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The Power of Water

Author: Mary Keating

For:  Our Home Magazine

Date:  June 2006

            2050 words (including sidebars)

The trickle of cascading water, the flicker of colorful fish and the allure of exotic water plants can be a part of most landscapes.

“Water is visually soothing. It connects us to the natural world,” said Gary Fornshell, Extension Educator for the University of Idaho. “A pond can take us away from the busy 24-7 world.”

Running water takes us back to times spent at a lakeside cabin or memories of skipping rocks over liquid glass. Fountains and ponds appeal to all five senses, offer a place for reflection and relaxation and add beauty and magic to a yard.

Considering a fountain or a pond? Before investing money, it is important to invest time said Fornshell. Careful planning can make the investment more enjoyable, safer and easier to maintain.


Water gardens can be any size. They can be as small and as simple as an on old barrel that has been lined in plastic or as elaborate as some Japanese Koi ponds. 

Most hardware stores and nurseries stock different sizes and shapes of pots, pre-molded fiberglass pools, pond liners and various waterfalls. Renting or looking for water containers for the deck? Many places have small fountains and container kits complete with everything but water plants.

Anything larger than a container water garden often requires long-range planning. Will the pond have a wide assortment of plants? How about fish?

In cold climates, a general rule of thumb is to have an area that is at least 3 feet deep for fish to be able to survive the winter. Tom Nestor, co-owner of Idaho Pondmasters and Perennial Nursery located on Old Hwy 91 suggest a minimum of 4 to 4 ½ feet in our area for the safe wintering of fish.

“At a depth of three feet, you provide a raccoon sushi bar,” said Kevin Lish, co-owner of Idaho Pondmasters and Perennial Nursery.

Looking for the simple sound of falling water? Consider a fountain rather than a pond.

Fornshell recommends spending some time browsing the site . The site outlines steps for building a pond, calculations for choosing a pond liner as well as a pump and hints on how to care for ponds, plants and fish. Fornshell often teaches water gardening to the Master Gardening Classes in Pocatello.


Incorporating a water feature into a landscape is limited only by the imagination and, of course, the pocketbook. A thousand dollar vision may require more long-term planning and ingenuity when dealing with a hundred dollar budget.

For a simple barrel or small container garden with plants all that may be required is a liner and aquatic plants. Small ponds in the ground may only take hours to construct and some do-it-yourselfers may slide by with only a couple hundred dollar investment. On a simplistic level, small ponds necessitate digging a hole, adding a pre-molded pool or using a pond liner, leveling the bed using 1” of sand, and adding a pump.

Larger ponds, waterfalls and pools may require professional assistance.         For larger ponds, be sure to add a fiberglass form or a liner, sand, a pump, tubing, landscaping, rocks, plants, and fish to the budget.

Will the pond be away from the house? If so, electricity has to be wired close to the pond to run the pump and any lighting.

Bear in mind, anything less than 2 feet deep and 8 feet in diameter will collect heat and potentially clog with algae.


Water of any depth can be a potential danger to small pets and children. If safety is a factor, Fornshell suggests putting a fence or a hedge around the pond to keep pets and children away.

Water and electricity are strange bedfellows. It is very important to ensure all electrical outlets for water features are GFI protected and all wires are rated for underground or underwater use.

With any water, mosquitoes can be a problem. Primarily, mosquitoes breed in standing water, however, they often lay eggs in water that is slightly in motion.

Lish recommends adding Microb-Lift, a liquid chemical to ponds. The chemical is safe to plants as well as to animals including pets, fish and birds. Treatment every two weeks will control mosquito problems.


Location, location, location is key when talking about real estate as well as in landscaping. Finding the perfect spot for a pond also requires forethought.

Place the pond in a visible location for safety and enjoyment and out of direct wind to help reduce damage to plants and loss of water. Avoid low spots in the yard to prevent runoff and contamination issues.

Fornshell and other pond experts recommend laying a hose in the shape of the pond in the area being considered. Is it visible from the deck or the house? Is it in a high traffic area where children can fall in, drop balls, toys and other objects? How does it fit into the surrounding landscape? Now is the time to make any adjustments.

Before digging a hole in the ground, check with local utility companies to ensure that gas lines, sewage system, electrical lines, sprinkler lines and water lines are not under the planned area.

Take a moment to look up and ensure that the pond is not under major utility lines.

Again, it is important to locate a pond near electricity and a water source. Although for the given space, ponds use less water than a perennial bed, they require being topped off with water.

Fornshell recommends filling ponds with city or well water rather than from a stream or other water sources.

As for landscaping concerns, do not plant tress too close to the water on any side and do not plant them anywhere except on the north side.  If trees are on the south side, they will cast a shadow and inhibit the growth of all water plants as well as drop leaves and debris into the pond. 

Finally, a pond with plants requires four to six hours of direct sunlight.


The soothing sounds of water coupled with the caring for plants and fish can offer a variety of health benefits. Recent medical studies have documented what backyard enthusiasts have known for years: gardening is good for us. Gardening is the world’s best-kept exercise secret. Enjoy.


Plants not only provide beauty to water features, but they serve an important functional role in the maintenance of a pond. Plants aerate the water, provide shade, remove nitrates, offer food, habitat and shelter for fish, as well as enhance enjoyment.

Plants should cover approximately 50 to 75 percent of the pond’s surface area said Tom Nestor, co-owner of Idaho Pondmasters and Perennial Nursery on Old Hwy 91.

There are a variety of aquatic plants available.

For the perimeter of a pond or in areas of water three inches deep or less, consider using bog plants.

As for surface coverage and aesthetic appeal, try planting water lilies and lotus in the pond.  Lilies and lotus have spectacular blooms and come in a range of colors.

To aid in surface coverage of the pond, turn to the wide variety of floating plants such as: water chestnuts, water hyacinths, water lettuce, or water ferns

Again, there are plants that can be wintered over in our area and a number of varieties that must be taken indoors before the first frost. Pond experts recommend purchasing plants locally and in most cases consider buying native plants. Local experts can show how to properly care for each variety.

“There are a number of internet sites that sell water plants, some plants may be non-native to our region and should not be placed into waterways and lakes,” said Fornshell.


When adding fish to the pond, be sure they are pond fish which are suited for outdoor life. Generally, aquarium fish do not do well outside.  Fornshell recommends stocking the pool with Koi and/or goldfish. The two species of fish can live together, but he cautions combining goldfish with long fancy fins with Koi as the Koi may bite off the fins.

As a general rule of thumb, a pond can maintain one inch of fish per surface area or one inch of fish per eight gallons of water, said Fornshell.

When adding fish, float the fish bag in the pond for 30 minutes to equalize the water temperatures and reduce temperature shock. Also, when floating the bag in the water do not expose it to direct sunlight.  The plastic acts like a magnifying glass and can dramatically heat the water in the bag.       

Koi come in a magnificent array of patterns and colors.

Koi, as well as goldfish, are relatively hardy, inexpensive, colorful and easy to maintain, said Fornshell.

Many goldfish varieties are suited for outdoor life. Included are Comets with straight, darting bodies of red-gold, and Fantails with flowing triple tails and graceful movements. The Chinese Moor has telescope or “Popeye” eyes and a velvety black color.

Game fish do not usually make good pond fish and may destroy plants. Ducks, turtles and large fish should not be added until the pond is well established and plants well rooted.

When using city well water, it is very important to add a dechlorinator to the pond to remove any chlorine or chloramines. The bottle will specify the amount necessary to add to the water to make it acceptable for fish.

Further, if fish are removed from the pond, do not release them into the wild.  They are ways to humanely dispose of fish. Tom Nestor suggests giving them to a friend. 

Idaho Pondmasters and Perennial Nursery located on Old Hwy 91 is in the process of forming a pond and Koi club which will open up sharing or exchanging both fish and possibly plants. Please contact them at 406-3526 for more information.

A common misconception is that fish in ponds do not require feeding – they do require feeding, but Fornshell cautions not to overfeed the fish because to many nutrients can cause algae problems and low oxygen levels.

If you are planning on over wintering fish, it is preferable to have at least one area in the pond that is a minimum of three feet deep.  However, Tom Nestor of Idaho Pondmasters suggest four to four-and-a-half feet in our area.

Consider using an electrical de-icer. If you are going to be home – you can run the pump year-round to prevent the pond from freezing over.

“If the pond is allowed to freeze completely over, a build-up of noxious gases can kill fish,” said Kevin Lish of Idaho Pondmasters and Perennial Nursery.

Fish do not need to be feed in the winter. Their metabolism is tied to the environmental temperature and they become less active in cold water.


Keeping a garden pond looking great require regular maintenance as well as seasonal checklists.  Follow these guidelines for everyday and periodic maintenance:


  • Remove protective screen or netting
  • Clean up any debris that has entered the pond
  • Clean and replace filters
  • Clean pumps and lights
  • Split and repot plants as necessary


  • Prune plants
  • Remove dead plants
  • Top off water
  • Skim off surface scum
  • Feed fish
  • Monitor algae levels and treat with pond cleaner if necessary


  • Disconnect pump
  • Add a de-icer
  • Place netting or screen over pond
  • Remove any dead plants


  • Every three to five years completely drain pond
  • Remove all plants
  • Place fish in buckets that have been treated with dechlorinator if using tap water
  • Clean sludge from bottom
  • Repair liner if torn

 Sources:  Idaho Pondmasters and Perennial Nursery, Gary Fornshell and The Victory Garden.


For more in-depth information on water plants, Fornshell recommends, Ortho’s All About Water Plants. Ortho books can be found on Amazon for around $25 per book.

Idaho Pondmasters and Perennial Nursery offers a small non-removable library containing books on pond care, fish and aquatic plants. For more information contact them at 406-3526 or visit their nursery at 2623 West Old Hwy 91.

Interested in Master Gardening Classes? Register at the Bannock County Extension offices by calling 236-7310. Classes usually begin the 1st part of February. Registration begins as early as mid-summer.