Savannah Garden Diary

April 8, 2008

Pond and Bog

At Spring Fling I sort of promised that I would post about building the pond. I’m also still mulling a desultory conversation about creativity. I said something along the lines of my creative outlet is gardening because I’m no good at design. Which didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to the audience and, when I thought about it, didn’t make a lot of sense to me either. I realize, however, that a garden is always a work in progress, so my designs progress by trial and error, which seems to be the only way I can achieve anything that satisfies me.

Design Considerations
marsh in January
Our back garden is constrained by our view of the marsh. Here it is at its most beautiful in January. (The neighbor’s dock house collapsed in a January storm, so that is no longer there.) The garden has to be over, under, or to either side of the marsh view; it can’t be in the middle. (Except for the palmettos. When we removed the trees from the middle of the garden, Thom wouldn’t let me take out any palmettos, so there they remain in their uncompromising solidity, to be worked around.)
After the patio was finished, here’s what we had: one palmetto trunk, a path from the patio to nowhere, bare spots in the lawn where trees were removed, and the vegetable garden, which was sited in what was the only sunny spot in the garden when we first moved in. (The bird feeder is at the left of this photo. Despite its concrete anchor, Thom knew he was going to have to move it because a particularly agile squirrel had learned how to jump onto it from the palmetto.)
It was obvious where the pond had to go. Borrowing madly from every pond I had ever admired and wise words in various books, I wanted a beach, a viewing area, water deep enough for lotuses, hiding spaces so the herons couldn’t eat all the fish and, most of all, a bog garden reminiscent of a ditch in Okefenokee Swamp, my probably favorite place on earth. Here are a few shots from Okefenokee:
Golden club (Orontium aquaticum) and water lily (Nymphaea odorata) in Chase Prairie.
Water lily and nymphoides from the boardwalk.
Ferns and a pitcher plant (I think it’s Sarracenia minor) by the boardwalk. While my imitation of an Okefenokee ditch has been modestly successful, I do not have a pitcher plant. My bog is not a true peat bog and all pitcher plants are endangered, so I haven’t dared to try one.


With the help of a backhoe rented from Westside Rental for $275 for 3 days, I dug the hole. It wasn’t exactly the shape or size I had imagined. While there are no rocks in our sandy soil, I encountered mega roots. A better backhoe driver than I could probably have gotten them out. I just worked around them, leaving some odd ridges in the pond where none had been planned. The pond isn’t as deep as I had planned, either. This was the fault of rapidly approaching summer. I wanted to have something to show for my labors before summer heat took over, so I sacrificed depth. As with all such compromises, I shall have to pay for it with many hours dredging muck out of the pond so that it doesn’t become any shallower.
The next step was to put the liner in the pond, put some water in it, and find out where the banks are too low. Probably the most difficult bit of designing a pond on even the slightest slope is ensuring the edge of the liner is more or less horizontal so that water doesn’t flow out of a low spot. Never cut off so much as a millimeter of the liner until the pond has been full of water for a month. (Everyone does it, and everyone regrets it.)

You can see here that the bog/ditch is going to be a horseshoe-shaped thingy around the east (left) end of the pond. Opposite it will go the viewing patio (which is partly laid). The beach will be in the upper left, and a low wall on the right will prevent everything washing into the pond from the path to the patio. Two of the necessary piles of rock are shown here. In addition, there are 2 pallets (how do you spell that?) of pea gravel and 5 tons of “river rock.” (The pallets wouldn’t be any use for Simon’s construction projects. Most of them are falling apart already.)


I couldn’t resist putting some plants in the pond, even though the stonework was far from complete. The thought of a naked pond for the summer was intolerable. Stones hold down the edge of the liner, and separate the pond from the bog on the left. The deepest part is the far left portion of the pond. Here, I built a sort of brick carport to give fish somewhere to escape the herons. It is also just deep enough (nearly 30″) to plant a lotus. Water lilies (foreground) make do in shallower water.

In the left foreground, surrounded by bricks, is the water inlet. Water evaporates at a rare rate of knots (about an inch a week) in this climate, so a pond needs a permanent dribble of water. While installing the plumbing for the pond (PVC pipe buried in the lawn), I extended the water works to the east side of the garden so that I could start a new vegetable garden over there.

The low wall that prevents junk washing into the pond is complete to the right of the water inlet, and the path from the patio is dug out but not laid.
I didn’t complete the path until the following Christmas, when my son paid a visit and helped with some of the heavy lifting. Here it is in mid-winter.
The following spring, here is the little patio (there must be a better name for it than that) with the rather handsome bench from Gardeners Supply, two Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ in flower, and a Fatsia japonica, which I stuck by a palmetto for reasons that now elude me. Beyond the bench is a trio of box. These are supposed to echo the esferas, three of artificial stone and two of box, at the edge of the patio by the bird bath, but they are not yet very spherical.

I cannot think why I got into spherical boxwoods. They are the devil to prune. Square or conical would be much easier. Every box in the garden (and there are some large ones) is a cutting from one that a friend on Tybee tore out about 10 years ago. Here is the final view from the patio, one chilly winter morning. The bird feeder has been moved to a long way from the nearest tree and in front of the kitchen window.

The bank of the bog was the last thing to be planted. The first summer I planted pond and bog. Last summer we spent in Europe and trumpet vine invaded everything. This winter, I cleared out most of the mess, and started planting the bank, which is a work in progress.
The pond is not very colorful because I stuck to native plants. No flashy purple tropical water lilies; just dear old Nymphaea odorata. The lotus, with leaves held above the water, is also native, Nelumbo lutea. There is a yellow Nymphoides, but that is about it for color in the pond itself.
Here is the lotus. Its only vice is very tough stems that I can’t reach from the bank, so they stick up brown and bristly in the winter after the elegant seed heads have fallen off.
I don’t seem to have a good photo of a water lily. Or of the flowers in the bog for that matter. Here is a solitary purple iris. The bog also contains healthy populations of white Sagittaria latifolia, Sagittaria graminea, and pickerelweed (Pontederia lanceolata).
There are also some non-natives because I had to find a home for a number of irises that I moved from the front garden, where they were not happy in dry soil.
Here is Iris pseudocorus (I think it’s English), photographed this morning, with some of the early efforts at planting the bank in the background (also a bluebird box, currently inhabited by brown-headed nuthatches). Those white concrete pavers are a permanently overgrown path around the pond. People are going to walk around a pond, no matter what you do, so you might as well give them a path and minimize the number of plants they step on.

And here is the bench in April with a clump of rather horridly colored snapdragons in the foreground next to a palmetto. I show this because the snapdragons are something of a horticultural triumph, since palmettos have millions of tiny surface roots and getting anything to grow on top of them is a struggle.


  1. great job!
    shirley bovshow

    Comment by — April 8, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

  2. Karen, your projects are really major undertakings, aren’t they? I absolutely love the shot of you in the backhoe. How on earth did you learn to operate one of these? You did a fantastic job digging, your pond looks perfect. The plantings are stunning, I love lotus (lotii?) like yours. Are your fish safe from the herons? Thanks for another entertaining post.
    Frances at Faire Garden

    Comment by — April 8, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

  3. Hi Karen, found you via Blotanical. Thanks for the very informative post on a major project. Your pond/bog is beautiful, congratulations. I’d love to have one someday.

    Comment by — April 8, 2008 @ 8:10 pm

  4. Boy, you don’t do anything in a small way, do you? I think you’ve done a great job with your garden design. looking at it (without shots of you at work, backhoes and the like) I would think it was designed by a professional landscaper.

    Comment by — April 9, 2008 @ 12:11 am

  5. Thank you so much, everybody! The rental guy shows you how to work the heavy machinery. It makes you feel powerful!

    In my youth, I would throw a few pavers on the lawn if I wanted a patio, use a leftover vanity sink for a pond. (Actually, that was only 5 years ago and it leaked.) But then I started wanting to do it better and picking up those books they sell in Lowe’s and Home Depot entitled things like Building Patios, Arbors and Pergolas, Stonework, Water Gardens, Tiling 101. They break everything down into bite-sized chunks for the DIYer.

    For my first project, I completely remodeled a bathroom, from plumbing to lighting and tiling. (Walk into one of those plumbing stores where they sell pipes and fixtures, not fancy vanities, and ask a few helpless questions; you’ll be overwhelmed with assistance.) That made me realize I could do almost anything if I took it slowly. I think, however that I’m all through with major projects, at least until the pond starts leaking. The projects I’m on at the moment are merely tedious.

    Comment by karen — April 9, 2008 @ 7:47 am

  6. Frances: The herons get some of the fish in the early morning before we are around to scare them off. Thom gets very gloomy and says they have all gone. (They are 10¢ goldfish from WalMart precisely because we weren’t sure they would survive.) I have faith in my fish shelters, so I say they are still there. We don’t see a single fish for 10 days, and then they are back again, breeding like rabbits.

    Comment by karen — April 9, 2008 @ 8:05 am

  7. Karen - I am in awe. What an amazing undertaking and how beautiful it all turned out. I especially like seeing the construction shots and the work in progress. That really is what our gardens are all about. Just like Tom Spencer said - we’re always gathering those stones … and plants and other things. Great post about the Fling, too.

    Comment by — April 9, 2008 @ 9:44 am

  8. Karen, we get those cheapo goldfish at WalMart also. I thought all our fish had been eaten by something over the winter, saw nary a one. Last month after nearly all the water was pumped out so I could clean out the leaves, (next year, netting over it in the fall), there was a lone fish hiding out in the deep area under the rocks, flapping in the mud. I agree with you, your fish, or the smart ones, are alive and hiding in your brick castle.

    Comment by — April 9, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

  9. Hi Karen. Thanks for sharing the pond project. I love water gardening. Your restrained planting works really well for me. Is there anything as beautiful as a water lily? What kind of fish do you keep? Do you feed them?

    Comment by — April 9, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

  10. Ho, the fish are primitive. Merely designed to eat mosquito larvae–10¢ goldfish from WalMart. (Didn’t want to get expensive ones for fear they would all be eaten.) They thrive, and breed like rabbits. Thom used to feed them. He enjoys having them come to greet him when he goes to the pond. But this, predictably, merely accelerated the eutrophication of the pond, cloudy water, etc., so I told him to stop. There are plenty of bacteria, insects, etc. in the pond. The fish grow rapidly until they get eaten.

    I am actually pleased that the herons get the big ones because we visited the Huntington Botanical Garden in Pasadena. Here some of the ponds contain the largest, most aggressive goldfish you have ever seen. Some of them probably weigh 20lbs. They are amazingly ugly and look as if they are about to chase you across the lawn in search of food.

    Comment by karen — April 9, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

  11. Karen,

    If I had not met you, I wouldn’t have believed that you rented a backhoe and dug this hole yourself. Holy moly. What a project. An fabulous too!

    Congratulations on being a strong woman with big ideas. I will be checking in on my fellow Spring Flinger to see how your garden is shaping up.

    Robin at Bumblebee

    Comment by — April 11, 2008 @ 8:36 pm

  12. Thanks for writing this up for me. I always find the scale of your efforts to be incredible and inspiring. It certainly makes me want to just get out there and get something done rather than being so timid. (Actually, I do understand your original remark about gardening and creativity. I don’t have a pre-designed garden but an evolving one. Looking at your hardscape projects, I’d have to say you are more of a designer than you give yourself credit for.)

    One problem with my pond is that it is too shallow–the contractor ran out of time digging it out before the date he had scheduled the cement truck. I wish I had known more about ponds then and asked him to reschedule.

    What did you do with the dirt that you excavated? Did you use it to build up the sides or did you have to have it removed? Also, aside from the herons, do you have other pests in the ponds. The reason we currently have our pond covered in netting is because of raccoons. When they go after the fish (which so far have been able to escape them) they stir up the muck in the pond and tear up the plants. It was the latter that I really minded as our fish were just same 10-cent comet goldfish you have. (I’d never had fish before and I didn’t want anything expensive. As you note, they do grow rapidly.)

    Comment by — April 12, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

  13. We would never have dirt removed. Our house is 14′ above sea level and sea level is rising rapidly. Every rock and spot of dirt added to our property delays the inevitable day when we shall have to abandon it to the waves and move inland.

    The excavated dirt was needed to build a bank to hold the pond in place. It’s not clear from the photos, but the pond is on a slope from house to marsh and from west to east, so the southeast side needed tons of dirt.

    Yes, we get lots of raccoons in and around the pond. They go for a paddle or swim occasionally. I have never seen them fishing. This may be because the pond is quite near Thom’s large bird feeder, and the raccoons’ favorite feed is the spilled seed under the feeder.

    We also have at least one snake in the pond. Since most water snakes are poisonous, I’m going to buy me a hefty pair of hip waders and wait until cold weather before I wade in and do the many pond chores I need to do.

    Comment by karen — April 13, 2008 @ 7:12 am

  14. Wow! That looks great. You tied it in nicely to your patio. What kind of stone did you use for the patio and walkway?

    Comment by — April 14, 2008 @ 7:49 am

  15. Thanks, Dave. The patio and walkway are concrete pavers. I decided I couldn’t afford natural stone for the whole lot, so I used stone only for the small patio with the bench down by the pond. I now think I was being unnecessarily cheap about this, but there is no question that concrete pavers are easier to lay than natural stone. They are also easy to cut with a diamond-tipped circular saw or chop saw blade.

    Comment by karen — April 14, 2008 @ 11:07 am

  16. Great work and a wonderful result! Your pond is really beautiful! I started to dig our pond with my youngest son who then was still a young boy! We had much fun though the rest of the family (four more people!) didn’t want to have a pond. Actually all of us like now to sit there and watch what is going on in the pond…
    Have a good time,

    Comment by — April 19, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

  17. What fun, Barbara. In the old days, I too, dug ponds by hand. But they were only little ponds and not deep enough for water lilies and lotuses. Now I want things on a larger scale. Having discovered how inexpensively you can rent heavy machinery, I’ve become more ambitious.

    Sitting by the pond and watching the action is fun for everyone. There is always something going on. Frogs, dragonflies, fish, snakes… Now that the weather is lovely and the windows are open, Thom complains that the frogs make such a noise that he can’t hear the radio in the evening!

    Comment by karen — April 20, 2008 @ 8:47 am

  18. The reason I wondered what you had done with the excavated dirt was that in our project quite a bit of subsoil consisting of rock and caliche was dug up and left on site, damaging the lawn and creating drainage problems elsewhere. is awful stuff; you may have seen some of it when you were here…a pale yellow clay not good for the garden.

    Being so near the coast, you have such different problems to deal with.

    Comment by — April 21, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

  19. There adjectives tumbling around in my head…fabulous, wonderful, fantastic, impressive…I could go on! You have created a lovely place to enjoy nature. I love Nymphaea odorata….it is impressive and not flashy.

    Comment by — April 25, 2008 @ 5:28 pm

  20. mss: I sympathize. Caliche left on the lawn is not what you want. The only clay we get here is river clay. It is good stuff, used to make Savannah brick. The Guale Indians used it to make clay pots. I have never tried! It is very heavy and hard to work, but we only get it in pockets in the sand.

    Comment by karen — April 26, 2008 @ 6:02 am

  21. your pond look great. you made a great job. not too many colors makes it harmonious and natural - I love it.

    Comment by — May 11, 2008 @ 10:21 am

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