Journal Water meadow gardening

killi69

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I guess like many on this forum, I have always been obsessed with water. I grew up in Holland spending most of my childhood fishing when I was not in school. Something about the water’s edge has always fascinated me and to this day, whenever I pass by a pool or a ditch, I just have to make my way over to see if I can spot anything of interest.

I have kept planted tanks for most of my life but have always been dreaming about having a garden where you can walk through drifts of reeds and marginal plants, moving from one pond to the next.

When three years ago I moved into a house with a decent sized garden, I realised I finally had the opportunity to actually plan my own wetland garden for real.

My biggest inspiration comes from my visits to the Pond Gardens of Ada Hofman in Holland;

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Ada Hofman is like the Gertrude Jekyll of the Dutch garden-pond world. In the 1980s she started writing books to promote principles of pond keeping based on achieving clear water through the use of oxygenating plants alone, without the use of any mechanical filtration, pumps, UV lights or chemicals. What always struck me was how her ponds seemed to merge effortlessly into the margins of the garden beyond. No pond liner to be seen nor a surround of cobbles or other 'natural' hardscape materials supposedly hiding the liner. To me, she combined the best of the aquarium world, creating lush submerged planting arrangements to be observed in clear water, with garden design which leaves the visitor feeling immersed in nature;


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Before I moved house three years ago, my big passion was my planted tank which I enjoyed blogging about on this forum (giant tank for killis). The other side to my hobby is keeping fish in outdoor tubs. In these, I keep killi fish and other species from places like Iran, North America or China which can be held outdoors all year round. After moving house, I made a painful decision to let my fish tank go and focus all my efforts on the water garden which will eventually provide a home for all the fish I have been keeping in tubs for all these years.


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After a year in my new house, I found a small preformed pond dumped out in the street nearby which I repaired, painted black and dug in a corner of the garden close to the patio. I planted some grasses and perennials around it and in a way created a mini template for how I would like the whole garden to look one day;


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Apart from this and my ‘tubbing’, I have not had ponds before nor attempted to garden on a scale like this. However, I have been reading up a lot over the years while day dreaming about this concept. I hope that this passion, together with my knowledge from keeping aquariums and outdoor tubs, and any help I can gather along the way, will be enough to see this project through.


To start with, let me share some pictures of what the garden looked like when I moved in;


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My garden is around 35m long and 13m wide. It took a few years to clear the site and get ready for the project. Last year, I took down the garage and built a shed next to the house to still have some storage space. This spring all the concrete from the drive was removed, alongside all the brickwork and remaining pathway. By the mid-June the garden was clear and ready for the works to start.


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I drew up some very rough sketches for my concept of the garden. A wooden walkway will wind through the garden and cross a series of ponds. The ponds will be visually connected through planting arrangements which suggest marshy conditions in between them. At the end of the pathway, towards the back left of the garden where there is a side gate, there will be a jetty over the water with an existing collection of fruit trees behind, which will become an orchard area. Everything else in the garden will be covered with perennials and grasses which either originate from water meadows/ wetlands or which resemble such habitats.


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For a number of years, I have been reading up on the naturalistic gardening movement and in particular liked the work of Nigel Dunnet from the University of Sheffield. Nigel is well known for creating loose and intermingled high density planting arrangements which evoke the look of wild natural settings. In autumn last year, I came across some posts on Instagram from a young garden design company called Plantology. They were reviewing books from the same designers I had been following and one of their posts offered a discounted fee for engaging them during that period.

Even though I need to do the garden on quite a tight budget and will be propagating many of the plants needed myself, I know that making mistakes also costs money. While I have some plant knowledge and experience of growing many of the perennials on my ‘wish list’, I still have much to learn, in particular about the way different species combine and intermingle. I decided that given the overall cost of the project, spending an extra few hundred pounds to help me think through the design properly – especially the design of hard landscaping – could be worthwhile. After speaking to Hayley Hughes at Plantology, I knew I had found the support I needed to make the most of my ideas and resources. Hayley sounded as passionate as I was and was especially interested in working with me on the ecological aspect of things - putting together planting communities to represent the wetland theme. Icing on the cake was that she studied at the University of Sheffield and mentored by Nigel Dunnett.

Hayley translated my sketch into a proper design and we agreed on a masterplan based on five separate ponds which will hopefully appear as three ponds separated by the wooden walkway at two points:


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By stroke of luck it turned out that a labourer I had engaged for a couple of days during lockdown to remove the last bit of remaining concrete had some landscaping experience. Aldis has never built ponds before but knows how to lay decking. I have never built ponds either but have read up a bit and feel confident enough that we can get this done between us. I found a man with a digger who agreed to help out for three days and Aldis agreed to help me for three weeks to build the ponds, pathway and decking.

I am super excited to get started albeit a bit daunted by the sheer scale of the project at the same time. Through this blog, I hope to share some moments and experiences of creating my 'water meadow garden’ - of maintaining ponds using the ‘Ada Hofman’ method, of keeping fish outdoors from temperate and subtropical regions, as well as my efforts in creating an overall ‘wetland’ feel to the garden mainly through the use of perennial plants and grasses. I am also interested to what extent it will be possible to create underwater landscapes, like we try to achieve in our planted tanks, but viewed from above instead, and experiment with using 'aquarium plants' in and around the pond.

I am keen to learn from others and as part of this will try to share my joys and challenges with you all during this journey.
 

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Wolf6

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Amazing garden and a great plan, I'm looking forward to the pictures already :) I wish you luck! Some lessons learned from my own foray into gardening over the past 3 years:
  1. One of my biggest pitfalls in my own garden, was planting plants too close to eachother. They looked amazing year 1, and then year 2 they strangled eachother and it just looked messy. The lovely pictures of plants mixing happily are usually made out of much larger groups then you first think and usually are a few years in, and it might take a few tries to get it right.
  2. Dont be afraid to replan and replant at the end of summer or start of spring. Plants grow larger, shade changes over time as trees and other plants grow, and so on. Perrenials can take quite a few hits most of the time.
  3. Use grit or bark to cover up visible soil to keep moisture in, especially with our summers last few years. Saves watering a LOT.
  4. And another thing I did wrong was that I wanted ALL the plants. Less really is more. Select a few plants that you keep repeating, and add a few dashes of another type. It really is like aquascaping :p but there are just so many pretty plants.
  5. Get a simple watering system on the sunniest/driest border, because watering gets increasingly tedious. Leave it spraying for an hour or so once or twice a week tops, no more, during dry periods. My garden is about a third of yours, and I already got sick of watering it during the dry spells we've had. I paid 80 euro for a watering set for just the dry border, and it made my life so much easier. Borders in shade or semi-shade need far less watering, so thats less tedious.
  6. If one species isnt working out in your garden after a few tries in different locations, ditch it and get something else. And dont be afraid to use some fertiliser, like aquascaping plants need a good feeding to stay pretty. But with grasses, dont overfeed or they will get too tall and flop over.
  7. What always annoys me is height predictions on the cards or on the internet. They rarely make a difference in leaf hight and flower hight. I had some grasses that looked the right look, card said '120cm' so that was perfect. Turns out the leaves stay 40cm and its just the 'flower' that is 120cm. So then I went and got other grasses, that wont happen to me again! This time the card said 150 cm. So yeah, the leaves got 150cm, and the flowers went up well over 200cm. Internet is no help there either. Best is to visit places like 'de hessenhof' in Ede, where you can see the actual size of the plants in the 'motherbeds' before you can buy them.
  8. Buy from places like that to get plants grown without herbicides, resistent to mildew and disease. Plants from garden centers are often pretty weak. Summers like this one are harsh on many plants, making them vulnerable for disease like mildew.
  9. If you dont have the funds to fill the garden completely yet, use seeds to add colour and life to parts you will get to later. Its cheap and provides a lot of happiness :) Stuff like cosmea, phacelia, nigella are easily sown directly into the earth, grow fast and will flower a long time. Even wildflower mixes are great too.
Good luck, and please keep us updated on how it works out :) Glad to see more people into this hobby :) and dont be afraid to mess up, I am still making tons of mistakes. Plants in the garden are a lot more forgiving, no algae there :p
 

killi69

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Thank you Wolf for your comments and tips. While intending to have some drifts and block groupings of certain perennials, on the whole I am quite keen to experiment and try to create some intermingled planting communities. It will be a question of research, trial and error and seeking guidance to find out which of the plants on my wish list can be planted individually mixed up in a matrix and which ones are better placed in smaller groups together. Definitely agree with you on needing to limit the number of different plants – that will be challenging because there are so many I like! I love visiting gardens and nurseries when I am in Holland. I must go to the ‘Hessenhof’ nursery you suggested. I have been to ‘Esveld’ in Boskoop a few times which have a similar set up. A huge range of plants and much cheaper than over here. What is great is that for E20 or so extra, they will post a huge box of 50 plants back to the UK, so that is super convenient also!
 

killi69

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On the question of plants for the garden, as mentioned, I have put together a list of plants which fit in with the 'wetland' theme of the garden (or 'woodland' for around the edges) and will hopefully do well in my clay soil. Back in spring, I went through my wish list to identify which of the plants I might be able to grow from seed without too much difficulty. I narrowed this down to about 20 different plants or varieties, including a few grasses. A few failed, but most succeeded. Again, lockdown was a real blessing as I could water the seedlings daily or even twice daily when needed. I sowed them in cell trays and later transplanted them into 9cm pots. Unfortunately, the garden is still not ready for them to be planted, so they needed to be potted on again into 2L pots about four weeks ago – 800+ of them! A lot of work but really pleased to have built up some stock.

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killi69

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Which plants did you select? :) and what color theme?
Plants on my list include different varieties of Eupatorium, Sanguisorba, Filipendula, Veronicastrum, Lythrum, Molinia, and Miscanthus to name a few. Pinks, purple and white will be the main colours.

In order to create the impression of deep pond margins and the gradual transition between water and land, I am also really keen to identify some plants which can grow both in water as marginals, as well as in garden soil, if necessary playing around with different varieties or different species of the same genus to make that possible. Also, I will be digging in some of my tubs so that I can have some reeds/ bulrushes etc growing among the planting close to the ponds to help achieve the same effect.

Plants which might qualify for both water and soil include;
- Lythrum
- Physostegia virginiana,
- Iris
- Carex muskingumensis
- Lobelia siphilitica (Alba)
- Ascepias incarnata (Ice Ballet)
- Arondo donax

and possibly;
- Lychnis flos cuculi
- Hesperantha coccinea
- Tulbaghia violacea

I would be interested to hear of any other suggestions or experiences people have of plants which can cope with being planted both as marginals with feet in water, as well as in the ground (and I don't mean bog garden).
 

killi69

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I spent a few days digging up existing plants and finding temporary homes for them to save them from the digger. The next step in preparing for the pond installation phase was to mark out on the ground the location of the ponds and pathway. I used spray paint on the grass and bricks on the soil to show the outlines:


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With the plants out of the way, the digger arrived and dug five ponds in four days, starting with the pond closest to the house.

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The sheer volume of soil removed was staggering. Some of my neighbours were not too impressed either as the huge piles of clay prevented them from gaining access to their garages for a few days:thumbup:. It took three of these huge lorries and one regular sized skip to remove all the soil.

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After looking at the plans for so long, it was really exciting to see the design begin to literally take shape at last.

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MWood

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I would be interested to hear of any other suggestions or experiences people have of plants which can cope with being planted both as marginals with feet in water, as well as in the ground (and I don't mean bog garden).

Really enjoying this project- much envy!

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well off cuts from my aquariums have done in my admittedly sheltered garden- heteranthera zosterifolia particularly seems bizarrely hardy, but I’m sure there are others that would work to soften edges in the same way.

I have to ask- what fish species are you keeping outside, and what are your plans with the new layout?
 

killi69

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Thanks MWood! Great to hear about your experiences re Heteranthera zosterifolia. I read that H. zosterifolia can take it down to 5C . Have you overwintered it and how do you grow it in your pond? Is it submerged and in in what substrate does it grow?

Trying out some some 'aquarium plants' in the pond is definitely part of the plan! I already grow vallisneria gigantea in tubs all year round which will benefit from the extra sun they will receive in the pond. Keen to intoduce sagittaria subulata and other types of vallis also. Also plan to grow different Potamogeton species.

The fish I am keeping are white cloud minnows, roundtail paradisefish (Macropodus occelatus) and a few killifish (Fundulus julisia, F. catenatus and Aphanius mentho). I will continue to keep breeding groups in tubs for most of them as well as introducing some to the ponds and will be writing about this later on.
 

Wolf6

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Myositis pallustris can fill up any gaps and grows in damp soil as well as with wet roots. I have grown marsilea hirsuta from my tank in the swamp of my pond and it has survived there for several years now, including some frost.
Stachys palustris and mentha aquatica also love both it in the swamp and soil around the pond, fitting your colour scheme and easy growing. They can turn thuggish though, have to keep them in check :) bees love them.
I see luzula nivea on your list too. Love that plant as it's one of few grasses thriving in my shadowy woodland part of the garden.
Good choices all in all this far:)
 

Tim Harrison

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Wow, this is amazing :cool: Also been a dream of mine too since childhood, but we've never settled in one place long enough to realise it.
Please keep the updates coming 👍
 

zozo

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Very beautiful project... :thumbup: Reading your posts it all familiar to me, same childhood, always at the water edge after school almost every day. And I never got over it, now at 55 years of age, if I see any water whatever it is, pond, ditch, or creek and I'm drawn to it to see what's going on. I wish a had such a garden to create ponds and I would. :cool:

For now, I don't and keep it small with tubs and such...

Anyway, some rather easy perineal plants you might like :

Potentilla palustris, grows equally well inside as outside the water. It's a Rosaceae, the leaf and even its fruit resemble Strawberry with abundant pinkish-red flowers. Hence our common name is Water Strawberry.

Thelypteris palustris - Bog fern also in and out of the water, very beautiful and easy to grow fern, it also can grow rather big.

Eriophorum angustifolium - cottongrass, a delicate Cyperaceae that stays relatively small.
 

killi69

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It combines being enormous and rampant with not being fully hardy

Thanks Darrell for your feedback. I have had this Arundo donax in a pot for about 5 years now. Previous I kept it in one of my tubs, just above water level. It survived but never did that well (only one or two stems and not as tall). This year with all the works going on around the garden, I placed it on a tray and it did so much better (see photo).

It probably prefers to sit a bit drier and also appreciated it when I gave it some plant food via the watering can. I remember visiting wetlands in Mallorca where they grow absolutely huge, like 4m+, and how satisfying it was to walk through clearings of them. As you say, they are not fully hardy so they would probably not reach that height here while still looking pretty. But through cutting them back each year, you can still achieve a height of at least what is shown in the picture here, which still can look good, no? When you say it can grow rampant, would that be when growing in garden soil and/or growing in a bog? I would still like to find a space for it, cut it back each year and grow it in away which is manageable, like in a pot or tub, if necessary.

Carex elata "aurea/Bowles Golden" and Carex pseudocyperus. They are both good .

Thank you and great you can confirm Lychnis flos cuculi and Hesperantha coccinea work as marginal plants also. I have some Carex elata "aurea/Bowles Golden" already growing in my tubs and agree. With their striking colours, they could be great accent plants in and around the ponds.

Myositis pallustris can fill up any gaps and grows in damp soil as well as with wet roots. I have grown marsilea hirsuta from my tank in the swamp of my pond and it has survived there for several years now, including some frost.
Stachys palustris and mentha aquatica also love both it in the swamp and soil around the pond, fitting your colour scheme and easy growing. They can turn thuggish though, have to keep them in check :) bees love them.
I see luzula nivea on your list too. Love that plant as it's one of few grasses thriving in my shadowy woodland part of the garden.
Good choices all in all this far:)

Great stuff Wolf. Marsilea hirsuta added to the list of submerged /immersed plants I will be trying out! Stachys palustris and mentha aquatica grow in my tubs already and will be going into the ponds also. I love the S. palustris especially although for some reason its runners in the water seem to attract blanket weed algae. Funny how blanket weed can choose particular plants to cling onto. Good to hear Lazula nivea does well with you in the shade. They were quite easy to grow from seed and I might do more of them next year.
 

killi69

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Fantastic project, looking forward to seeing it develop - subbed!
Wow, this is amazing :cool: Also been a dream of mine too since childhood, but we've never settled in one place long enough to realise it.
Please keep the updates coming 👍
Great, Wookii and Tim. Looking forward to sharing progress with you.

Very beautiful project... :thumbup: Reading your posts it all familiar to me, same childhood, always at the water edge after school almost every day. And I never got over it, now at 55 years of age, if I see any water whatever it is, pond, ditch, or creek and I'm drawn to it to see what's going on. I wish a had such a garden to create ponds and I would. :cool:

For now, I don't and keep it small with tubs and such...

Oh yes... cycling around with a net or fishing rod in one hand and a bucket hung onto the steering wheel... those were the days, Holland was such a great place to grow up. Every now and then when I am back home I do still venture out with a net to see if the local waters still contain the same fish as they used to. Where about in NL are you based?

Potentilla palustris, grows equally well inside as outside the water. It's a Rosaceae, the leaf and even its fruit resemble Strawberry with abundant pinkish-red flowers. Hence our common name is Water Strawberry.

Thelypteris palustris - Bog fern also in and out of the water, very beautiful and easy to grow fern, it also can grow rather big.

Great feedback, thank you! Potentialla palustris, added to the list of plants to grow both in pond margin and garden :thumbup:.

Thelypteris palustris, a fern as a marginal plant. That is so interesting and great potential with other ferns grown nearby in regular garden soil... All the main ponds are sited in full sun though, so not sure of it will work there but perhaps I can find some space later for a 'woodland edge' mini pond for this concept. Sounds great!!
 

mort

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I can confirm lynchis flos cuculi and hesperantha coccinea are good marginals as Darrel said. I've had both for years and the hesperantha has done very well in deed propagating itself including several revisions back to the original colour. I also see ragged Robin all over the broads in the margins.
A smaller plant that's nice in the spring and good in the margins or pond edge is sisyrychium californicum, the similar purple species does ok as well ime but isn't as happy.
Geum rivale is also good in the margins or on the bank as is caltha paulustris.

Not so much marginal plants but plants that can cope with periods of wet feet judging by my walks through our local broad are yellow and purple vetch, birds foot trefoil, impatiens capensis (amazing flowers that I thought was an orchid to begin with but believe it's a non native invader), teasels and various thistles including creeping thistle (not 100% sure of the id's on thistles yet but they are very abundant in the areas I walk and do add a nice diversity, perhaps others could advise).

One plant that will do well in the margins or on the bank and one I'll always have is Osmunda regalis, the royal fern. I've always loved that plant especially when combined with delmera peltata (but that's more exotic).
 

zozo

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Oh yes... cycling around with a net or fishing rod in one hand and a bucket hung onto the steering wheel... those were the days, Holland was such a great place to grow up. Every now and then when I am back home I do still venture out with a net to see if the local waters still contain the same fish as they used to. Where about in NL are you based?

I'm from what nowadays is called Park City, i live in Heerlen - South Limburg. As a kid, we have a number of local ponds within walking distance... :) As youngest of 6 siblings, they took me fishing from a very young age, actually as long as i remember. My most favourite spot was an old abandoned castle ruin a stone throw away from my home. It had a ditch fed with water from about a 1-acre marshland, lush and green. For a small kid that is a massive area with the feeling, you could get lost in there. I always went there with a bucket and a net searching all the pools and puddles for aquatic wildlife. Leeches, beetles, spiders, sticklebacks, salamanders, name it could be caught there and I took it home to study in my aquarium in the garden. And I'm hooked ever since. :)

Indeed those were the days... I kinda feel sorry that I can't share it and take the kids out to do the same. Today about nothing of it is left, back then early 70's a lot was left to its own devices, it was simply nature taking its cause. But then later on urban infrastructure became more popular and all are turned into tidy manicured parks, Hence Park City, controlled green, more destroyed than added. Nothing much natural to find any longer, unfortunately. :( But that's progress i guess... At least I'm happy to have those memories.
 
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zozo

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And yes, also Bog Fern grows well in the full sun as long as it gets water. Well, it's a bog fern, it will creep its rhizome out of the water and grow on land too. What's still in the water will also feed what's on land as long as the rhizome aint cut. It grows rampant in the full sun. No problems.
 
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