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Brian Minter: Make a refreshing patio water garden a summer garden project

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A water garden will add a refreshing and calming element, something we all need right now.

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Brian Minter

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June 12, 2020 • • June 12, 2020 • • Read 4 minutes Backyard water features add sound, movement, and wonderful interest to your garden.  HANDOUT For 0217 col minter [PNG Merlin Archive] Backyard water features add sound, movement, and wonderful interest to your garden. Photo by Brian Minter /.PNG

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Environment Canada is forecasting a warmer than normal summer for most of the country this year.

Every hot summer, it is really nice to have a play of cooling water on your patio or deck.

I am not suggesting anything near Niagara Falls. Rather, it is just a simple, relatively inexpensive, watertight, flat container. You might want to add a little gurgler, floating plants, a few tropics, a water lily, and, if the container is in the shade, a few goldfish.

Large garden ponds have been in decline for years and for many reasons. Smaller lot sizes, the cost of electricity to run large pumps, algae problems, eager fish predators like raccoons, and the overall maintenance required all contribute to this.

Container placed in water.  It contains large dramatic Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus alternifolius) and corkscrews from Juncus effusus 'Unicorn'.  For Brian Minter garden pillar over water gardens, published in The Vancouver Sun on June 13, 2020. [PNG Merlin Archive] Ready to be immersed in water, this container holds a large dramatic Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus alternifolius) and Juncus effusus ‘Unicorn’ corkscrews. PNG

However, interest in smaller tub gardens has exploded. Filled with some of the new colorful aquatic plants and enhanced with the calming sound of dripping water, they are an easy-care item for any patio.

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In summer there is a wide variety of plants, either tropical or cold hardy varieties, suitable for water gardens. Using some of each type in your water garden creates a greater variety of colors and beauty.

The Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus alternifolius) is one of the most popular plants for water containers and is available in different heights: “Baby Tut” (38-45 cm) and “Prince Tut” (30 to 30 cm) up to 75 cm to 1.2 m large and exotic ‘King Tut’ (grows up to 1.8 m). Even if they just sit in a saucer of water, they look stunning all summer long. They’re all very heat-resistant but need to get inside for the winter.

The fiber-optic-looking grass Scirpus cernuus, with its hundreds of tiny grass-like stems topped with tiny seed heads, is another summer beauty. It also needs shallow water and makes a nice overflow plant on the edge of a container.

For some sparkling colors, the unique foliage of canna lilies is an attractive, even surprising addition to shallow water vessels. The yellow-green striped ‘Pretoria’ or ‘Bengal Tiger’, the burgundy-red striped ‘Tropicana’ and the pure black ‘Australia’ are just a few of the colorful plants that interest every water garden. These cannas will reward you with tall, elegant flower stems later in the summer.

Container ready to be put in water.  It contains large dramatic Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus alternifolius) and corkscrews from Juncus effusus 'Unicorn'.  For Brian Minter garden column about water gardens, published in The Vancouver Sun on June 13, 2020 (Photo: Minter Country Garden) [PNG Merlin Archive] Ready to be immersed in water, this container holds a large dramatic Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus alternifolius) and Juncus effusus ‘Unicorn’ corkscrews. PNG

Surprisingly hardy pitcher plants (Sarracenia) look gorgeous with their reddish, ruffled tips that draw unsuspecting insects down their long throats. They’re used in clumps on their own and are real knockouts.

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In order not to be outdone, robust bog plants are at home in smaller water pots. I like the height and appearance of traditional rushes, but there are a few even nicer varieties. Typha latifolia, with its stunning white and green variegated leaves and stems topped with very attractive brown seed pods, is a great focal point. I also love the thin spines and cute short seed pods from Typha Minima.

Some traditional perennials, like the old-fashioned marigold (Caltha palustris), with their round, double, yellow flower heads, go well with water pots. The dark-leaved cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), like the ‘Queen Victoria’ variety, look great in water all summer, but especially when their red flower stalks appear. Many irises are also at home in water. The Japanese Iris ensata, especially the variegated white and green-leaved varieties, look great in full bloom with their showy blue flowers.

Even when it’s not in bloom, skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) – one of my favorite native plants – has foliage that looks dramatic in a small water garden.

Traditional pond plants such as the purple or pink pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) with its attractive foliage and blue or pink flowers are still a must. The arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) looks great with its unique foliage and blue flower heads.

I know it can be invasive – so be careful – but the red, yellow, and pink foliage of Houttuynia variegata ‘Chameleon’ is a real eye-catcher. Equisetum hyemale and members of the Juncus family are also potentially invasive, but they are especially beautiful in the water, especially the twisted, curly stems of Juncus effusus ‘Unicorn’.

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The addition of a few swimmers will soften and intensify the effects of these plants. The elegant red-stemmed parrot feather (Myriophyllum brasiliensis) and floating bamboo (Hygroryza aristata) are two other stunning options. No water garden is complete without a floating water salad and water hyacinth, and both of them grow pretty quickly.

All of these plants help control algae growth and keep your water clean.

A British Columbia company plants combinations of these beautiful plants in “water-ready” containers so all you have to do is toss them into your water garden.

For maintenance, regularly top up the water level to make sure the roots are submerged and trim off any used leaves. If you come across algae, lift everything up, rinse the roots, and just change the water. How easy is it

Having a water garden on your patio this summer will add a refreshing and calming element, something we all need right now.

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Robert Dunfee