Bringing Nature Back to the City: From Water Gardens to Wetland Restoration

Whether you live on a small urban lot, or own a rural property, you can create wildlife habitat with a water garden or constructed wetland. These features can also bring beauty to nearly any property.

A water garden in an urban back yard.
A restored wetland on a rural property.

In the spring of 2022 I was invited to speak about water gardens by the Greater Ottawa Water Garden Horticultural Society. In this illustrated talk I introduced some basic principles so you too could have a water garden that produces habitat for wildlife. I can speak from experience, since when I lived in downtown Ottawa in the 1980s, I put a small pond in our urban back yard – as a replacement for an old garage! Now that I live in the country, I have a five acre pond near my home, recreating a wetland in an area that had been cleared, ditched and drained for agriculture in the previous century.

There are simple ways to ensure that your water garden is not only beautiful, but that it improves the quality of the environment, and provides optimum habitat for wildlife. Be the first on your block to bring wildlife habitat back to the city!

Paul Keddy speaks about creating water gardens and wetlands in March 2022.

And, for those of you who want more information, Springer has published my handbook for non-specialists about simple tools for restoring and creating wetlands. Causal Factors for Wetland Management and Restoration: A Concise Guide lays out a dozen basic principles that can be used to construct or restore wetlands.

Of course, before you begin a project like this, it is always advisable to consult local planning rules to ensure that you are acting lawfully. In some areas, you may need planning approval for such a project. And, if your property already has a wetland or other water body, you will likely need professional guidance and a permit before making any changes. In this talk, I focus on the challenges of creating entirely new habitat in an area that is already badly damaged. In the case of my own home in Ottawa, mentioned above, the new water garden was created where for many years there had been a derelict garage.

A caution: if you already have a wetland on your property, you should never start digging ponds without a great deal of expert input first. In many cases, it is possible to damange existing habitat by trying to make it “better”. Yes, exisiting wetlands that have already been damamged by humans can be improved, but extreme caution is needed to ensure that one is not doing more harm than good. Here is another personal example: a wetland on my rural property had been cleared and drained for agriculture, and was still criss-crossed with drainage ditches. A first step in restoration was removing the drainage ditches to allow the water table to rise.

Here is one important principle from the talk. If you are going to create a water garden or wetland, it is helpful to allow natural water level changes. Most wetlands have seasonal changes in water level, and many wild species are adapted to, or even require, these changes.

Changes in water level within and among years are often desireable.

Here are six general guidelines for creating your own water garden with respect for nature.

  1. Make it as big as possible.
  2. Provide a sloped edge to provide a wide shoreline.
  3. Plant only native species.
  4. Let the water levels change with the season.
  5. Never add fish.
  6. Never introudce non-native species.

The video explains some of the science behind these guidelines. Good luck with creating your own water garden!