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Bark VS. Stone

Desertscape Landscape is located in the Fox Valley with a service area encompassing a 60 mile radius. If you reside outside our service area and you have a unique project that requires our expertise, we are willing to travel to accommodate your needs.

7 things you must know before you install a water garden!


The following are very common problems I have seen with water gardens that have been poorly designed and installed by professional landscape contractors in the surrounding fox valley area. Desertscape has been installing biological falls and skimmer filtration systems since 1998. We were the first in the fox valley to install these systems. We’re still around because we install them correctly the first time, no exceptions. Back in the late 90’s as water gardens were becoming popular Chicago was the only place around you could go to attend seminars on how to install these systems. If you follow the guidelines below you will be very satisfied with your pond. If you don’t you will wish you never put one in. To correct it can be very costly! Most people with improperly installed water gardens won’t be able to make it function properly because in most cases you have to start from scratch. Our motto is do it right the first time or don’t do it at all!


1)      Use of limestone in your water garden. Good or bad? Answer is both. Good if you have a half acre or larger pond or lake with a high acidic ph. Bad if you have a water garden 5,000 gallons or less with limestone rocks surrounding the entire interior pond shelf walls. Large bodies of water that are very acidic such as those up north will benefit from aerial applications of lime to them causing the ph to become closer to neutral. On the other hand, smaller bodies of water 5,000 gallons or less will suffer drastic ph fluctuations due to too much lime in the water. Generally limestone is a softer, more porous stone that leaches lime into the water garden making it difficult to balance the ph and maintain good water clarity. Algae is always going to be difficult to control when limestone is used resulting in fish and plants becoming stressed. So why do contractors use limestone then? Because it looks nice for a waterfall application and is also very cheap to purchase. Limestone is quarried extensively here in the fox valley area and is a fraction of the cost of other types of stone that should be used. So what type of stone should I use? If you like the look of limestone, substitute a sandstone quartzite. Sandstone quartzite is a very dense, hard stone that will not slowly disintegrate as standard sandstone will. Shape, sizes and colors are very similar. Other options would be granite fieldstone boulders, or the jagged look of Aqua blue boulders, gun metal granite boulders or red granite rock. Trust me; spend a little more money selecting the right type of rock and it will save you from maintenance migraine headaches later on. If you want to see if the rock you have is limestone you can perform a simple test. Go to the grocery store and buy a jar of vinegar. Pour a little bit on the rock. If the rock begins to foam or bubble do not use it because it is limestone and you will develop migraines over time.    

2)      Lack of aquatic plants. Plants by far are the best filter for your pond. The more plants the better. It is said that the best performing, self sustaining ponds will be covered with between 50 – 80% plant coverage. Water lilies and floaters will block the sunlight that promotes algae. Aquatic plants also compete for available nutrients in the water resulting in a decrease of algae growth. Floaters, marginal’s, submerged and lily like aquatics should be used in every pond. A basic knowledge of these plants is a must. Certain plants are very invasive and even poisonous. Certain aquatic plants should not be used because they can enter our natural lakes and rivers carried there by ducks, geese and other critters. Don’t be frustrated the first season your pond has been installed because you have algae issues. Plants will need at least one season to reach their potential to be effective filterers.

3)      Lack of fish or too many fish. To create a working ecosystem you need to have fish in order to have balance. Most people think of Koi but remember they grow very fast and you will need to remove some when they get larger. I like to use Shubunkins (a type of goldfish) because they are very hardy, grow slower and still they have multiple coloration. Some people don’t want fish. Well, you need them. Go to your local pet store and buy some cheap feeder goldfish. It’s better than having nothing at all. Most people like to feed their fish. This is not necessary; they have enough algae and other things to eat already in the pond. Too much feeding results in excessive fish waste and dirty water. Use supplemental feeding sparingly! You can have one fish per 10 sq’ of water surface area. Remember you will need to cut back on the fish as they become larger. You will occasionally lose some fish due to predation or natural occurrences but you will also gain more fish because they will have little ones. What do I do with the fish in winter? Answer, you can leave them in the water garden if you install a heater in combination with an aerator. You need to keep a hole open in the ice or the water garden will freeze over creating a buildup of gasses that will suffocate the fish. Periodically during winter check to see that the heater and aerator are working to keep a hole open so the fish can receive oxygen. Consult a professional before you purchase a heater and aerator so that it is properly fitted to your pond.

4)      Lack of biological falls and skimmer filter. This one can be best described with the water garden system diagram listed in the text on the water garden opening page. This system best hides any mechanical and man made products necessary for a low maintenance functioning pond. The falls allows for the growth of beneficial bacteria. The skimmer houses the pump and catches any surface debris that lands on the surface of the water. The best placement of the falls will be located at 180 degrees across from the skimmer for optimal effectiveness. If you deviate 25 degrees to the left or right you will still be ok. Good circulation is important and your skimmer will function the best if you follow these guidelines. A properly placed falls and skimmer will provide good water circulation helping to keep the water cooler in summer and also provides proper oxygen levels for the fish.

5)      Water garden not deep enough. When considering installing a water garden take advantage of the water depth your municipality will allow. Every municipality will have their own swimming pool code for maximum depth you can go before you need to put a fence around your property. For most municipalities in the fox valley area it is 24”, some are 18” or you may not have any at all. Remember after digging your pond you will be adding approximately 1” of sand, underliner, a liner and approximately 3” of 1 ½” size river rock. If the municipality has a 24” maximum depth that means your maximum depth can be dug to around 28” deep.

6)      Shelves not properly installed. All shelves should slope slightly to the lowest point of the pond. This will allow for easy pond cleanouts. If you are using fiber pots for your marginals the first shelf should be 10-11” deep. Most marginals will grow in 0-2” of water depth. Most water lilies will grow in 20-24” water depth. Dig plant pockets 20” wide & 10” deep minimum in a bowl shape for water lilies. Once the underliner and liner are pushed into the plant pockets use cat litter free of perfumes and dyes to fill them up. The water lilies will grow well in cat litter. Dig out a low area in the pond where you can place a pump for cleanouts. Place a large boulder in this area so that it can be removed later for cleanouts. Prior to the sand being installed pick out all stones. Large stones from sidewalls that are removed can be filled in with a thick clay slurry mixed in water. For slightly leveler surfaces pick out stones, then cover the whole area with 1” of sand. Sand is cheap, use it. No exceptions. In Wisconsin we have a freeze/thaw cycle. The ground moves. Ask any farmer. When he disks his field new rocks and boulders need to be removed every year. You do not need a rock puncturing your liner once everything is in place a few years down the line.

7)      Miscellaneous. (A) What you can’t see can hurt you. The second water garden we installed a 3 1/2’ diameter elm stump just below the soil surface had to be ground down with a stump grinder. Extra large boulders, concrete, blacktop, ledge rock at certain locations in the valley are things you may encounter once you start digging. (B) Seaming liner. If you join two pieces of liner together always use a seam tape and a cover tape. Just folding one piece of liner over the top of another piece of liner is not good enough. Soil in and around ponds will settle and the ground will move with the freeze/thaw cycle, always tape it. Many times I have seen ponds with folded liners and no tape. Of course this is where you will find the leaks. (C) Bird feeders. Keep bird feeders and food away from pond edges. Rodents will overwinter along the edge of the pond liner and carry food there. They will chew holes in the liner, I know from experience. (D) Poor falls construction and improper boulder placement. There was a contractor in business for a number of years who would use fist sized round boulders and stack them on top of each other six or seven high and then foam in between them. This did not look nice and over time rocks would let loose because foam should not be used in that application. Instead, extra large boulders should have been used on each side of the falls and flatter rocks in between to create the falls drop. Foam is alright to use but only to fill in cavities so that water will flow over the rocks instead of behind and under the rocks. Never use foam as glue because it is not meant to hold rocks in place. Extra large rocks should be used at the base of each shelf and smaller ones towards the top. (E) Improper use or lack of using supplemental beneficial bacteria products. Please follow the label directions and don’t become complacent in using them. (F) Poor supply line installation.


Conclusion: As you can see having a water garden that functions properly is more than just digging a hole, putting a liner down and filling it with water. If you follow these guidelines that I have learned over the years you will be well on your way to having a long lasting and low maintenance water garden. 50% of the work we do is correcting poorly designed water gardens, many of which are later completely redesigned and reinstalled. I have shared this information because of the frustration so many people are experiencing in the hopes that educated people will ask the right questions of their contractor so they will not be miss-lead or miss-informed and will have a water garden installed that they are proud to enjoy. Feel free to e-mail me with any questions.