The Beauty of Water

by | Apr 2018

Brehmers's backyard water garden.

Photo: Emily J. Davis

A look at local water gardens.

The Minnesota Water Garden Society, which marked its 20th year last summer, exists to help people enjoy water gardening. The society’s biggest public-outreach event is in an annual tour of metro-area gardens. In 2017, 11 homes were on the tour, including three local couples who offer a glimpse into their water gardening journey.

It’s no coincidence that the Brehmers’ sloping back yard is perfect for a pond and stream: Joe had water gardens in mind when he bought the house. He took a class at Dundee Nursery before digging, and learned people usually start with small ponds, but eventually enlarge them. To avoid that mistake, he built the two-foot-deep ponds about 18 feet wide and 20 feet long. Though they dug their two ponds in 1999, the holes stayed empty until 2007. “Some people do it in a month, some in a year; it took us eight years,” Karen says.

Waterfall and bog filter
The Brehmers’ garden features a waterfall that comes out of a bog filter and drops about a foot over stacks of flat, moss-covered rocks, flowing into a stream with three smaller waterfalls, which add oxygen to the water to keep the pH correct and the pond’s fish alive. Joe hauled about a third of these rocks from his grandmother’s property near Rochester, Minn., and the rest came from Hedberg Supply in Plymouth.

The bog filter helps keep the water clean by running it through a 2-by-2-by-2-foot box full of pea gravel and deep-rooted plants. The Brehmers got the filter idea from other pond society members, and saw a working example at the MWGS demo garden at the state fairgrounds. Joe and Karen built their falls over several summers, starting with large rocks around the edge and followed by smaller ones to cover the thick rubber liner and hold it in place. The result is a pleasant tumble of rounder rocks surrounding the water.

A backyard haven
“[The pond] is kind of our own private sanctuary,” Karen says. “We have a patio next to it, a bridge over the stream. We spend far more time taking care of it than sitting and enjoying, but we really do enjoy the process. For me it’s a chance to dig in the dirt and think; it’s just my Zen moment.”

Rain gardens
The Brehmers also have a rain garden, and plan to add a second one this spring. They don’t want to waste rainwater, and with the sump pump coming out of the basement, “we’d probably have a big wet mess anyway,” Karen says.  Besides being ecology-minded, the couple also enjoys learning new things, like what kinds of plants to put in a rain garden.

About five years ago, Al built a two-car garage that abutted the Melsons’ patio. The problem was they were now staring at the side of the garage every time they sat in their backyard, Toni says. Her friend Sharon had been trying for about 20 years to convince her to put a pond in the back yard, and with the new structure, Toni finally decided a stream running along the garage could be just the thing to transform their outdoor space.

Al and Toni joined the MWGS, and the group brought a whole  crew over to help the family dig, creating the project for that year’s  “build a pond” garden tour site. “The main designer said if we wanted to add a pond, now would be the best time to do it,” Toni says. “We all looked at each other and scratched our heads, and we said OK, so they started digging more, and then he said if we wanted to make it a little bigger, this would be the time to do it. So, we did.”

A Work in Progress
“A pond is always a work in progress,” Toni says. Today, benches, a swing and paths surround the stream and pond area. “The footbridge is a fun part of our little pond,” she says. Coming around the garage, visitors reach the patio by crossing the bridge. The stream is between 25 and 30 feet long, and the main pond is about 18 to 20 feet across. Both are adorned by water plants and driftwood, with shrubs and perennials growing all around.

Water garden challenges
One challenge for Al and Toni is the giant maple tree next to their pond. “Everyone tells us we need to chop it down, and I keep telling them the tree stays,” Toni says. In the fall, a net on a domed PVC frame keeps the leaves out of the pond, and a hand skimmer helps keep the water clean.

Soothing sounds
Toni loves hearing the stream’s splashing through her open window on summer nights. Neighbors have told her they enjoy the peaceful sound, too. For Toni, a retired first-grade teacher, the best thing about pond is the tranquility it provides. “I remember coming home from school and sitting on the patio by the pond and it was just total relaxation.”

Vegetable garden
The Melsons’ yard holds more than just the water garden. “Al fancies himself a farmer, and he has this humongous vegetable garden,” Toni says. The Melsons use a lot of the produce, preserve some and share with their neighbors. They also donate hundreds of pounds to a local food shelf over the course of the summer. “Al really likes the process of doing it all, gets enjoyment out of growing, and it also makes you feel good knowing you can share it with people who are in need,” Toni says.

The Kirchners began water gardening in about 1995, when their 13-year-old son gave Jim a pump for Christmas. Jim, now semi-retired from a career working with fluid power, pumps and machinery parts, knew what the pump was and how to use it. The Kirchners started small, with a 90-gallon molded pond. Another molded container was positioned above it to create a little waterfall. In 1997, Jim and Sharon were some of the founding members of the MWGS.

A few years after the first pond, they added a second one. This pond is bigger, about 4-by-8 feet and with a large waterfall. The Kirchners’ third water feature is a 35-foot river in the front yard that flows into a small bog garden. “I took a gamble on divorce,” Jim quips, “because my wife didn’t want another water feature.” She went out of town and as soon as she left, Jim had all the materials delivered and 16 friends come over to help him. They dug and planted the whole thing in four days, finishing before Sharon got home.

Their fourth water feature is a 3.5-by-7-foot pond next to the deck and the house itself, and serves as a winter holding pond for plants and fish. This pond is fed by a broad-faced waterfall, which can be heard from the master bedroom directly above it.

The first challenge of water gardening is learning how to put a water feature in, Jim says, and choosing which materials to use. The second challenge can be maintenance, but a well-designed feature shouldn’t require much work. The third challenge is knowing how to shut down your water feature and what to do in the winter. “The reason we started the organization is back in the early ’90s there was very little information about designing and maintaining water features,” Jim says, especially in
a cold climate.

Tips for newbies

First, go big. It’s very difficult to enlarge an existing pond.

Before you dig a hole, research. “It only costs $35 per couple per year to join the group, and you’ll get a wealth of information and ideas,” Toni Melson says.

“Once you dig a big hole, it’s hard to move it,” Jim Kirchner cautions. He strongly suggests spending some time learning about the various aspects of water gardening.

2018 Minnesota Water Garden Society Water Garden Tour

July 28 and 29, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day

Tickets are $20, or $15 purchased in advance online, available starting June 1. Kids under 16 are free. More details will be available at in May.


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