When you step back to view your pond, does it seem as if something is missing? If so, I’m betting the problem is in the transition between pond and landscape.
Transition literally means a transfer or changeover. Picture a woodland, with its trees, grasses, ferns, wildflowers, rocks, weeds, and birds. Now imagine building a pond in the center of a putting green. As far as the eye can see, nothing but neatly shorn lawn surrounding it. That’s far from a “natural” setting.
How do you create a transition from a natural-looking pond or stream to a neatly shorn lawn, trimmed evergreens, and a two-story Williamsburg with a silver Beemer in the driveway? You make it gradually, beginning with border plants.
Border plants are those plants surrounding the border—or exterior—of your water feature. You’ve created a work of art that mimics nature in nearly every way. Now you need to finish the job. Instead of stopping what you’ve done at the banks of your stream, you need to continue your planting and landscaping away from the waterway.
Starting at the water’s edge, reach outward to landscape the perimeter of your water feature. Remember to concentrate the heaviest number of plants nearest the water, just as you would most likely see in nature, and then gradually allow them to thin in numbers as your eye travels outward from the pond.
What kinds of plants make good border accents? That pretty much depends upon what you hope to accomplish. If you want an all-natural water feature, try to use those plants that you’d find growing naturally in your vicinity. Since we have few waterways in our neck of the woods (and fewer plants in general due to the harsh environment), we had to improvise.
For shrubs, we used evergreens such as spreading yew, nandina, and potentilla, along with hawthorn and dwarf golden arborvitae. For flowers, we combined naturally occurring bloomers such as columbine, bleeding heart, iris, violets, and lilies with a few more exotic imports, such as cyclamen, freesia, armeria, and camellia.
For grasses, we used blue fescue, wild grass, mondo grass, bull rush, sedge, and liriope. For ferns, we relied on foxtail, ostrich, Boston, and asparagus. For groundcover, we used vinca, Irish and Scottish moss, and baby tears.
For trees, we planted rose of Sharon and blue atlas cedar. We anchored the entire landscape to a 20-year-old, 30-foot-tall pine tree that provides vital shade (yes, and more than a few pine needles!) for our main pond.
Of course, since we built nearly everything up from solid bedrock, we brought in a ton of soil mixed with shredded pine bark to plant things in. Our new motto quickly evolved into, If you can’t dig down, build it up!
We backfilled against our raised streambed to make it look more natural, and we did the same against the backside of our largest pond. In order to disguise the front side, we planted the area heavily with evergreen shrubs and capped off the edge with flat rocks and stones interspersed with mondo grass and baby tears growing in moss balls.
The point is that an entire world of plants awaits your selection. From one nursery alone, we could replant our entire waterway with completely different plants—never using the same species twice. That’s how wide a selection is available to us. Oh, and about never planting the same thing twice? Don’t take that advice seriously. Nature seldom drops a single seed to sprout and take hold. More likely, she scatters groups of seeds in specific areas so that you might have a stand of wild grass to one side, some shrubs off in the distance, and a few trees and wildflowers in yet a third location.
Don’t feel shy about experimenting. If you think something will look good in one spot and it turns out not to be so, take it out. Just so long as you keep the roots moist when the plants are out of the ground, they rarely object to being “field tested.” When you come across exactly the plants that work best for you in a specific location, you’ll know it; and all that extra effort will have finally paid off.
One other thing to note: nature isn’t at her prime one hundred percent of the time. As some plants come into bloom, others die out. As some open new leaves, others begin showing their age. Don’t let that bother you. It’s simply another aspect of nature at work.
You can hold your plants’ “down time” to a minimum and increase your bloom time by mixing a wide variety of species that bloom at different times of year. Be careful, though, to use plants that require basically the same water conditions. You don’t want to put a succulent next to a fern or a desert willow beside a carpet rose.