Which Garden Water Feature Should You Choose?
Water is such a special element in gardens that can be used to evoke senses of calm, cool or excitement. It can drown out traffic noise in busy areas, provide a lifeline for wildlife and act as a focal point. Loved by kids, adults, pets, bees, butterflies, frogs, newts and birds- the only decision is how best to use it in your garden. Read on to find out more.
1. Formal Ponds
Formal Ponds have geometric shapes including square, circular, rectangular and hexagonal. They are often used as strong, main features in a garden design. They can be used to balance taller surrounding structures such as trees and hedges. Formal ponds can also provide a calm break from areas of colourful planting.
You don't need to have a country estate to use one: they can be scaled to most garden sizes with some considered design. In contemporary gardens, small formal ponds are often incorporated into or around patios.
Similarly, formal ponds can be designed to suit a range of garden styles, depending on the use of edging materials, sculpture and planting. The clean lines of formal ponds mean that they need to be constructed precisely, usually by an experienced landscaper.
In nature, rills are narrow and shallow channels formed when light streams of water erode the soil. Early Persian gardens used a grid of four rills emanating from a central fountain or pool, where each rill represented a river of milk, honey, water or wine. Similar representations of paradise or the Garden of Eden were used in India, including at the Taj Mahal.
Rills are very useful water features to use in contemporary gardens where there is insufficient space for a larger pond or where the routing of the rill helps guide the eye along an intended pathway. They can also make interesting boundaries to areas of hard landscaping or planting. Most importantly, they are great for chilling drinks!
3. Curvy Ponds
A more unusual, but absolutely delightful pond design is to use repeated curves. David Wheeler and Simon Dorrell have created one of my all-time favourite water features in their Herefordshire garden. Amidst a series of more traditionally-styled garden rooms is this thoroughly-modern long pond. Set in an orchard to reflect the apple trees, the contemporary style is enhanced by a simple sea of blue Iris sibirica in late Spring. Perfectly done.
4. Water Walls
Garden water walls pump water through a wide and narrow opening to create the effect of water falling in a continuous sheet. The wall of water is usually set off by a backdrop that compliments other elements of the garden and serves to disguise the water pipework. The backdrop can be made of stone (or stone cladding) cut in rough, traditional textures or smooth, modern textures. Other options include polished concrete or copper.
Stainless steel versions made popular by garden makeover programmes several years ago are now widely available, many as "plug and play" self-contained units. Ultra-shiny stainless steel can look out of place in many gardens and many contemporary designers are opting for the rusty colour of Corten steel instead. This suits modern city gardens as well as more rustic country areas and it's antimicrobial properties make the wall easier to keep clean.
In the example shown here, perspex is used cleverly to create a sense of enclosure without disrupting the view. The real genius, however, is in the rainwater harvesting bowl built-in to the supporting pergola.
5. Stepping Stones
There's something about stepping stones over water that bring out the inner child in us. With a dash of adventure and a slice of drama they make a very inviting route across water. A clever design technique is to use oversized stepping stones in a small, formal pool in small town gardens. It's an ideal way to save space by combining water and a walkway. See our blog "12 Small Garden Design Ideas to Take From Chelsea 2018" for more on this technique.
Stepping stones need to be sturdy and cemented onto a platform within the water, so they need strong foundations. You will also need to figure out the optimal spacing between stones for a safe and comfortable journey. We think that stepping stones are definitely worth the effort though, adding a touch of class to a modern garden design.
Ancient civilisations such as the Romans, Egyptians and Persians pioneered harnessing the power of water to create jets in the air. As well as being decorative, they were important for drinking, bathing and irrigation. In the 18th Century, large country houses across Europe created very tall or elaborate fountains as symbols of their power and wealth- many of these still delight visitors today. All that is needed to create a fountain is a pump, together with a nozzle that determines the shape and height of the water spray.
Simple water fountains can be added to even small ponds if there is sufficient water reservoir and space to hide the pump. Many inexpensive, "plug and play" versions are available and suitable for DIY installation. Larger or more ornate displays do have complex engineering requirements though and so do consult a specialist for these. Even the tiniest balcony or courtyard can have a small bubble fountain from a stone, pot or anything your imagination conjures up. You will be surprised how quickly the birds come to love you for it.
Originally mimicking water falling over a series of rocks in nature, cascades have been used to decorate gardens for centuries. They provide a good way of amplifying the sound of water in a garden where desired and so can be useful in town gardens.
Water cascades can be large and elaborate (think the Trevi Fountain in Rome). They are also surprisingly useful in small courtyard gardens where they can act as an intriguing and welcoming focal point. This is the case especially in cities where the urban heat effect can make tiny gardens feel stifling and a cooling water feature very suitable. Just be careful not to add too may other features to the garden though, keep it simple so that the water cascade is the centre of attention.
Another natural water feature that can be incorporated into your garden is a small stream. To look natural, these are best incorporated into a larger area of vegetation so that there is no sudden start and end in a small space. In that scenario, a more formal rectangular rill may be a better option. Streams look good in japanese-style gardens, through rock gardens and in country gardens.
We love the highly-detailed stream that garden designer, Arne Maynard has incorporated into his own garden at Allt-y-bela in Wales. Cut into the bottom of a terraced, grassy bank and retained with a rustic wall of local stone, the stream meanders seamlessly with the lawn terrace contours. The deep and generous curves are a bold move and the reflection of the ochre building in the water in late evening is pure genius. Maynard has complimented the structure with stream beds planted to look as if nature had set them there. We think that if Louis XIV were alive today, this is the type of water feature he would commission at Versailles to show off his famous penchant for harnessing nature! With more modesty, Arne Maynard keeps it to himself or to the lucky B&B guests who can enjoy the garden at their leisure.
9. Tiny Pools
Even the tiniest of water areas in your garden can make a major impact without breaking the bank. The small, shallow pool shown here provides a textural contrast to the stone patio. The rounded pebble lining would be lovely for a foot massage on a hot day and gives a spa-like calm to the space. Birds and insects will have an accessible place to drink and bathe (best in a cat-free garden). With a deep enough reservoir underneath, a small pool could even irrigate a living wall full of your favourite plants where growing space is limited.
More natural-shaped tiny ponds can be made from preformed fibreglass-reinforced plastic or polyethylene liners. These often already have ledges for wildlife to access and escape, You can also have a couple of areas of different depth so that you can grow a pot or two of different aquatic plants. Marginal plants prefer shallower water whereas miniature water lilies need their roots stems submerged in a deeper area. My smallest preformed pond was less than 0.9 x 0.6m and was home to both frogs and newts for years with only a cheap, basic pump to filter and aerate the water. You can always start with one of these if you are nervous about shelling out for something bigger or young kids falling into a bigger/deeper pond.
10. Hot Tubs
Soaking in water is a simple pleasure embraced by the Scandinavians and Japanese that is becoming more popular elsewhere. While originally used for relaxation, having a hot tub in your garden can also create a new social space that family and friends can enjoy. For a more spa-like feel and a less conspicuous addition to a natural-style garden choose a wooden tub. Families might find an acrylic shell with some jet functions more fun, but try to choose an exterior finish that fits well with the style of your garden. Tubs needed for hydrotherapy can have many jet configurations depending on individual needs.
Hot tubs usually need to be installed by a qualified plumber to connect the water supply, pump and filtration unit. Several units will also need a dedicated, waterproof electricity supply. All hot tubs will need to be installed on a solid, level base. They can be very heavy items and have particular access requirements so you might need a survey of your garden before purchase to avoid disasters. Like many other garden water features, don't underestimate the maintenance requirements for a hot tub- do your research before you splash out (!).
11. Reflecting Pools
When water reflects scenes from above a whole new perspective on a garden is created. Since this changes with the time of day and through the seasons, the moving picture can be a mesmerising addition to a garden. Larger formal ponds can be used to capture reflections, but equally so can smaller water bowls and raised ponds. Clear reflections require still water and so a sheltered spot is the best place to capture them. They also emerge most clearly in opaque rather than transparent water and a designers trick is to add black food dye to enhance the reflected picture.
Garden designers and architects have long considered the best reflected views when deciding where to situate a reflecting pool- from the Taj Mahal to English Landscape gardens of the 18th Century. At home, have a look around your space and decide what might be best to reflect and also what time of day you would prefer to see it. Your house may be attractive in the evening light, it might be a tree in summer, autumn or winter or it may be a border of grasses with ornamental seedheads. We love reflecting pools as a fairly simple way to add something really special to your outside space. Go on, give one a try!
12. Raised Ponds
Raised garden ponds are ideal when the much of the garden is flat and the change in height will add interest. They make ideal stand-alone focal points. Raised ponds work well as part of a collection of planted raised beds. This arrangement works particularly well in a kitchen garden, where the pond can be used for some top-up irrigation. Central "dipping ponds" were popular in Victorian walled kitchen gardens for the gardeners to fill their watering cans. Like many things in garden design, the concept can easily be scaled down for smaller modern gardens.
Raised ponds need to have robust construction to withstand the pressure of the water. They can be made of brick, block, concrete or wooden sleepers and lined to hold the water. Block ponds can be rendered for a smooth modern look or clad in a variety of stone, tile or wood finishes.
Usually the top of raised ponds has coping stones to protect the underlying structure from rain damage. Coping stones are also an important design feature and their shape and material should be in-keeping with other elements in the garden. Smooth, sawn stone can work in both modern town and country gardens, whereas polished concrete would look good in a city space. Your local stone merchant will easily be able to advise. For us, the best reason to have a raised pond in a smaller garden is that it doubles up as a lovely place to sit and enjoy the water. Add some cushions to the coping when you have friends round and get the party started.
13. Lily Ponds
Any fan of Claude Monet will know how much he revered the lily pond in his garden at Giverny. Water lilies evoke a sense of the exotic in gardens and transport you instantly to an Asiatic paradise. Botanically known as Nymphaea, most of the water lilies grown in gardens are from the Southern hemisphere. They became popular in Western gardens when they captured the imagination of Victorian travellers. This started a fashion of devoting garden ponds to displaying water lily collections that is still in vogue today.
Lily ponds don't like to be disturbed by moving water, so no fountains, or windy sites (and ideally no fish). The plants need to be submerged to 1-2 feet depth depending on type and so do your research before you build your pond. If in doubt about what you might want to grow, make the pond deep as you can always place the aquatic pots on some bricks or another platform to raise them up. Deeper ponds are more labour-intensive and costly to build though, so be careful to balance considerations (covered more in "What Exactly is Garden Design"). You don't need a large pond to grow a single lily or a miniature variety. We think every garden should have one!
14. Fish and Koi Ponds
Fish can do a lot to spice up garden ponds by adding movement, life and colour. Common small fish such as goldfish, golden orfe and shubunkins are fun to feed and can survive in icy cold winters so long as the pond is deep enough to remain unfrozen under the ice. It is best to consult your local aquatic centre since the dimensions of the pond you need will depend on the type and number of fish you plan to have. Don't choose types that breed rapidly to avoid overcrowding.
Koi carp are highly-prized but require specialist knowledge and pond design for them to survive. Koi can be trained to eat out of your hand and can live up to 40 years. Each Koi needs 1000 litres of deep pond water that is extensively filtered (mechanically and biologically) to keep the water clean. Water lilies are not suitable in Koi ponds. Apart from being rapidly devoured by the fish, the rotting leaves disrupt the water balance. If you would like to have some marginal plants in a Koi pond, barrier off a shallower shelved area.
15. Large Country Ponds
In the UK the number of natural ponds in the landscape has decreased dramatically. These are usually found as depressions in low-lying land and can either fill due to periods of heavy rain or due to a high water table. Most of the ponds we see in the countryside were actually man-made. They were dug to collect water for livestock, to farm fish or ducks, to excavate clay or minerals or to store water as part of a drainage system. Wildlife ponds can be very small so long as the water is clean and a varied habitat is provided. However, larger ponds make substantial contributions to wildlife diversity in rural areas and are a welcome design feature in country gardens. They are useful in providing a transition between the garden and countryside.
You will probably need a digger to excavate a large pond and to consider what to do with the spoil. Even in areas of high clay, it is advisable these days to use a pond liner so that tree roots and animals don't cause leaks. Clay-lined ponds can become cloudy with bottom-dwelling fish. You will need a land drain under the liner to stop it from distorting when the underlying soil floods after heavy rain. Planting around large country ponds can be as important as within them so do spend time thinking about that too.
16. Natural Swimming Pools
One of the most wonderful ways to experience water in your garden is to swim in it. Natural swimming pools provide the perfect balance between human fun and wildlife heaven. The swimming area is deeper and is not planted, whilst the water is kept clean by biological filtration. Around 50% of the total pool area is planted to remove the water nutrients that would otherwise cause algal growth. Water particles are filtered out through a large area of shingle at the base and recirculated back into the pond.
As the pools warm up they retain the heat and so don't need to be covered. They are expensive to install but are absolutely one of the most special ways to enjoy time in your garden for much of the year. It was a late September day that I swam in Sarah Murch's incredible pool at Ellicar Gardens in North Nottinghamshire (shown in the image) and the water was warm and silky.