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Home & Garden: Water gardening in containers way of achieving soothing effect

Water features give a sense of coolness and a serene beauty to the landscape. Those that include fountains or waterfalls tend to draw people to the soothing sight and sound of trickling water.

Although intrigued, not everyone is ready to take the plunge and dig an in-ground water garden or pool. You may not have the resources or time now, but might like a way to learn about water gardening on a small scale.

Containers are the ideal solution. Container gardens require little time, money or maintenance. They can be placed on decks, patios or in flowerbeds. Fill a container with water and it is an instant pool that reflects the sky and ripples in the breeze. Add aquatic plants and it is a miniature water garden. Put in some goldfish and you have a pond. Your own property will dictate the size and scale of the feature.

There are only four rules of water gardening. 1. Ponds need aquatic plants, fish and water snails. 2. Grow the plants in pots. 3. Cover from 50 to 75 percent of the surface with vegetation. 4. You should never need to change the water during the growing season.

Any watertight receptacle can be used for a water garden. It should be able to hold 20 gallons of water and be at least 12 inches deep. Half wine or whiskey barrels are very commonly used and work well. Also, consider washtubs, clay or plastic garden pots, glazed pots or urns, crocks, a sink with a plug, bathtub, trough, or stock tank. The larger the surface area and the deeper the container the more plants and fish you can have.

Clean any container before using it. New galvanized containers may leak rust or zinc into the water and copper containers are toxic to fish. If you need to seal a container, choose a non-toxic sealer. Fill the drainage holes in pots. It is best to line wine barrels. Plastic liners are available or you may make your own with plastic or rubber sheeting.

Choose your site and place the container before you fill it with water. Every gallon of water weighs about eight pounds so place the larger containers on a sturdy patio and not on a flimsy deck or porch. If you set a barrel directly in the garden, put it on a large patio block to deter rotting. Sun or shade does not matter as you can find plants for each, however, four to six hours of direct sun is best for most aquatic plants.

After filling the container with water wait a few days before putting in plants. Wait another week or two before adding goldfish and snails. Keep topping the pond in hot weather, adding a little water every day and not a large amount at one time.

Aquatic plants, such as lilies, grow in standing water and marginal plants grow in shallow water near the edge. A good plant grouping includes a water lily, an upright marginal plant and a decorative floater. Aquatic and marginal plants should be planted in one to two gallon pots using topsoil with no pesticides, fertilizers or organic matter. Heavy clay soil is good. Do not use potting soil!

Look for small to medium sized water lilies. The size is measured by the spread of the leaf pads. There should be six to eight inches of water over the lily bulbs and two to four inches over marginal plants. Adjust their height with bricks. Cover the soil in the pots with a generous amount of pea gravel or sand.

'Chromatella' is a medium sized yellow flowered hardy lily. 'Fabiola' and 'Pink Sensation' are pink varieties. Even better is the dwarf yellow 'Helvola.' Marginal plants include sweet flag (Acorus), the 'Umbrella Palm' and dwarf papyrus like 'King Tut.' You can use dwarf cattails (Typha) in a container that is at least three feet in diameter. Fertilize potted plants monthly with a special aquatic tablet.

Aquatic floaters dangle their hair like roots into the water and are good for removing pollutants. Water lettuce forms rosettes that can handle partial shade. Water Hyacinth forms spikes of lavender flowers and likes full sun and warm summers. Parrots feather is a spreading aquatic with needle like leaves that will droop over the edge of the pot.

Fish, like the ordinary goldfish control algae and mosquito larvae. If you do not have fish, control mosquitoes by gently overflowing the water with a hose weekly or more. Maintain the level near the top. You may prefer to use mosquito dunks. To support fish you need a minimum of three to five gallons of water and a depth of four to six inches. A rule of thumb is one fish per ten gallons of water. Overpopulation creates dirty water and stresses the fish. Two months is probably as long as you can keep them in a small container.

More time is required in the spring as far as maintenance. Thoroughly clean, repair leaks and re-install pumps, plants and fish. The pool will turn green and murky initially as algae eat stirred up nutrients. After a chemical balance is attained, the water will clear up. This is why you do not change the water or this will occur all over again. During summer remove the spent flowers and leaf pads and clear out any fallen debris.

Fall duties include removing pump, plants and finding a home for the fish. Overwinter the lily in a bucket of water in a cool dark place in the house. The fish can go in an aquarium or a garbage can filled with water in your attached garage. There is no need to feed them in the latter case, as they will go into a dormant state. Clean the barrel and refill it with water to freeze over winter. Store breakable containers indoors and turn stock tanks upside down.