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Making a splash with a water garden

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

Dirt. Water. In which, do you prefer to do your gardening?

For Clayton County Master Gardener Suzanne Norman, the answer is water. She has five pond gardens, and "countless" smaller, water gardens. She also teaches a lunchtime class on water gardening, every September in Jonesboro, at the University of Georgia Clayton County Extension Service Office.

They are not exactly the "Octopuses' Garden" that the Beatles sang about, but water gardens are places where plant roots grow underwater, instead of in the ground. "It's just another frontier for gardeners," Norman said. "It's peaceful and soothing to have one in your backyard. Interest really peaked during the drought, because it didn't require repeated watering. They are already growing in a body of water."

On Thursday, 15 local residents met at the Extension Service Office to participate in Norman's latest class on water gardening. Several said water gardening is something they are interested in doing, as an alternative to digging in the dirt. "It's been on my ‘To-Do' list for awhile," said Jonesboro resident, Maureen Smith. "I just like the feel of having water around, because it's so calming, and refreshing."

Norman said water gardens are easy to make. All a person needs, to start, is a container that can hold water. She said there are no limitations on the container. Some of her water gardens are contained in "odds and ends" type objects, ranging from an ice bucket, to an old bathtub.

"It just depends on what type of look you are going for," she said. "The sky's the limit as far as what you put it in."

After the container is filled with water, people can begin putting plants in it, Norman added. She recommended using perennials, such as papyrus, the umbrella palm, the cabomba, the anacharis, and the acorus (also known as Japanese Sweet Flags), because they are the easiest to work with, and they come back to life on their own every year.

Some of those plants, the papyrus in particular, will be in flower pots themselves, but the pots will be completely submerged in the water garden container, she said. For added flair, Norman suggested adding decorative, floating plants, such as water lettuce, or water hyacinths. With those types of plants, the roots hang freely in the water, rather than being in any water-soaked dirt.

"I would say you should put in three, to four plants in a 20-inch-wide container," Norman said. "You can really put as many plants as you want in your garden, but if you put too many in there, space begins to be a concern."

Finally, a water filter is placed in the garden, to keep the water clean, Norman said. It took her approximately 10 minutes to demonstrate how to put a water garden together for participants in her class, and she spent much of that time explaining each plant she was using.

She also taught class participants how to keep mosquitos away from their water gardens, and how to encourage the growth of bacteria in the water that can be beneficial to the garden, by breaking down, and destroying contaminants in the water.

Norman acknowledged there is a local threat posed by West Nile Virus-carrying mosquitos. She suggested that people buy mosquito dunks, and use them in their water gardens. She said the dunks can be bought at any hardware store. She told class attendees to take one dunk, crumble it up and sprinkle it in the water, to repel mosquitos. "One of these should last all summer," she told class participants.

She also recommended sprinkling a muck buster in the water to spur bacteria development. "That will help jump-start the growth of that beneficial bacteria," she said. She added that with the plants, the bacteria, and the fish people can add to their gardens, as well as other amphibious wildlife, such as frogs and turtles, the gardens develop into an ecosystem, that she compared to "a microscopic city."

Finally, she told her students to accept algae blooms as an unavoidable fact of life in their gardens, because they are a natural occurrence. She did not paint a flattering picture of algae, however, calling them "the weeds of your water garden." She recommended that people just let nature take its course when it comes to algae blooms, though.

"You're going to have an algae bloom at the start of spring," she said. "You're going to have one, no matter how good of a gardener you are. It's an automatic thing."

Some students said they came to the class because they are loyal to Norman, and wanted to see what she was going to talk about this time.

"This is my third water gardening class that I've been to," said Jonesboro resident, Olivia Stephens. "I've done two water gardens myself. Every time I attend this class, I'm so inspired to go home, and start a new water garden."

And, Stephens said the allure of water gardening, for her was simple. "You don't have to dig in the dirt," she said. "It's gardening without getting dirty."