Lessons from English Gardens for Americans #7: Using Water Successfully

The seventh in a continuing series of design articles…

waterWalk into any box store or garden center these days, and you’ll find an entire section devoted to water gardening. Tubs, pumps, basins galore; fish, tubing, filters and more — water gardening is now a multi-billion dollar industry. And with good reason: there is nothing more delightful than the sound and play of water in the landscape. But for all the money spent, the results are often quite dismal, and the average gardener can find their work and effort quickly disappear down the drain.

Ba boom! (I couldn’t resist)

But seriously, it’s true. If you look at most homeowner installations (and, sadly, many designed by “professionals”) what you see are rather odd-looking constructs that attempt to mimic nature: a little “spring” bubbling up near the driveway and spilling down past the grill to end at a rock-lined basin next to the deck. It’s highly contrived, and it looks it.

But there’s a better way, and the key to success is to keep in mind two important concepts. The first is to resolve not to try to out nature Mother nature. Water features look best when they relate to the architectural style of the house and garden, and embrace the artificiality of the construct. Translated from design-speak, that means that unless you live in the High Sierras, trying to mimic a free-flowing brook is probably not the best idea. What makes the wonderful reflecting basin in the picture above so successful is that it’s directly linked through materials and design to the columned loggia at the far end. You sense immediately and innately that water, sky, and garden have come together in a harmonious whole. Below, a Victorian fountain serves as the centerpiece of a formal landscape. It’s a very different feel, but again it works as the rigid geometry of the basin and vertical thrust of the fountain reflect the strict lines of the towering topiaried yews. (I’ll add as an aside that now you can see why most yew varieties aren’t proper plants for the foundation: this is the size they really want to be!)water3

water2Keep in mind too that these features don’t have to be grand to be successful. Here’s another example of a charming little wall fountain at the base of the stair, just 3′ across. Now granted, the stone is marvelously detailed, but what makes this work isn’t so much the materials, but the way the half-shell back echoes the round basin: convex, concave and back again. The water feature also perfectly corresponds to the feel of the wall and terrace, and in fact, that of the entire garden it’s located in. And that’s the second point: the style of the water feature must match that of the landscape. If you have a formal, geometrically styled garden, then the water feature should have a formal, geometric feel. Conversely, if you have a relaxed country garden, or whimsical town garden, the style of the water feature should mimic that. The possibilities for water are almost endless: from a simple wall fountain, to well-head and stream; to a rustic trough, or a grand rill and reflecting pond. Just remember these two rules for using water in the landscape, and you’ll be on your way to creating a wonderful new feature for your landscape.

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