Water gardens 101: An expert’s guide to the dos and dont’s of building water features

  • Water garden with fountain.  PHOTO BY PAUL AND STACEY CHAPLEY 

  • Water lilies in a water garden. One of the many beautiful plants that can thrive in a water feature. PHOTO BY PAUL AND STACEY CHAPLEY 

  • Koi tank at Chapley Gardens.  PHOTO BY CRIS CARL

  • Paul Chapley of Chapley Gardens. PHOTO BY CRIS CARL

For the Recorder
Published: 4/4/2022 2:39:17 PM
Modified: 4/4/2022 2:38:39 PM

In 1982, Paul and Stacey Chapley started their garden center, Chapley Gardens in Deerfield. About 20 years ago, the couple attended a trade show that led to them being one of the area’s first businesses to provide water gardens for their customers. Paul Chapley is an amiable educator on the topic of water features, and he provided good guidelines and tips for those who want to get started and build one.

First steps

“It’s simple, but the biggest consideration is size. We send people home with four stakes to map out where they think they want to have the water feature,” said Chapley, adding that locations where water settles are not good locations for a water feature. “That’s an absolute no no,” he said.

Additionally, consider if the spot is one that will be seen often.

“Go inside and sit by your windows,” Chapley said. “Find the spot you will be able to see your water garden most often, so you don’t have any regrets.”

He suggests having 6 to 8 hours of sun in the spot for the best results for plants, or 3 to 5 hours of sun for low-light plants. All shade will deter any flowering plants. Chapley said to be careful of oak trees as the leaves cause water quality problems, require frequent cleaning of tree leaves from the pond and bring roots.

One can expect to spend roughly $2,000 for a small 6’ x 7’ pond and like any garden, it needs to be maintained.

“Just think about how much time you spend weeding a regular garden,” Chapley said.

The basics

Once the location of a water feature is determined and if it’s a do-it-yourself, start by digging out the hole in the desired shape and size. Chapley said the hole should be at least two feet deep so one can create levels of depth or shelves to have a variety of water plants.

“An eighteen-inch shelf is the ideal depth for water lilies and lotus. If you go deeper you tend to have less blossoms,” he said. He said a koi pond requires a depth of at least three feet.

Chapley said it’s important to always have square sides to the hole and to never make a “bowl” shape.

“It’s for safety reasons. Bowl shaped ponds tend to get slimy, which is a danger for children and pets,” he said, noting that the addition of having shelves or graded depths also makes the water feature safer for the same reason.

Once the hole is dug, a liner must be placed inside.

“Don’t line ponds with stone. It creates a slimy bottom and is harder to clean,” Chapley said.

He suggests a flexible liner that allows freedom of shape and depth. The most common flexible liner is 45 mil EPDM liner which is durable and safe for plants and fish, he said. There are also preformed liners made of plastic or fiberglass. They are good for smaller ponds under 50 square feet and can be made easily and inexpensively. Chapley said to be aware of quality as some preformed liners won’t hold up to a New England winter.

Then the fun begins. You can then place decorative stone such as Goshen stone or round stone around the edges of the feature Chapley suggests. “Then you have all these nooks and crannies to fill in with plants,” he said.

Statuaries, bridges, underwater lights, and plants, can also be placed at the water feature. Chapley said he enjoys helping people create all sorts of fountains.

Next, a filtration system to keep water cleaner and more aerated must be selected.

“You have open water with fish and plants. You need some sort of filter for the biological actions going on,” Chapley said. There are a variety of choices, which include pressurized foam pads, UV lights. Lava rocks, etc. “Filtration is done by gallonage, not surface area,” he said.

Chapley also suggests having a skimmer to keep debris off water features.

Weather and seasonal considerations

Chapley said when you have a water garden you have pressurized units outside the feature that need to be taken in for the winter as they will crack if they freeze. The ponds themselves and the materials used to create them should be fine during the winter – including the fish. “You have to realize koi are just like carp in the Deerfield River,” he said. A bubbler is used to keep the fish alive. He said there is enough soil around the water features to keep them from being damaged.

By April, it’s time to do your spring cleaning. “You want to get eighty percent of the stuff off of the bottom. You can just net the bottom. The liner should be scrubbed off and the lava rocks taken out and washed and the filter needs to be cleaned,” Chapley said. He said you don’t want to completely drain the pond if you have plants that would be disturbed or damaged. “Be aware this is an established ecosystem.”

Koi/goldfish ponds

If a water feature has fish, expect that there are other critters out there who would like to eat them. Chapley said he has had ponds completely cleaned out of fish by mink. Other predators include herons, snapping turtles, and fishers. Chapley said turtles can be kept out with fencing. “They leave after a couple of weeks if they can’t get at the fish,” he said.

One can also use netting, or a deer scare (which is typically a bamboo structure that squirts water), he said. Netting can be removed easily if you are having a gathering or just want to spend time by the feature.

“The herons have the patience of Job. They never give up,” Chapley said.

Koi fish cost approximately $30 apiece, so it pays to work to minimize predator loss.

Chapley strongly advises that if fish over-populate to never release them in a body of water as this causes ecological issues. “Always sell them to pet stores or give them away,” he said. He also suggests working with the Pioneer Valley Garden and Koi Club which his wife started years ago.

Cris Carl is an avid local gardener, licensed therapist and certified herbalist. She is an experienced journalist who has written for the Recorder for many years. She can be reached at cstormfox57@gmail.com.


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