Pond Design | Plants versus Rock Edges

Still in their pots, a hodgepodge of cattail, iris, arrowhead, rushes and water lilies were all thoughtlessly dropped into the pond without regard for any aesthetic design. Is this what a professional water garden installer gets paid to do? A tremendous amount of labor was wasted on installing boulders three layers back from the waterfall. Why? Just because they were on the truck? They should have stayed on the truck and the labor used to install the plants into the shoreline. Notice all the wasted rocks on the left edge of the pond too.
Still in their pots, a hodgepodge of cattail, iris, arrowhead, rushes and water lilies were all thoughtlessly dropped into the pond without regard for any aesthetic design. Is this what a professional water garden installer gets paid to do? A tremendous amount of labor was wasted on installing boulders three layers back from the waterfall. Why? Just because they were on the truck? They should have stayed on the truck and the labor used to install the plants into the shoreline. Notice all the wasted rocks on the left edge of the pond too.

I have a couple of questions. These questions are not for installers of koi ponds, swimming pools or water features; they are for professional water garden pond installers. The first question is what do your client’s think are prettier–rocks or plants? And the second question is which one will make you more money–rocks or plants?

Show a dozen of your potential customers the same pond in your portfolio when it was brand new when all you can see is the shoreline rock work and the same pond a year or two later when the plants have covered the rocks and you will probably find that they would prefer that you install the pond in the second picture. If you are installing water gardens, then you need to be installing plants.

Many pond installers leave too much of the final plantings up to the water garden owner. A water garden is a wetland perennial flowerbed. Landscapers would not dig up a section of a customer’s lawn, scatter a bunch of rocks around, set out one or two potted plants and then tell the customer that it is up to them to find some more plants to fill in their dry land perennial bed and make it look pretty.

It is time to leave the old style rock pit behind and to move into a new, prettier future of water garden pond building.

For most people, plants are what make a water garden pretty, not rocks. If your pond installation (especially the edge) is dominated by rocks, you are not building the prettiest ponds in most people’s view.

Adding more plants and providing them with proper places to grow will mean changing the way you install the water garden pond. It will mean thinking ahead as to how the plants are going to grow. Before you dig the water garden’s hole, you should know what water garden plants are going to be used and you should have a planting plan to work from. You must know where the tall plants are going to be installed, so you can prepare the pond’s hole for them. You must know where the ground cover and flowering annuals are going to be planted.

You will also need to know what dry land plants you will be planting along the water garden edge to blend in the whole garden. Wetland and dry land plants that hide the pond’s edge will blend the water garden into the surrounding dry landscape’s view and therefore make it look like it belongs there.

Compare this stream shoreline to the other stream. Which one does your client prefer? The large stones are used here as stepping stones and as places to sit and enjoy the stream and mini-waterfall.

Compare this stream shoreline to the other stream. Which one does your client prefer? The large stones are used here as stepping stones and as places to sit and enjoy the stream and mini-waterfall.

Designing and installing wetland flower beds is good for pond installers. You don’t have to carry around so many back breaking rocks and you can sell more high value plants up front. You can also sell larger plants that fill in quickly, instead of small plants that they will have to wait for. You can make even more profit by selling the dry land perennials that go around the pond edge to make the water garden prettier.

You will only have to change your construction methods slightly. Instead of the same predictable, upside down pyramid shaped hole in the ground that has the same size steps going down all the way around the pond, how about creating a natural look to the hole. Make some shelves wide and others narrow, make some shelves deeper and some shallow, all depending on which plants will be growing on that shelf. Dig a divot or trench in the bottom of a shelf to create a deeper plant pocket in some shelves so that taller plants will have a deeper more wind resistant root system.

Garden plants are in-stalled, not left to languish in the pot. Some pretty garden containers do grow plants for a season or two, and water gardens can have some potted plants, but for a water garden to look its best, most plants should be installed in the rocks and gravel.

No matter what climate you are building the pond, there are plenty of shoreline plants that will grow in the variety of conditions you create. Now of course, there is a caveat. If you take a plant out of the pot and plant it into the gravel, the whole area is now available to the plant to grow in to. Some un-potted plants may become bad neighbors and act like weeds. They will try to claim the whole pond as their own huge pot. The same plant that will behave wildly in one pond may not do so in another pond or a different climate. There are plants that cannot be sold in some states because of their weedy tendencies that make wonderful landscape plants in other locations.

What do people look at? The rocky shoreline or the dry land plants behind the stream? Why aren't there any wetland plants? Were there two landscapers involved? One to install the stream and one to install the dry land?

What do people look at? The rocky shoreline or the dry land plants behind the stream? Why aren’t there any wetland plants? Were there two landscapers involved? One to install the stream and one to install the dry land?

Do you know which water garden plants grow best in your area? Your home pond should be filled with a variety of plants that you are testing. The more experience you have with water garden plants the better your water GARDEN pond designs will be, the more satisfied your customers will be and the more referrals you will get, which means more profits for you.

Having a pond at home is not an option. You must have one and another one at your work location and you must try new plants, filters and other products in them all the time. This is your livelihood and you need to do everything you can to become an expert and to increase your sales and profitability.

Not only does the out of pot plant look prettier, but it will help prevent algae problems. Gravel areas give un-potted plants the ability to compete with algae cells for nutrients. The wider the variety of un-potted shoreline plants there are taking up the nutrients, the fewer algae cells there will be. Plants left in pots do very little to compete with the algae. The un-potted plants will make the pond edge look much more natural and therefore the pond will look prettier to most people.Okay, so not every plant is best for every pond, that’s fine, there are still plenty that are and it is up to you to find the best ones for each pond you build. Don’t build a pond and let the homeowner try to find the right plants themselves. They may mess up the whole design and it may not look its best and you will not get good referrals from it. It is ideal if you can plant the right plants when you build the pond, so that it will look its best in the future to your future customers.

Aquatic ground cover plants will spread over the shoreline rocks to soften the pond and stream edge. They will often grow towards the dry land flower bed surrounding the water garden pond, helping to blend the wet and dry flower beds together.

Aquatic ground cover plants will spread over the shoreline rocks to soften the pond and stream edge. They will often grow towards the dry land flower bed surrounding the water garden pond, helping to blend the wet and dry flower beds together.

Use 1 to 3˝ diameter gravel so that the roots and water will be able to move freely. There is no need to add kitty litter or topsoil to the gravel areas. The bacteria, dying plant roots, dead leaves and other organic matter will eventually fill many of the nooks and crannies between the rocks. The plants will grow even better with this additional influx of nutrients.

In spite of the infill of organic material, water still flows into and out of the gravel along the shorelines. As the water level goes up and down with evaporation and pond filling and with wave action there is a constant ebb and flow of water and nutrients to the plant roots. This movement of water and nutrients into and out of the shoreline gravel is exactly what these plants are used to in nature.

Potted plants have exactly the same aerobic and anaerobic conditions in the soil around the roots, under the gravel in the pot and under the pot itself. There is no real difference in anaerobic conditions to having some gravel along the shoreline than there is to having plants in pots on the shelves. However, there can be a big difference to having some gravel along the shoreline and having a big thick layer of gravel three feet down at the bottom of the pond.

Tall potted plants have a hard time standing up. Even though there was plenty of room and rocks to plant in, this plant was left to fend for itself. A lot of expensive work was wasted on placing the large flat stones around this pond.

Tall potted plants have a hard time standing up. Even though there was plenty of room and rocks to plant in, this plant was left to fend for itself. A lot of expensive work was wasted on placing the large flat stones around this pond.

Eventually, like any perennial, you may want to divide a plant that has been growing in one of these gravel beds. Just drain the water level down below the root area so stirred up organic matter will not cloud the water. Then move aside extra stones and pull the plant while giving it a bit of a shake to loosen more gravel and the plant will pull right out. Divide and replant it as you would any perennial.

Many existing shorelines of ponds that do not fit into the attractive category have a ring of stones, boulders or stepping-stones surrounding the water. There is a physical and more importantly, visual separation of the dry land and wetland. Removing some of the visible rocks and replacing them with plants will help to make the pond edge blend into the surrounding landscape.

A few rocks and boulders make great accents in any landscape. Some areas of the country have mostly rocky ground and outcroppings and so in these areas, more rocks in the view make the pond fit into its surroundings. Even in these locations, plants will still make the pond look

If all of the ponds you install are surrounded by a ring of rocks, it may be time for you to hone your skills and take your craft to the next level. If all you want to do is install ponds, fine, but installing water gardens will be more fulfilling professionally and profitably. Your customers will be happier too.

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