Designing a water feature for your garden

Story and Photography by Karinluise Calasant

Gardens are places of beauty, delight and – most of all – relaxation. A great way to extend that enjoyment is to add a fountain or small pool. The sound of water encourages tranquility by masking outside noise. It imparts movement, sparkle, reflection, and charm. 

There is a vast array of water feature possibilities, ranging from tiny tabletop bubblers to impressive multi-tiered fountains and natural-looking waterfalls. In fact, there are so many ways of working with water that the problem isn’t finding a design that will work for you, but rather choosing the type you want! One can go formal or natural, traditional or modern; choose from open ponds or enclosed self-contained fountains. There is something to suit every situation – and budget! Remember, anything that holds water will have to contend with evaporation and should be monitored closely.  

Disappearing fountains, like this one, have a reservoir beneath a layer of stones that holds water and a recirculating pump. Maintenance is low, but the water level needs to be checked regularly.

The smallest yard or patio can be easily transformed into a tranquil oasis by adding a water feature. It will quickly become a favorite place to unwind and relax after a stressful day.  

For small, confined spaces, such as a patio, consider a wall spout to make the most of the space. Easy to install and self-contained, simply hang the unit on a wall (following manufacturer’s directions). There are many styles to suit every taste and budget. Most have built-in pumps that will need to be plugged into an outdoor, waterproof outlet. 

Your primary concern is that the design should be appropriate for the style of your home.

A tub garden offers delightful possibilities. These miniature aquatic gardens provide unique gardening experiences. First and foremost, they are mobile. You can put them in places you might not ordinarily consider, such as on a patio or porch – even a balcony, as long as the structure can support the weight. A tub garden can be completed in a single weekend. Almost anything that holds water can be used, so there’s an abundance of creative potential. You can even add fish, miniature water lilies, and aquatic plants. Water lilies require six to eight hours of sunlight each day, so site your container accordingly. Make sure that your vessel is at least 20 inches wide and about 20 inches high, which should hold approximately 25 gallons. Anything less and the water will heat up faster, making it unhealthy for fish, and plants will quickly become crowded. Also make sure the vessel will not leach any toxins into the water. For example, copper is toxic to fish and plants. 

As long as you have fish and frogs around, mosquitoes should not be a problem. However, for biological control, round BT “cakes” are available at most garden centers. These are not harmful to plants or fish and are used to kill mosquito larvae. Follow directions on the package.  

A waterspout or wall fountain is ideal for small spaces. Make sure the wall can support the weight of the unit.

If you have enough outdoor yard space, a freestanding fountain can add instant ambiance. The great thing about these fountain structures is that they are independent garden elements and don’t require a pond for a water source. Instead, they have a bottom bowl or reservoir that holds the water, and they are often fitted with a built-in pump. These fountains are available in many sizes, shapes – and prices. A little research can lead to finding one that is perfect for your yard – and budget.

There are even disappearing fountains that add the sound and movement of water without the need for a pond. These are sometimes called rock bubblers. These water features require minimal maintenance and tend to stay cleaner because there is no pool of water to catch debris; the water flows into a reservoir tank, which is situated belowground directly underneath the fountain. This tank contains the pump and is covered with a removable grate, which in turn, is disguised with a layer of small stones. A piece of flexible tubing connects the pump with the fountain piece.

Cordless solar fountains can be put anywhere as long as the solar panel receives enough sunlight. There’s a wide range of beautiful, high-quality designs from which to choose.  

It is important that your water feature complements your garden. Landscape designs are generally classified as either formal or natural. Sometimes they can be a blend of the two. Formal water features have a manmade look and conform to strict geometric shapes such as circles, squares, rectangles, or ovals.

Waterfalls are the ultimate – and the most challenging – water feature to design. They require a study of nature to be realistic, and need room for a stream or pool.

Informal water features take a cue from nature. There are no rigid, straight lines or formal plantings. They are usually accented by elements such as streams and waterfalls. Edgings are irregular and typically created with rocks and stones of varying sizes and shapes. Plantings go right to the edge – and in some cases, even into the water (using marginal aquatic plants) to “soften” the pool edgings. Informal pools look best in natural-looking yards. They don’t look “convincing” set in a meticulously groomed, formal landscape. 

Waterfalls add an extra dimension to a garden and these can be the most challenging to create realistically. Standing flat rocks on top of each other is the easiest way to build a waterfall. While this might “work” in a formal setting, you won’t find a naturally occurring waterfall made like that. In nature you find water falling over large, irregular stones scattered about in random fashion. Try to emulate nature the best you can. 

Pre-formed spillways are available that, once concealed with rocks and plants can look “natural” and eliminate much of the frustration of constructing a waterfall. Expanding waterfall sealant, a foam-type spray will direct the water’s path – helping eliminate leaks. Once fully dried, the excess foam can be cut away.

Remember to keep the height of the fall in scale with the surroundings. If your yard is relatively flat, then the waterfall height should be no more than 2-3 feet tall. The waterfall’s sound is created not only by height but movement. You can create just as much sound from a small, dynamic waterfall as you can from a higher one. The “secret” is in the amount of volume going over the spillway.

The stone you choose can make or break the look of your water garden. However, choosing the right type does not guarantee a beautiful outcome. That’s where creativity and inspiration from Mother Nature come in. It is vital to mimic natural characteristics. Use an assortment of boulders and stones. Over time, these will attract mosses and ferns – making them look like they have been there forever. Try to use rocks and stones native to your area. 

If you don’t have enough outdoor space, an inside tabletop fountain is an excellent way to both soothe and stimulate. The soft sound of trickling sound of water creates a calming atmosphere that relieves stress and anxiety. Increase the water’s flow to stimulate imagination and creativity. Tabletop fountains are ideal for chasing away winter blues. Add some plants and you have an instant retreat! Tabletop fountains recreate the feeling of being outdoors. They also act as natural humidifiers, adding welcome humidity to dry indoor air – especially during the long winter months. 

A tub garden can be completed in a weekend. All you need is a large container that can hold at least 25 gallons of water. Stay away from metal containers, such as copper, that leach chemicals that are deadly to aquatic plants and fish.

What type of water feature is right for you?
Your primary concern is that the design should be appropriate for the style of your home. Consider different types and designs of water features you’ve seen in nature, parks, and books that appeal to you and think of ways to incorporate them into your garden. 

Always use recirculating pumps for your water features. These pump the same water over and over through the fountain or waterfall rather than constantly consuming fresh water. The pumps are rated in “GPH” (gallons per hour). Most pumps will last an average of two to four years of constant running before requiring replacement. Routine cleaning is necessary to prevent clogging – especially if leaves and debris fall into the water. If you live where temperatures fall below freezing, the pump will need to be brought indoors during winter. Store it in a bucket of water to prevent the seals from drying out.

Just like any type of garden, a water garden requires routine maintenance. Aquatic plants need fertilizing and periodic division. Recirculating pumps require cleaning from time to time – especially if the water surface is covered in leaves and debris. Pumps do not last forever, so replacement costs need to be included in the budget. Pond fish need care, too. However, the enjoyment and tranquility these gardens provide more than offsets the upkeep involved.

Regardless of the type you choose, always check with your local zoning and planning authorities before beginning. Regulations may consider ponds beyond a certain depth a safety hazard, requiring a fence around it. Identify and mark all underground utilities before you do any digging. If you need an outdoor power source, always hire a licensed electrical contractor to install it. 

Safety is an important consideration with any water feature. Never leave children or pets unattended, even around shallow water.

Bring your yard from boring to breathtaking by creating a water feature!



Choosing the right fountain for you

Water sound – The larger the fountain the louder the noise. Do you want an exciting roar or soft, soothing babbling?

Space – How much space is available? A small yard can be easily overpowered by a large piece. Make sure the fountain is in scale with the surroundings.

Style – Complement your home and garden’s style – traditional, formal, modern, or simple?

Price – Fountain pieces can range from as low as $50 to grand designs that cost thousands.

Winter Care – Depending on where you live and what your fountain is made of, winter maintenance may be required. Concrete and cast stone must be completely dry if left outdoors during freezing temperatures. Apply a sealant to prevent moisture from getting into the surface and expanding and cracking it when the water freezes. Whenever possible, store the fountain indoors or cover it with weatherproof material. Drain the pump and, if possible, store it inside in a bucket of water to prevent shrinking seals that will damage it.

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