A Garden in Umbria

Design - Water and the natural garden - February

Winter. February is the most melancholy month. How is your garden at the moment? Sad and dreary? And your swimming pool? I imagine that it will be looking rather dismal, perhaps empty with an ugly cover. However that is not how it is at my place.

The pool in winter

And a few days ago, after the snow, it was anything but ugly. And the birds found sanctuary here during the bad weather, as did those animals who were not hibernating.

Pool in the snow

This is a ‘swimming pond’ or natural pool. It is a pool without chemicals where the water is kept clean thanks to the action of oxygenating plants. Here one can swim in pure water like in the good old days.

I can’t wait for spring to arrive. In May the water lilies open their lovely pink flowers, a sure sign that the water is warm enough for swimming.

Water lilies at dawn

The water is very soft, entirely natural and without chlorine. When I swim I am not alone: frogs and newts accompany me. Occasionally I meet a swimming snake, but it is only a harmless grass snake.


Where do these animals come from? I don’t know, but immediately after the pond was filled they appeared, without an invitation but welcome just the same. In midsummer I like to take an aperitif beside the pond and listen to the frogs calling to one another, sometimes so loudly as to be almost deafening.

The question everyone asks is: “With all this water don’t you get a lot of mosquitoes?”. My reply is always: during the first days following the construction of the pond there certainly were mosquitoes, but soon after arrived the animals and insects that like to eat them and they had a feast. So there is not a mosquito problem whilst the great dragonflies that zoom around above the water surface are constantly gobbling them up.

Damsel fly

The second question is always: “Are there fish in the pond?”. Sadly no: fish pollute the water.

And lastly: “But without chemicals how come the water is not full of algae?” I have to admit that to create a pond that is entirely natural does require quite some effort, especially in summer when the air temperature is 40 degrees and the water surface can reach 30 degrees.

The secret is the oxygen generated by the underwater plants, but more besides.

The shape of the pond is irregular: the water where one swims is very deep, 2.5 metres, whilst the water where the plants grow varies from 2 metres down to zero in order to create environments suited to different types of plants and animals.

Cross-section of the pond

The oxygenating plants, such as one would find in any large natural lake, for example Lake Trasimeno, grow in the deep water. On the surface of the leaves form bubbles of oxygen.

Water lilies grow in the medium depths and their leaves create shade which keeps the water temperature beneath them a little lower.

At the water’s edge grow reeds and other moisture-loving plants such as Botomus umbellatus, Iris sibirica, Mentha aquatica, Pontedera cordata, which filter the water through their roots.  

Marginal plants and reeds

The pond construction project was a major undertaking: the water surface area is around 200 square metres in an irregular shape, of which two thirds is dedicated to plants and the rest for swimming.

The pond is located behind the house on the edge of woodland in a secluded spot where there had previously been a hen house. Here is a photo gallery showing the construction process.

Pond in summer

The water is in constant movement thanks to a low-power circulation system, but is required only during the hottest months. In summer the water evaporates at a terrific rate due to the large surface area and must be topped up continuously. A deep well feeds a large storage tank to maintain the water supply.

Once established, the pond needs little maintenance. In spring the reeds are trimmed and the circulation system has to be cleaned. In autumn the leaves that fall in the pond must be gathered up. In winter there is no need to drain the water or to cover the pond.

The surrounding garden is designed to take advantage from the water surface and the reflections of the colours of the flowers and leaves. In early spring there is the reflection of white cherry blossom followed in May by the rambler ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’, an explosion of pale pink flowers. In autumn the leaves of the adjacent woodland trees turn to gold and the pond become a pool of bronze.

Autumn colour

The plants selected for the garden are typical of the countryside in this region and add to the natural feel of the pond.

In conclusion, to whoever is thinking of building a swimming pool I would strongly recommend a ‘swimming pond’ because it will give pleasure in every season and will avoid the environmental pollution that goes with chemicals of water treatment. Also the animals, domestic or wild, migratory or stay at home, the insects, birds and reptiles, will all say: Thank You!

Italian newt (Lissotriton italicus) many of whom live in the pond (Wikipedia)

Technical design of the pond and supply of aquatic plants: GrünKultur Luther, Merano (BZ) 
Structural design and project management: Studio Tecnico Romizi, Tavernelle (PG)

The photo at the top of the page shows the pond blooming in May, with waterlilies,
Centranthus ruber
in the foreground and Euphorbia characias subsp.
reflected in the water

Many of these articles first appeared in the Castiglione del Lago monthly newsletter “Qua e là” edited by Priscilla Worsley

All text and photographs © Yvonne Barton unless stated otherwise

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