, Landscape East & West

Aquatic Plants

The world of aquatic plants is made up of many varying and distinct plant types. To make water gardening easy, Aquascape has broken pond plants into six groups based on common usage in water gardens.


Water lilies — A common sight in most water gardens, water lilies are the flagship plants of the water garden, and are available in a variety of colors and sizes. Tropical lilies are considered an annual by most, but, much like terrestrial annuals, they provide more vibrant colors and fragrances than hardy water lilies.
Lotus — Often mistakenly thought to be difficult to grow, these are the most striking members of the water garden plants, producing large, full blooms.
Marginal plants — By far the largest group of aquatic plants, marginals are plants that typically grow at the edges or “margins” of a pond. These also do well in bog gardens. Much like lilies, many tropical marginals will provide extraordinary colors not seen in most hardy marginals. Treat them like annuals and replace each year.
Water lily-like plants — As the name suggests, this fun little group of plants has similar characteristics to water lilies…floating leaves and flowers. But that’s where the similarity ends.
Floating plants — This group of plants floats with their roots dangling beneath the plant. They derive all their nutrients from the water.
Submerged plants — Living almost entirely underwater, submerged aquatics are commonly referred to as oxygenators.

Design and placement

When choosing plants for a water feature, use the same principals used when designing landscape gardens. Mix plant heights, textures and colors for visual impact. Be sure to include plants from at least three of the various groupings (listed above) for the most natural look. Random placement of the plants will give the pond a complete yet unstructured look. For best algae control results, shade 50 to 65 percent of the pond’s surface area with assorted plants. Lilies are most effective at shading, while marginals and floaters do a great job of using the nutrients that would normally feed algae.

Caring for aquatics

Planting — Aquatic plants can be kept in aquatic baskets, set into “pockets” in the pond, or tucked into rocks. Just like bedding plants or perennials, various aquatic plants thrive better in certain planting scenarios. When purchasing an aquatic plant, always re-pot that plant into a larger container unless you’re planting them directly into the pond.
Fertilizing — If you want the best from aquatic plants, they need to be fed on a regular basis. While marginal plants and lotuses need to be fed every 8-12 weeks, lilies need to be fed every 2-3 weeks in order to enjoy the most consistent array of blooms.
Maintenance — To keep water features looking fresh and healthy, remove yellowing or dead leaves from plant growth. Not only will the pond look more manicured, but you’ll keep the dead plant material from decaying in the water.

Aquatic plants are not only beautiful to behold, but they provide a necessary function in maintaining a healthy ecosystem in the water garden. They remove nutrients from the water that would otherwise feed algae. They also provide shade, food and protection for the fish and wildlife that inhabit the pond.

Article provided by Aquascape. For more information, visit

Pond Fish Care

Ornamental, fresh-water goldfish and koi are available for aquariums, water gardens and koi ponds. Fish come in a wide variety of sizes, depending on seasonal availability.
Goldfish varieties include Comets, Shubunkins, Fantails, Moors, Orandas and other fancy goldfish. During the summer season, various stores may offer other ornamental varieties suitable for your pond.
Goldfish and koi are able to breed by the time they reach 5 to 6 inches in length.
Goldfish and koi grow in relation to their nutrition, water conditions, and are also affected by their genetics. Jumbo fish will get large, regardless of tank size. Goldfish can grow to be 10 to 12 inches in length. Koi can get to sizes in excess of 24 inches.
Check out Butterfly koi. These koi have the long flowing fins of goldfish, with the beautiful markings of koi (typically 10 to 15 inches in length).
Both goldfish and koi thrive in temperate water conditions. Dormancy occurs during the winter, once water temperatures drop below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This is also the point at which they should stop being fed.
As long as the pond does not freeze to the bottom and an air hole is provided on the pond’s surface, fish will survive the winter.
Clean, healthy water is critical to fish health. Keep ponds filtered both mechanically and biologically.

 Article provided by Aquascape. For more information, visit

Fall and Winter Pond and Water Garden Care

Ponds and water features require some special attention in the fall and winter seasons. Pay special attention to the clean-up of fallen leaves. When winter approaches, decide whether to keep the pond running or shut it down. You’ll also have to decide how to care for fish through the cold winter months.

Dealing with falling leaves

Every autumn, falling leaves are inevitable, so it’s best to be prepared and minimize the maintenance needed in late fall and early spring. If the pond has a skimmer, this will catch a good deal of the leaves, but because of the heavy volume, many will still fall to the bottom of the pond. You may want to cover the pond with netting until the bulk of the leaves have fallen. After you remove the netting later in the season, use a net to remove any leaves or debris that may have slipped past the netting. Don’t worry about leaving a few behind — they will give frogs and insects a place to hibernate over the winter.

Fall plant care

After the first frost, you should stop fertilizing plants. As leaves and foliage turn yellow and die, remember to cut them back just as you would garden perennials. Hardy bog and marginal plants should have all of the dead leaves and foliage trimmed down to 2 inches above water level, and hardy lilies and stems should be cut back, leaving approximately 2 to 3 inches at the base of the plant. Tropical plants can be brought inside for winter or treated as annuals and replaced in the spring.

Fall fish care

If the pond has fish, and they have been fed all season, start feeding fish low-temp food when the water temperatures reach 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Stop feeding them when the water temperatures reach 50 degrees. They will eventually go into hibernation when the water temperature reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Winter fish care

Ponds should be at least 18 inches or deeper to over-winter fish. If your climate is cold enough to cause the pond to freeze over in winter, take special precautions to maintain an opening in the ice all winter. The opening allows for gases caused by decaying organic matter to escape all winter long. One wait to maintain an opening is with a de-icer. Another way is with the existing pump. Just place the pump close enough to the surface so that the discharge is just slightly below, causing a bubbling effect when running. This will replace the oxygen originally created by the normal water feature, as well as allow the escape of the harmful gasses mentioned previously.

Optional winter pump care

You can safely run a waterfall over the entire winter, with certain precautions being taken; or you can shut it down and use the pump to maintain the opening mentioned earlier. Leaving the pump running throughout the winter can create outstanding ice sculptures along the stream and waterfall. Take caution, however, in the build-up of ice, which may cause water to channel out of the pond. If this happens, it is recommended that you shut down and disconnect the pump and store it for the remainder of the cold season. To protect the pump, store it in a frost-free area and submerged in a bucket of water  to keep the seals lubricated. It should be ready to go in the spring. Remember, if you leave a waterfall running, evaporation will happen, so you will still need to add water to the pond — even in the winter months.

Article provided by Aquascape. For more information, visit

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *