Solutions for four common water garden problems

Complaints from owners of water gardens tend to fall into four categories. Here are some solutions.

Courtesy of Mary-Kate Mackey
In a Tuscan garden, water spills from a terra-cotta jar into a fish pond.
Courtesy of Mary-Kate Mackey
Water pours from a curved spout into a stone sink in an Italian garden.

I recently returned from Tuscany, where I was fortunate to experience another visit to the small hill town of Montisi. I had been there a year ago, and coming back to the Villa Maddelena felt like coming home.

I was once again delighted to sit in the garden, listening to the splash of water from two small fountains —sort of a stereo effect, because the deep bass gurgle of water spilling from an inverted terra-cotta jar into the fish pond [first photo above] contrasted perfectly with the higher pitched continuous clatter of water pouring from a curving spout into a small stone sink [second photo above; click on arrow at right bottom].

Actually, the latter’s sound alone might have been annoying, as if a bath tub were continually filling up, except for the counterpoint of the deeper fish-pond echoes. But the two together made the perfect chorus.

The singing water accompanied me when I stepped onto my balcony to watch the sun rise over the olive orchards, or sat midday under the fruit trees, or lingered at the garden’s edge to catch the last bits of sunset through flat clouds cascading from orange, pink, green, and finally to night-sky blue.

Why not water everywhere?

This experience brings me to the question — why don’t all our gardens have water in them?

OK, I admit I know the problems — all the problems. I’ve been writing about water features for so many years that I’ve collected a vast litany of hassles regarding water. However, when I hear these horror stories I always think, this unhappy gardener hasn’t yet found the perfect water for that garden.

To that end here are four of the most common complaints and my suggestions for fixes. Don’t give up. Winter is the perfect season for planning. Water in the garden is too important and too delightful to quit looking for what will work.

Problems and solutions

  • Liner leaks. This can be a whole encyclopedia of causes, so the fixes vary. An easy way to discover holes in sidewalls calls for raising the water level a bit above the presumed leak and sprinkling the surface near the edges with cornstarch. As the water moves toward the hole (or holes) the cornstarch outlines the movement in whorls and eddies. Drain down below that point and slap on a patch. The hard way to fix it is to tear the whole thing out and start over. If it’s DIY, spend this winter with some basic water construction books and websites, researching your mistakes. Sometimes, the liner wasn’t heavy enough for the job, or parts of it were not sealed together correctly. If you are hiring, go see other happy homeowners who have used your installer.
  • Water splashes out. Over the years I’ve discovered that the width of the container must be at least three times the height of the falling water — more width is even better. Whether it’s a pool at the base of a falls or a patio pot with a fountain bubbler, if the receptacle isn’t wide enough, you will lose water. Cutting down on the amount of falling water will help — adjust your pump’s output or kink the hose — but your real choice is either to shorten the length of the fall, or widen what it’s falling into.
  • Critters menace the fish. Several motion sensors (one brand is Scarecrow), properly installed, can foil even the wiliest heron. I’ve known homeowners who have used these for years and have never lost a koi. Also good for raccoons. If you don’t need fish, consider a pondless water feature on a timer that shuts off at night, allowing all the water to gather in a hidden tank. No water, no attraction for raccoons to turn over your rockery.
  • Cost. Whether tearing out an existing water feature or contemplating a new one, cost is in direct proportion to size. Think smaller. Not all gardens need a waterfall, or a swimming pond. Modest pumps and small pools — as in my Tuscany experience — can be enough to bring this most important element into the garden without breaking the bank.


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.

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