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Wet and wild: Water features for Alaska gardens

  • Author: Brix Hahn
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published March 22, 2015

From a simple fountain to a waterfall or pond, animal-shaped squirters to rock-fashioned bubblers, a water garden element can be basic or elaborate -- it all depends on personal taste, budget and setting.

"There's hardly anything you can do that's more impactful than a water feature," said Benjamin Brown, project manager at Faltz Landscaping and Nursery in Anchorage. "Human beings love water…the main draws are the sound and visual aspects."

In the winter months, Brown suggests draining the actual feature, but leaving the pump in the water. "The common belief is you have to take it out…but we found that almost 100 percent of the time the pumps will fail during that (off) season."

Inactive pumps left in the water during winter months are more likely to work properly in the spring, according to Brown. The water acts as a seal and keeps the pump's more delicate pieces from cracking. The water remaining in the pump will expand when frozen, but typically not enough to damage it. Pumps removed from the water for winter months face a higher risk of cracking and breaking.

Algae should not be a huge concern in Alaska Brown said, but it is always a possibility when working with water. Installing a water squirter to promote water surface movement may reduce the amount of algae in a pool, as will fish. Koi are a practical option and can often survive winters in northern environments, so long as they have access to unfrozen water and fresh oxygen -- this means building a pond that's too big to completely freeze, or relocating them to an indoor aquarium during the winter. Setting up an ultraviolet lamp can also help reduce algae growth, much like it does with a fish tank.

Getting started

The first step when considering a home water garden feature is to decide whether you'll do it yourself or hire a professional. Both have advantages. Hiring a professional comes with a higher price tag, but when you work with a qualified contractor who uses a high standard of installation, you reduce the risk of any features malfunctioning. Setting it up yourself saves you the cost of labor, although it will require more personal time committed to the project. Either way, you will still have the advantage of personalizing your project throughout as well as after installation.

For the purpose of this tutorial, we'll focus on building a small pond with a circulating pump.

1. Any water garden begins with a place to put a fountain or pond. Be cautious of putting the feature under a tree, as falling leaves may be a constant hassle to remove. Depending on the size of your feature, it’s important to ensure the stability of the ground and to adjust accordingly.

2. Digging a pond may require professional assistance for larger areas. It is possible to dig yourself, but be careful not to over-exert yourself. (You might also call in some friends to help with this step.)

3. The bottom of any pond must be layered with special pond laminate lining to prevent water from escaping. This can be purchased through any local water garden vendor. Multiple pieces should significantly overlap. The plastic should blanket up and over the walls of the earth bed to prevent erosion; the exposed flaps can be hidden later with rocks or earth.

4. When purchasing a circulating pump, consider the size of your pond, the type of feature (if you choose to add one) and whether you wish to introduce fish. Fish will require the purchase of a more advanced pump with the ability to filter out fish food and waste.

5. Place the circulating pump in the lowest point of the pond. Faltz Landscaping recommends putting your pump in a five-gallon bucket with large holes cut in the sides; this will assist in filtering the amount of debris making contact with the pump. Plug in the pump to an electrical source. Do not tamper with any electrical parts from the manufacturer; they should already be tested, water-safe and ready to go.

6. Fill your pond by running a garden hose from the house or by manually hauling buckets of water.

7. Turn on your circulating pump, enjoy and monitor regularly.

Additional tips and reminders

  • It's possible to adjust the sounds, splashes and bubbles of your water feature by making changes to the position, pump type and size of your feature.
  • Water will evaporate, so keep an eye on your feature to ensure it stays full. Refill as needed. Automatic refill pumps are available, but they require maintenance and may unexpectedly spike your water bill.
  • Be aware that your electric bill will go up during active months, but generally only $9-$20. This is based off a pump drawing between 0.5 AMPs for a smaller feature up to 9.0 AMPs for a larger one. This price increase may also be affected by how many kilowatts are being used and if the pump runs 24 hours a day or on a timer.
  • This story appeared in the March 2015 issue of 61º North Magazine. Contact 61º editor Jamie Gonzales at

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