A Water Garden for Wildlife

By Margy and Dan Terpstra

Water GardenGardens evolve and so do gardeners. Last summer we reached a milestone in our “evolution” as we completed a major phase in the long-range plan for our wildlife sanctuary. But first, a bit of history.

My husband, Dan, and I are both avid nature photographers and birders. Twelve years ago we purchased a home with a challenging, wooded, ⅔-acre lot that had the makings of a prime habitat for songbirds, but needed a lot of work to reach its potential.

First, much invasive honeysuckle was removed, allowing existing native blackhaw and mayapple to thrive and opening the opportunity to add more native plants. To provide water in the woodland – a must-have for attracting songbirds and other wildlife – we installed a small pre-formed pond. Birds love moving water, so we added a ‘bubbler’. The water is channeled up through an overhanging boulder, ‘bubbles’ onto this stone, and trickles down into the pond. Much to our delight, the splashing sound has attracted over 100 species of birds, some rare and endangered.

The small pond and bubbler were doing a fine job of attracting birds, but we had the urge for a grander water feature. So, we decided that, after stage two of our landscape makeover was complete – the construction of a a gazebo nestled into the trees and complete with retractable Phantom screens to protect us against insects – we would put stage three into action – the development of our east-side water garden.

We felt this new water feature should be professionally installed. Books helped by giving two-dimensional ideas, but we needed to see some real examples that would show off the work of their designers/contractors. We found the perfect venue, the Pond-O-Rama Tour. This annual June event, sponsored by the St Louis Water Gardening Society, showcases members’ ponds over a two-day period. We went on the 2006 tour, saw 16 ponds, and talked with many owners. We liked the naturalistic work of Todd Rundquist, who owns West Winds Earthscaping LLC. A busy year went by, and when the gazebo was finished last summer, we were ready to meet with Todd to refine and implement our design for the water garden.

Before excavation began, we moved plants that were “keepers” to a mulched bed. ‘Dig Day’ arrived, and Todd outlined the pond area with orange spray paint. A backhoe was used to excavate the site and to assist in setting the larger stones. The amazing transformation was complete in three days.

At its highest point, there is a biological filter, which looks like a bubbling spring. The water cascades from the spring into a 12 foot long streambed, tumbles over a second waterfall into a shallow basin with stepping stones, and finally over a third waterfall into a 10 x 15 foot pond. The water is pulled through a skimmer and pumped back up to the springhead via buried pipe.

With less than a 3-foot drop in elevation from the spring to the skimmer, the waterfalls provide a symphony of sound! The very first night, the gurgling water attracted two Barred Owls, heard while checking out the new fishing hole. The pond has several ‘caves’ in which the goldfish find shelter, and in the evenings, they add to the ambience, accented by submerged lighting.

Terpstra's - Water Garden

Terpstra's - Water Garden

To surround the pond, we selected cultivars of native plants such as ‘Blue Muffin’ viburnum, ‘Autumn Brilliance’ serviceberry, ‘White Dome’ hydrangea, purple beautyberry, and more. Although the soil was in good condition, we added leaf compost and a 10% application of a new product called Axisâ to each planting hole to improve soil structure and reduce watering needs.

For the pond, we chose pickerel rush, copper iris, native waterlily, and lobelias to attract hummingbirds and dragonflies. No sooner had I set the pot of pickerel rush next to the pond than a pair of mating dragonflies latched onto it!

Terpstra's - Water Garden

Terpstra's - Water Garden

Well, it seems simple enough to say that moving water in a garden delights all the senses. But, why a water garden for wildlife? We watch the sparkling droplets dance in the stream, breathe deeply and listen to the tumbling waterfalls, cool our feet while feeding the fish, and keep track of the fauna that discover our refuge. Simply, as poet Wendell Berry wrote, we are humbled by “the peace of wild things.”

Margy and Dan Terpstra enjoy gardening, photographing and observing wildlife around their Kirkwood home and elsewhere. They have turned their suburban landscape into a Certified Wildlife Habitat™.

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About Mike Perry

Husband, Father, DIYer, Gardener, Runner, Tea-Drinker, Traditional Wet Shaver...
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