Following the laws of nature will help water garden

The Associated Press
Friday March 16, 2001

Lake Michigan has a lesson for the thousands of homeowners who will install water gardens in their backyards this year. So does the Hudson River. 

The lesson: Mimic nature. Take the project easy. Make it natural. Fight Mother Nature, and you will lose, sooner or later. Even in your backyard. 

Such is the opinion of Greg Wittstock, president of Aquascape Designs, a Chicago-area firm that says it installs more water features – ponds, waterfall, fountains and so on – than anyone else in the country. 

Replicating the ecosystem of a large body of water is easier than most think, but in Wittstock’s opinion, flies in the face of much of what is written about water gardening. 

Water gardening is exploding in popularity. Some $750 million was spent at wholesale in 2000, and the industry is expecting growth at wholesale to reach $1.4 billion by 2005, Wittstock said. Most sales to date have been to do-it-yourselfers who secured supplies at a garden center or home center. 

Wittstock’s company installed about 150 gardens in the Chicago area in 2000, and most ranged in price from $5,000 to $7,000. A few topped $100,000. 

Much of its business is selling supplies and equipment to other installers and educating installers through workshops. 

Why the popularity? 

“Our customers are not enthusiastic gardeners. It’s the average person who wants to have a place to relax every day after work, rather than waiting for a vacation that is six months away,” Wittstock said. 

“Ask anyone with a water garden. They will tell you it is a place to escape to, that it is soothing, relaxing and environmentally friendly. These things are incredibly important now because people have less time and more stress in their lives.” 

Another reason for their surging popularity: Water gardens are still an unusual landscape feature, so they have “one-upmanship” value to many people. 

Back to Mother Nature and mimicking her design for an ecosystem.  

Wittstock believes the water garden must have these five components to deliver on its potential of beauty and maintenance that should take no longer than five minutes each week: 

• Rocks and gravel, to provide surface area for bacteria to colonize and be available to break down fish waste and other organic matter. 

• Plants, to consume nutrients from organic matter in the water and reduce the presence of algae. 

• Fish, to eat the algae that inevitably occur. 

• Recirculatory system, to move the water and by doing so, create pleasing movement and sound. 

• Mechanical and biological filters, to get rid of leaves and products of decomposition. 

Wittstock believes homeowners stumble early on by installing a pond that is too small to maintain itself and to accommodate the desire for more plants and fish. The right size to start with, he believes, is about 200 square feet.  

A pond of this size is big enough to create an ecosystem that largely maintains itself and gives the homeowner a chance to add more features such as fish, plants, fountains and so on in the future. 

Marvin Pritts, a professor of horticulture at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., recommends consumers think hard about the purpose of the garden. 

“The first step is to decide what you want the pond for – a reflection pool, water lilies and other aquatic flowers, fish, fountains. Each choice has implications for how the pond is built, particularly in relation to its size,” he said. 


Pritts believe the easiest water feature is a reflection pool. It can be as shallow as two to six inches. Create it with a black liner and the pool will reflect the landscape behind it. 

He agrees with Wittstock about size. “The larger the pond, the better buffered it will be against fluctuations in temperature and chemistry and the greater amount of oxygen that it can retain. Your success in maintaining a healthy fish and plant population is increased with pond size.” 


For more information, search the Internet and as you explore, be aware that opinions differ. A few places to look: 

Cornell University - http://www.hort.cornell.edu/gardening/fctsheet/egfactsh/watergar.htm l 

Aquascape - http://www.aquascapedesigns.com.