Common sense ecosystem ponds
Credit: Aquascape Designs Inc.

Common sense ecosystem ponds

Today’s ecosystem ponds use a blend of high-tech techniques and common sense to create water gardens that work with nature

If you’re ready to tap into one of the hottest trends in gardening today – ponds – put Mother Nature on the work crew. Unlike the leaky, high-maintenance water features of old, today’s ecosystem ponds use a blend of high-tech techniques and common sense to create water gardens that work with nature. Ecosystem ponds lined with rock and gravel look natural and mature into complete ecosystems that combine fish, plants and beneficial bacteria to create water gardens that practically take care of themselves. Knowing how Mother Nature works makes her easy to mimic – her style is guided by wind, weather and whimsy. In ponds as they are found in nature, taller marginal plants, such as reeds, act as a backstop, catching the flying seeds of other plants. These seeds then drop to the bottom of the pond where some will live again. To copy this effect, water garden designer Ed Beaulieu suggests planting taller plants like reeds, cattails (Typha) and cannas in the clusters in the background. Then, add to the look by snuggling medium-height plants close to the taller ones. For these places, you might choose water willow (Justicia americana) blue pickerel (Pontederia cordata), and bog arum (Calla palustris). For a finishing touch, add copperleaf plant (Acalypha amentacea ssp. Wilkesiana) directly in front of the cluster.

Creating a stable system

State-of-the-art water gardens are based on creating an ecologically-stable system using five basic elements: mechanical and biological filtration, bacteria, fish, plants and lots of rocks and pebbles. There are no visible pumps, plumbing or liner material. Routine maintenance involves emptying a skimmer basket of twigs and leaves, adding some natural bacteria and doing basic seasonal plant care.


These water gardens rely on active bacteria to provide biological filtration and organic waste is broken down into nutrients that feed the pond’s aquatic plants. Keeping a pond in top condition requires only routine maintenance and a recommended annual clean out; tasks that many see as being on par with maintaining an established perennial garden.

Achieving a sustainable backyard pond ecosystem

One of the secrets to achieving a sustainable backyard pond ecosystem is building a pond that’s big enough. Though a properly designed and equipped 6’ by 4’ pond can achieve a natural aquatic balance, larger ponds, 8’ by 11’ for example, achieve the same balance quicker, more effectively recycle organic waste and establish a more stable ecosystem.

Suggestions for prospective pond owners

Beaulieu has some suggestions for prospective pond owners who are considering a backyard water garden.

  • What is it about water gardening that appeals to you? Is it the plants, fish, frogs, birds, the sound of water, or the overall landscaping look? Whatever it is, build your dream pond with those elements as focal points.
  • Know your likes and dislikes. Check out home and garden magazines and go on garden/pond tours see how other homeowners have interpreted various design ideas and styles. These are good ways to get a feel for the range of possible water garden styles. Some styles you’ll love, others won’t strike your fancy and that’s part of the discovery process. Architectural style can be another important inspiration for pond design. For example, you may want to consider the popular Japanese water garden look. With its peaceful ambience and well thought-out interaction of different elements of nature – water, earth, rocks, and plants – you can create a very relaxed environment.
  • Don’t allow a lack of space to limit you. If all you have is a small yard to work with, pay special attention to the details. Each aspect of a tiny pond is an opportunity to create beauty.