Keep the peace in your garden by adding a low maintenance water feature

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comSeptember 4, 2013 

Elizabeth Sorensen’s request to landscaper Bret Ratfield was simple: privacy, please. She ended up getting that — and an 80–foot long meandering brook as well.

When Sorensen contacted Ratfield, the owner of Puyallup’s Alpine Nursery and Landscape, she wanted to improve the privacy in her family’s already fairly private South Hill backyard. The large urban lot came with a stand of mature conifers.

Ratfield designs and installs ponds and other water features and thought Sorensen’s gently sloping lot would be ideal for a natural-looking stream.

Today, Sorensen’s brook ends in what she calls her secret garden in a far corner of the yard — away from the kids and neighbors’ houses. Privacy comes from a screen of plants as well as the sound of the water.

“It’s a great place for my husband and I to have great conversations,” Sorensen said. And now she knows what so many other owners of ponds, streams and waterfalls know: water can entirely change the mood of an outdoor space.

“The sound of water is so soothing. After a stressful day, you go out in the garden and hear the sound of water and relax,” Ratfield said.

Along with sound water brings a moving visual element to the landscape. The tranquility and link to nature that water adds can’t be matched by dry gardens.

But along with their attributes the downfalls of ponds and water features are just as well known: algae, odors and expensive harsh chemicals intended to fix it all.

Sorensen’s stream ends in her secret garden where the water is pumped back uphill. She didn’t want a pond because she didn’t want to take care of it, she said. Her stream with its 6,000-gallons-per-hour pump requires almost no maintenance, she said.

But pond ownership doesn’t mean having to constantly pour in chemicals at the first sign of green water, said Kerri Bailey, owner of The Pond Pad, located on the grounds of Alpine Nursery. She sells pond accessories, supplies and fish.

Ponds are complex ecosystems unto themselves. And like any complex structure, if even one part goes haywire, the whole thing can go off the rails. The result: water that more resembles pea soup than an alpine stream.

Murky water usually means one thing: too many nutrients. The most common sources come from excess fish food, fish excrement and plant fertilizer runoff. Those in turn feed algae – both the stringy and microscopic varieties.

Though Bailey sells a variety of products, she uses only environmentally friendly products in her ponds. And since most pond owners also have fish that’s a benefit to them as well.

“People are fascinated with water and fish. And feeding fish. It’s almost like the zoo,” Ratfield said. Unfortunately, Bailey added, many people overstock their ponds and over feed their fish.

Creating and maintaining a balanced pond, with plants and fish, is more complex than, say, simply dropping a bush in the ground, but if the proper steps are followed, the pond should be low maintenance, Bailey said.

The first step is starting with untreated water if possible: well or rain water. If forced to use treated municipal water Bailey uses a water conditioner to remove chlorine and other chemicals.

The next step is to have moving water, provided by a waterfall or fountain. Like in nature, moving water is less apt to turn green. “Stagnate ponds are going to have less oxygen than a moving pond. It will slow the cycle down. You are apt to get more algae. And mosquitoes,” Bailey said.

Algae is the No. 1 problem why pond owners seek her out, Bailey said.

“Everybody wants to go the algaecide first. Kill, kill, kill,” Bailey said. The trick is to keep the algae under control in the first place.

Bailey uses barley extracts and “logs” to breakdown algae. Then she seeds the water with beneficial bacteria which convert ammonia (from the fish and fertilizer) to nitrates which aquatic plants use as fertilizer.

“(Pond owners must) kill the algae, eat the algae and outcompete the algae,” Bailey said.

Finally, a filter can finish whatever the pond’s ecosystem can’t. “You can’t over-filter a pond,” she said.

Once the water feature is created, the project is far from over, Ratfield said.

“What sets the pond off are the plants. Until you plant, it doesn’t come all together,” he said.

One of Ratfield’s demonstration waterfalls at his nursery looks plucked straight from the Cascades. He’s planted a blue Abies lasiocarpa arizonica “Glauca compacta” (fir), a white fringed Tsuga Canadensis “Gentsch White” (hemlock) and a yellowish Picea orientalis “skylands” (spruce) along its banks. Creeping jenny and creeping raspberry groundcovers complete the look.

Sorensen, an accomplished gardener, had Ratfield plant native vine maples and bear grass along with Bishop’s weed and rhododendrons. Along with rocks, logs and the trees, it looks almost as if it was landscaped by Mother Nature herself.

“I come out here all the time,” Sorensen said as she watched her stream from the seclusion of her secret garden.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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