A Low-Intensity, No-Feed Approach to Water Garden Management

By Sean Hubbard, Oklahoma State

First posted on 06-20-2013

With proper planning and management, water gardens are relaxing and beautiful additions to any landscape.

There are several misconceptions about water gardens that can lead to problems in their management. The first of which is assuming a water garden must be managed the same way as an aquarium, said Marley Beem, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension aquaculture specialist.

“Feeding water garden fish is not required when fish are stocked lightly,” said Beem, who suggested a stocking rate of one fish per five square feet of surface area. “If you do choose to feed your fish, be careful not to overfeed. Excess fish waste and uneaten feed quickly degrade water quality.”

Water gardens that function according to the principals of nature should not be managed using chemicals, as is done with swimming pools. Aquatic plants are the best way to filter and treat the waste produced by fish.

“Purchasing and using a water quality test kit is not required for a properly managed pond where feed is not used or is used very conservatively,” Beem said. “It is not unusual for water gardeners to be overly concerned with water quality measures like pH. It is not necessary or desirable to chemically adjust the pH as long as it stays between 6.0 and 9.0 most of the time.”

Also, spending a ton of money on your garden does not mean it will be any better. Expensive filtration systems typically require more maintenance. There are expensive and inexpensive options when choosing fish, as well. Water garden owners are encouraged to investigate the advantages and disadvantages of both goldfish and koi before making a choice.

“A beginning water gardener is probably better off with goldfish, especially if their pond will be less than 1,000 gallons in size,” Beem said. “Choose goldfish varieties that have a simple body form suited to quick swimming, and avoid those with extra large fins or bulging eyes.”

Koi require a larger pond, but have a distinctive beauty. However, with that beauty comes a heavy price tag. When shopping for fish, reject any that hang close to the water surface, have whitish dots or display poor balance.

Water gardens should always be protected from fish parasites that are introduced into the garden from new fish, plants, or anything from another water garden or pond. Beem suggests holding new fish and plants in an isolated tank for at least two weeks before transferring into the water garden.

Finally, the design and location of the garden will play a major role in your satisfaction of the garden. Ideal spots can be seen easily, are close to electrical outlets, away from trees where leaf accumulation will be a problem, removed from areas that will runoff into the garden and far enough away from bedroom windows where frogs will not keep you awake.

“Most water gardeners seek relaxation. The low-intensity, no-feed approach offers just that,” Beem said. “You will hear different opinions about how best to plan and manage a water garden. Keep in mind the amount of time and effort needed for each method.”