Gardener Candace McClenahan turned her perfect hill for sledding into a perfect hill for a bog, waterfalls and a gently moving brook. And she did it all in her Bloomington backyard without building a pond.
“I have enough to take care of without filters and maintenance of a 3,000-gallon pond,” she said, referring to her 1-acre lot planted with an amalgam of perennials, shrubs and trees. “I didn’t want to clean filters and care for koi, either.”
Her low-maintenance solution was designing a shallow bog layered with rocks to guide water down the hill and into a reservoir.
McClenahan set the water pump on a timer to run from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. The sound of cascading water through her bedroom window “wakes me up and puts me to sleep,” she said.
Her creative bog and pondless waterfalls, surrounded by lush plantings, is one of 11 Twin Cities sites that will be featured on the Minnesota Water Garden Society (MWGS) tour, July 27-28.
Aspiring, novice and experienced water gardeners can watch darting koi and stroll past streams, an “ecosystem” pond and even a 19-foot waterfall.
“Ponders” will share their expertise on picking plants and building and maintaining different sizes and types of water features.
Birth of a water garden
McClenahan joined the MWGS in early 2000 and was a regular on pond tours to shoot photos, ask questions and learn about pondless water gardening. She even volunteered her time and labor to help members put in their water features.
In 2005, a friend dropped two big boulders in her backyard, “and that gave me the push to finally do it,” she said.
For the next three summers, with the help of family and friends, McClenahan dug the shallow bog and reservoir, installed pond liner, built the multitiered mini-waterfalls, and placed thousands of hand-picked rocks in all sizes and shapes.
A flat-ridged beauty was specifically chosen for the top of the biggest waterfall. “I love rocks as much as plants,” she said.
At the top of the hill, she designed two exits from the bog for water to flow down the waterfalls to the foot of the hill and into an underground reservoir, which she compared to “a big tub filled with rock,” and then recirculated through PVC pipe.
The bog bottom is layered with rock, which creates bubbles and serves as a natural filter to help keep the water clean.
She built steps into the natural hillside to make it easy to climb up and down to weed the beds and take in the view.
“I’m only going to do it once,” she said. “So I wanted to cover the hill and do it big.”
And her water feature is low-maintenance because she only has to remove the pump system in the fall and install it in the spring. “I never have to clean a commercial filter,” she said.
After retiring 10 years ago, the Master Gardener focused on “the fun part” — designing and planting the perennial gardens to enhance and accent the water features. Her style is an “organic-designed” landscape that emulates nature, she said.
A tapestry of plants were chosen for continuous blooms from spring to fall.
“I pick all shades of green in different heights, textures and smells,” she said. “The popcorn plant smells like buttered popcorn.”
Swaths of tried-and-true perennials fill in the waterscape, including yellow sedum from her mother’s garden, blooming Stella d’ oro daylilies and plumes of Joe-Pye weed and Russian sage. Coneflower buds were ready to burst open, and coral bells and candy lilies sprouted up between the rocks.
McClenahan picks only aquatic plants that thrive in shallower water, such as spiky variegated sweet flag paired with curvy-foliaged blooming yerba mansa.
Just beyond the water gardens, she planted shady woodland beds of hosta and ferns decorated with handcrafted rusted metal sculptures.
Clumps of plants deliberately sprawl across and hug the pine-needle and mulch pathways so she can “brush against the plants and really experience the garden,” she said.
Working the soil is in McClenahan’s DNA, she added. She grew up in Iowa, her father was in agribusiness and she often visited her grandparents’ farm.
“It’s a creative outlet for me,” she said. “It’s barren in the spring, and each year you start over.”
And her 3-year-old granddaughter is fascinated with the cascading water.
“When she leaves, she says goodbye to the waterfalls,” said McClenahan. “It’s fun to share it with her.”