Water garden inspiration

I visited a garden center the other day that had a very humble water garden–just 4 x 4 timbers stacked into a large box, basically, and lined with EPDM rubber. But water gardens enchant us, regardless of design.

This simple water garden was constructed by layering 4 x 4 posts , installing a pond liner, securing it to the top post, and covering the rim with 1 x 4 trim.

This simple water garden was constructed by layering 4 x 4 posts, installing a pond liner, securing it to the top post, and covering the rim with 1 x 4 trim.

It wasn’t the aesthetics of the garden that appealed to me, but the simplicity of the construction. Water gardens don’t have to be elaborate, in-ground structures with lots of expensive stone work and magnificent waterfalls. Just about anyone can build a box like this, and the height makes it safer and more accessible. While the fountain the nursery used doesn’t suit my personal style, I could easily envision other options to keep the water aerated.

What I really loved, though, were the plants on display.

water lettuce

Water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes)

Water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) is a floating aquatic plant. I find its almost succulent, fuzzy leaves charming, but it’s a plant to be cautious with. It’s not on the US Federal List of Noxious Weeds, but it is problematic in Florida, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, and a few other locations. It can rapidly cover lakes and as a result, may hinder boat navigation and reduce oxygen levels in the water. In a small water garden, a few plants can provide cover for fish and landing spots for insects. If they reproduce too rapidly, compost them. Never dispose of them in bodies of water or in sewers.

Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), as lovely as it is, can be a real nuisance.

Water hyacinth, Eichhornia crassipes

Water hyacinth, Eichhornia crassipes, can be a dangerous weed if it gets into natural bodies of water.

Water hyacinth is also a free-floating plant. It is not cold-hardy, dying off at 54 F (12C), but it grows quickly, doubling in population in less than a week. To combat the problem this plant poses in tropical climates, some artisans use water hyacinth to weave baskets that get sold in tony home stores. The downside of this lemons-to-lemonade approach is that the baskets get marketed as being made from a “rapidly renewable resource,” implying a sustainability that isn’t really genuine. A market for what is essentially a recycled waste product is wonderful, so long as it doesn’t encourage people to grow more of the stuff.

Many more wonderful water plants exist, most obviously water lilies and lotuses, but because it’s the end of the season they weren’t on display and I don’t have photos of them.

If you’re toying with the idea of installing a water garden in the upcoming growing season, consider some ways you can use water plants responsibly.

Check it out: Durham County is getting a seed library

My local public library is starting a seed library.   

Digging Durham Seed Library

Beginning this week, all locations of the Durham County library will take donations of seeds: vegetable, flower, and herb; hybrid and open-pollinated. In late April, county residents will be able to “check out” packets of seed from three library branches (Main, South Regional, and Southwest Regional) and grow the plants at home. They must save some of the seed from the open-pollinated plants they grow, and “return” those seeds at the end of the growing season. Workshops on seed starting and saving will be offered in April and later in the year.

The first seed library (or one of the first) in the US  was founded in Gardiner, New York and became the Hudson Valley Seed Library, now a small business and certified organic farm dedicated to preserving heirloom and open-pollinated seeds and promoting biodiversity. The Durham County seed library is one of the first in North Carolina, but I hope to see many more sprouting up this year.

My personal seed libraryI’ll be writing more about the benefits and drawbacks of open-pollinated and hybrid seeds next week. Right now, I’m sorting through my own seed library to find what treasures I can share with my neighbors throughout the county.

Garden planning: Enough of this polar vortex business.

Just a few images I’m entertaining in my mind as I wait for the Snowpocalypse (of which there’s no sign as of 4 p.m. EST). Still planning what to do in the new garden space adjacent to the house addition.

Cloister garth of St. Joseph's Abbey, Spencer, MA.

Cloister garth of St. Joseph’s Abbey, Spencer, MA. http://spencerabbey1098.blogspot.com/2011/12/like-garden.html

“The Water of Life” sculpture in Chester Cathedral cloister garth. Photo by Harry Mitchell, 2 September 2013, by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Chester Cathedral Cloister Garth, Chester, Cheshire, England, UK. http://www.pinterest.com/pin/208080445255176907/


New plants to try: Ceratotheca triloba

My visit this fall to Montrose hasn’t stopped inspiring me. Ceratotheca triloba, also known as South African foxglove, is an unusual annual plant that thrives in gravel soil.

Ceratotheca triloba

Ceratotheca triloba

It looks a bit like a cross between a salvia and a foxglove. Like foxgloves, it grows 3-6′ tall, attracts bees and hummingbirds, and gently reseeds itself to spread gracefully around the garden. At Montrose, it grew in the pathways.

Ceratotheca triloba

The front of the blossom looks very much like that of a foxglove. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t photograph the flower’s face without stepping in the borders.) I imagine it looking most attractive in the company of Salvia leucantha, Papaver ‘Lauren’s Grape’ and Callirhoe involucrata. 

I think I must get the rest of my cyclamen sown, and quickly.

Garden plans: Sketching

I have been thinking more about what I’m calling my cloister garden, for want of a better name. I don’t possess the time or discipline to maintain a cloister garden properly, but I still think that this space could provide the calming effect I desire without being terribly manicured.


Here is a little design I came up with, using the SketchBook Express app. (There went an hour when I wasn’t looking.) It started out as an aerial view, but then as I explored the app’s features I forgot to apply an aerial perspective. Please pretend with me. If you need further references, see my mockup.

The two brown blobs on the left represent overhead views of large trunks of post oaks. The long green vertical strip on the right is the aerial edge of the new house extension (not yet finished, but well on its way).

Rehmannia, Chinese foxglove

Rehmannia, Chinese foxglove.

In addition to the plants listed, I think I need to include some Rehmannia, a little plant I fell in love with last year at the Duke Gardens plant sale, and some nicotiana. However, this is prime territory, sunlight wise, for a tomato or two, and tomatoes and nicotiana don’t mix. They are from the same family, Solanaceae, and the nicotiana can promote tobacco mosaic virus in the tomatoes. A little quandary to resolve this winter, I guess.

Species: 'Nicotiana × sanderae' Family: Solana...

Species: ‘Nicotiana × sanderae’ Family: Solanaceae Image No. 1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The lawn will be Carex, and in the winter, cyclamen will bloom in it. And maybe snowdrops. In the spring, those will give way to crocuses, then grape hyacinths. In fall, more cyclamen and colchicums. I plan to mow once a year. The rest of the time, I will let it grow long and lazy, offering a haven for beneficial insects. That’s the dream, anyway.