Ask a handful of homeowners to describe the landscape of their dreams and chances are you’ll find some type of water feature near the top of their wish lists. Whether it’s a simple half-barrel with a recirculating pump or a complex system that mimics a natural waterfall, these landscaping additions lend a relaxing ambience to any yard. Of course, that calming atmosphere comes at a price: Water features require knowledge and imagination to design and plenty of work to build and maintain.
As with any home improvement endeavor, the key to moving the project from your wish list to your yard lies mostly in your willingness to do some hard work and pony up a little cash. Or you can pony up a lot of cash and hire someone else to do the work. Either way, you’ll need to start by doing your own digging — for information, that is. Careful research will help to ensure that the finished project fits your budget (short- and long-term), your landscape and your tastes and interests. To get your feet wet, here are some basic considerations for you to reflect upon.
The nature of water
When creating an outdoor water feature, you have four basic options: ponds, streams, falls and fountains. Some elaborate landscapes incorporate combinations of all of these; simpler designs consist of just one element, such as a waterfall or a fountain surrounded by rocks, plants and sculptures. You can create a variation on almost any scale, from a miniature container fountain on a patio to a large stream that meanders through an entire backyard, flowing in and out of one or more ponds. Variations, blended with other elements in your yard, provide endless possibilities.
A simple water feature, such as a stand-alone fountain or a pondless waterfall, does not incorporate fish or plants to create a self-sustaining ecosystem, so this type requires a bit of cleaning and maintenance. Conversely, a pond ecosystem maintains its own healthy balance when it includes all seven essential elements: fish, plants, rocks, bacteria, a biological filter, a mechanical filter and circulation.
Casual style or formality
What’s your style? Do you like the natural look of a tropical or woodland setting, or do you prefer manmade materials found in a formal garden? Whether you live in the city, a suburb or a rural setting, you can express your style in the design of a water garden and its accessories.
To help narrow all of the options and create a workable plan, begin by determining the general style — formal or informal — that best suits your existing landscape, home and personal taste.
A formal style can be modern or classic and typically includes manmade materials, geometric shapes and straight lines in a symmetric layout. It may incorporate abstract art forms or figures of exotic birds such as peacocks as accessories. Plants are usually sculpted and are placed to echo the symmetry of the garden or pond.
An informal design mimics nature with organic shapes, naturalistic plants and random placement of its elements. Sculptures of woodland creatures such as ducks, squirrels and turtles may be scattered throughout.
Keep these principles in mind when incorporating structures into your design and when selecting patio or lawn furniture and light fixtures. Seize the opportunity to make a statement and express your personality, but make sure the design complements your home’s architecture and the overall landscape.
Looking beneath the surface
Water features fit into one of these four types (or any combination of them). Though designs are limitless, the basic components and construction are fairly straightforward.
• Ponds are the quintessential focal point of a landscape, often viewed as the container that supports and frames water lilies. On a small scale, a half-barrel — either sunken into the ground or set on top of the lawn, deck or patio — can serve as a pond. Large-scale ponds may be big enough
to swim in — and to house many mature koi and goldfish. Depending on its makeup, size and function, a pond typically requires mechanical filtration and aeration to sustain a healthy balance.
• Fountains, when combined with ponds, may be counted as a source of aeration. When used alone (tabletop models or bubblers), they are primarily decorative, providing visual interest and a soothing sound.
• Streams usually function to connect ponds to each other or to a waterfall. But they’re not purely utilitarian: They enhance design, provide sound and movement and offer spaces for marginal plants to thrive. A stream can start and end without a waterfall or pond as long as there is a reservoir
of water within its system . Whether you design a stream for level ground or build it on a slope, you’ll need to include a pump and tubing to direct water back to its origin.
• Waterfalls can be a straight drop from a high plane or a series of smaller cascades over a number of elevation changes. They provide sound, aeration and interesting scenery. Some ponds are designed with a filtration/circulation system that incorporates a mechanical waterfall component. Aquascape Designs offers one called a MicroFalls for its DIY pond system, and Beckett Corp. includes a waterfall weir in a kit that can be incorporated into a pond. Alternatively, you can build a waterfall to operate without the open water of a pond.
A firm foundation
Besides enhancing the aesthetic appeal of a water feature, rocks provide habitat for fish, frogs and beneficial microorganisms, add support and structure and protect the pond liner from UV rays. When selecting rock, choose a single type that is found naturally in our region — it will likely be less expensive and look more authentic.
Incorporate a variety of sizes to add visual interest and achieve a natural look. To make sure the rock you choose is suitable, tell the supplier that you’re building a water feature. Some materials, such as limestone, may create alkaline conditions in the water.
Structures, sculptures and seating
Structures are important additions to any water-garden landscape. Destination sites (gazebos, fire rings, benches, decks and patios) provide a place to pause and enjoy the sounds and scenery. To enhance the view, incorporate art sculptures or figures of animals. Walkways, gates, fences and bridges offer accessibility and encourage travel throughout the garden area.
If you’re adding a water feature to existing structures, design it to mesh with them in a functional and attractive manner. Use landscape materials that complement the landscape style. For example, build a walkway for a formal garden with manufactured, uniform-shape stone or fine gravel. Conversely, use flagstone or woodchips to make a gently curving path to a woodland-style pond.
Pets and plants
People are not the only visitors drawn to water. Whether or not your water feature includes fish, it will attract frogs, birds, butterflies and other forms of wildlife to your yard.
Water gardening also presents an opportunity to expand your horticultural repertoire to include water-loving plants that may not otherwise thrive in your landscape. Just as there are annuals and perennials for traditional gardens, there are tropical and hardy plants for water gardening. Of course, these vary depending on your region.
Other categories of water-garden plants describe their functions and placement. Floating plants can travel on the pond’s surface, their roots dangling in the water. Submerged plants (usually called oxygenators because they supply oxygen to the water) are rooted in the floor of a pond in a deeper area. They help to keep the water clear and provide spawning sites and shelter for fish. Marginal plants grow in the shallow edges of a pond or stream, or they can grow in shallow fountain containers. Lilies grow in deep areas and fare best in still water. Combinations of all four types of plants help to support a pond’s biological balance as well as enhance its aesthetic appeal.
As with any home improvement project, the cost of adding a water feature depends on how much of the construction you do yourself as well as its degree of complexity. And just like owning pets or creating a family, it’s not a one-time expense.
For most types of water features, you’ll need rocks, liner and underlayment, a pump and waterlines, plants, fish, landscaping materials, structures and lighting fixtures (underwater and landscape). Labor costs may include excavation for large-scale projects and an electrician to upgrade the electrical supply. In addition, you’ll incur ongoing expenses such as higher water and electric bills (for operating the pump and lighting), supplements (such as beneficial bacteria) to maintain pond health, fish and fish food and any accessories you decide to add to enhance the setting.
Sites and sizes
When it comes to the placement and scale of a water feature, this list of factors may help you to narrow — or broaden — your horizons.
• Always check with local building officials about setbacks and safety requirements before you begin designing.
• For maximum enjoyment, choose a site that is within sight (and earshot) of outdoor- as well as indoor-living areas — one that’s not far from the house, deck or patio and that is easily accessible.
• Contrary to popular misconception, a shady yard does not preclude adding a water feature. The amount of sunlight will influence which plants you choose and how much they will grow, but it’s not a deal-breaker.
• For convenience, it’s best to locate a water feature near water and power sources.
No matter what your space availability, budget, climate, design tastes or lifestyle might be, you can create a water feature that meets your needs — whether it’s a tabletop fountain on your patio or a landscaped ecosystem that covers the entire yard.
To avoid creating a water fiasco, you’ll need to ensure that your project’s overall appearance, cost and upkeep requirements are compatible with your lifestyle. Before you dive into designing, thoroughly explore the world of water features: Search the Internet, read books, contact local water gardening associations and visit garden centers. If possible, tour a “parade of ponds” event in your area to see examples of various water features and to meet pond owners.
Water-garden enthusiasts love to share their knowledge and experience. Many Club members are pond people, and you can join in their discussions on the bulletin boards here at www.GardeningClub.com.