The Water Garden


 Everyone is drawn to water; it is the magical element that connects all life. Casting back my memory to the days of my youth, during one of those seemingly endless summers, I can visualize me and my buddies on a pilgrimage to one of the local ponds. My kid days were pretty good ones, my parents were kind and patient; they didn’t lock me in closets or whoop me for being a boy and by nature a rascal. They allowed me to be a boy and that meant exploration. Many of those serene summer days were absorbed on the grass covered banks catching frogs or turtles, fishing, skipping stones or simply watching the clouds drift by in perfect blue skies.  If we tired of the pond, it was off to the local swimming pool to play water tag, or sharks and minnows and at once to be plagued and allured by the girls.

         Those days seemed to last for decades. Today, if I am not careful, they are gone in the blink of an eye. Water is still an important part of my life. We are fortunate to have a swimming pool and a water feature in our garden. And now, unlike in my kid days, after an adult day and all it entails, I find a hot shower to be one of the greatest luxuries we have in the civilized world. Water in the garden, with all of its quenching, cooling and cleansing properties can help us revive old memories while creating new ones.

          During my first meeting with clients I find they often have a pre-conceived idea of the “naturalistic” water feature as the default model. However, the possibilities for design are wide open.  Fountains,  reflecting pools, water walls, dry streams, swimming pools, and features with water moving from one level to another, are just a few of the design possibilities .  At first, it is the sound a feature makes that our client’s desire. Different types of features will create different types of sounds. When the sound of a fountain or water wall is trickling or softly surging it is calming and peaceful. When the sound of a cascading waterfall is rushing and splashing it is stimulating and dynamic. However, be careful of what you wish for, the sound of the cascading waterfall placed too close to outdoor and indoor living spaces can become noisy and tiring. Beyond the sound a feature creates, the shape of the feature should reinforce the experience of the garden and site. Informal pools will usually work best when they are far from the house. Curved lines will tend to make a small space feel smaller. A simple rectangle, circle or ellipse might help pull the viewer and the architecture of the home into the garden, particularly if it is on axis with an important view from within. Regardless of the shape or size all gardens can benefit from some form of water feature.  

           If you have a desire to have a naturalistic feature, with the cascading waterfall, then buyers beware. The term naturalistic can be misleading.  Although the appearance is unassuming it does not follow that they assume no maintenance. The informal feature can require the interest and skill of a hobbyist or professional to resolve some of the maintenance issues, particularly if you plan to keep fish. I believe this confusion exists with regard to the maintenance of informal planting design as well. A second point which is more subjective has to do with the designation “naturalistic.” Informal may be more appropriate. What is natural about a “naturalistic” water feature existing in the suburban yards they are typically installed in? This is not to say that they don’t have their place in the landscape, particularly if you have a wooded site where the context is more appropriate, or if your design calls for the creation of a wooded setting. But if they are placed by the deck, off the back of the house, with a handful of shrubs and perennials sprinkled like parsley and potatoes around a Thanksgiving turkey, I have to ask why.

       When day turns to night a different experience unfolds as the feature is lit from within or serves to reflect nearby artificial light. This nocturnal transformation brings a heightened quality not only to the water feature but to the garden. At its best it can transport you into the presence of a dream world that is soothing, calming and mesmerizing. During our summer gatherings, whether it is during the day or in the evening, we have found our guests usually settle in near one of our water features. It is a testament to the magnetic quality of water.

         One of the things I have learned over time is that water features look much larger on two dimensional landscape plans than they do when they are built, particularly with regard to swimming pools. Good designers develop an intuitive sensibility that guides them towards the proper scale and proportion for a water feature and the surrounding elements. For example: if you want a swimming pool, it will most likely be important to design a terrace that balances the size of the pool. The terrace should allow for lounges and possibly dining. The space may need to allow for overflow from the proposed or existing dining and entertaining areas. How the space is organized and how it relates to the site is more important than how many square feet you have. A space that is laid out by a talented designer with a good design process will be more functional and appealing than a similar space that has  more square feet of space, but simply fails to work for the intended uses as a result of unsatisfactory design work. Harmonizing the water feature and other elements, with local codes, setbacks, and restrictions requires a balanced design that sympathetically addresses the issues. When the time comes to build be prudent and select a good builder, as water is very unforgiving and mistakes can be costly and thoroughly frustrating to correct.