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Creative ideas for water gardens

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Courtesy of Mary-Kate Mackey

(Read caption) An unusual idea is to use a formal water garden as a rain garden, to catch runoff from the house and landscape.

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I’m always looking for new and exciting water ideas when I attend the early spring indoor garden shows.

Here are some of the aquatic images that inspired me at Seattle’s Northwest Flower & Garden Show.

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Rain garden goes formal

The first photo [above] and the second one [see more info in next section, below] are from a rain garden display designed by Nancy Claire Guth in conjunction with VanZanten Landscapes and Basalite Concrete Products. Rain gardens are a collection of water-loving plants in fast-draining soil that absorbs excess runoff on a property. The designs are usually naturalistic.

However, here is a formal rain garden. I could see using a circle like this in the center of a gravel driveway. The plants would soak up water from both the surrounding drive and perhaps the house's roof.

This design is carefully thought out. Plants that tolerate wetter feet were grouped at the bottom of the slope around the base of the container. The upper edge is rimmed with showy-leaved coral bells (huechera hybrids), which prefer a drier mix.

Colorful rain chain slows down water

The second shot [at left] is an unusual rain chain in the same display garden. House gutters move rainwater like freeways move cars. Rain chains do the job like back-country roads. This chain is made of colorful bottles, their bottoms cut off and turned upside down to catch and slow the water from the roof. A terrific design idea.

Hollow log makes a spillway

The third photo [second photo at left; click on the arrow at the bottom right of the first photo] is a fern- and moss-covered hollow log that serves as a spout for a naturalistic water course in the display garden of Dan Robinson.

Normally, wood would seem too perishable for a water feature. But why not use a log? Yes, it will rot away in a few years and have to be replaced, but if the water course is designed to change the log out eventually, it will give a lot of beauty and enjoyment in the meantime.

Magical sphere takes center focus

Next is my vote for Best Seriously Expensive Water Garden Item. I have lusted after this acrylic ball since it appeared 10 years ago in English garden magazines. The see-through fountains of Allison Armour are crafted in different sizes, but for me, even the smallest has a price in the when-I-win-the-lottery category.

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Karen Stefonick uses one as the centerpiece in her display garden inspired by the "Wrinkle in Time" book series. [See second photo at top; click on arrow at right base of first photo.]

It’s everything I thought it would be. Water comes up invisibly in the center and sheets over the outside. You can see a whole convex world through it. The judges must have liked it too — this garden won the Founder’s Cup.

Still water runs in vibrant hues

The last idea is from the display of Judith Jones and Vanca Lumsden. [Third photo at top of first page.] Here they recall the well-loved settings from "Wind in the Willows." Across the water, Ratty’s home is tucked into the river bank. (The creators informed me that they think Ratty is actually an English water vole, not a rat.)

But check out the water color. I’ve never seen a show display garden that actually tried for the greeny opaque tint of a slow-moving river. Now that’s intriguing. It makes me want to find other ways to use colorful water.

This display also reminds me that water gardening is about fun and enjoyment. We tend to get caught up in the intricacies of the work. Sometimes it’s best to stop improving and take pleasure in what we have. As Ratty famously observes, what he likes is “simply messing about in boats.”


Mary-Kate Mackey blogs regularly about water in the garden for Diggin' It. She is co-author of “Sunset’s Secret Gardens — 153 Design Tips from the Pros” and contributor to the “Sunset Western Garden Book,” writes a monthly column for the Hartley Greenhouse webpage and numerous articles for Fine Gardening, Sunset, and other magazines. She teaches at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communication. To read more by Mary-Kate, click here.