Water Features in the Home Garden (Part 1 of 2) 

The soothing murmur of gently flowing water adds a layer of harmony to any garden and creates a lulling softness of being one with nature. Water begs us to engage with it--even the youngest children enjoy wading and finger-dipping. In the muggy heat of summer, the sound of moving water cools a garden. It offers about the same relief as a 5-degree drop in air temperature. Add a little breeze from nature or an outdoor fan and--even on the worst August day--a garden may be pleasant and comfortable by evening.

Finding the Perfect Summer Garden Seat

Most people think that a single patio or deck will be their outdoor gathering space. Any active gardener will tell you otherwise. Each garden has many dimensions, many special spots to relax, and many places where a bench or hammock or rocker would be appreciated and enjoyed. Often, in a small garden, this may be a natural nook or shaded spot just large enough for one or two people to linger. For larger gardens, more planning is involved to arrange living spaces for a family or gathering of friends.

The first element necessary for any successful summer garden is shade. From broad-canopied trees to arbors, gazebos or pergolas, shade may come from an umbrella, sun-sail or high wall. Our new Chinese-influenced courtyard garden--now called our summer living room--gets shade from tall, overhanging oaks and hickories to the east and the two upper stories of the house on the west. It was just a lucky observation made several years ago, while taking a break from weeding the rock garden, that I rested in that folding lawn chair in the shadow of the house. It was on a small, flat graveled space filling the crease between the house and the up-sloping rocky hill. I quickly discovered that this topography sets up a wind funnel between land and wall. So, on those sultry summer days with little breeze, what tiny movement is there is magnified greatly by the contour of this little valley, making it cooler and more pleasant than a spot 50 feet away.

The summer garden that began as a combination of shade and breeze only needed moving water to complete it. Defined by the narrow space, this is a linear garden with larger nodes at the front entry and the far south end. At the north entry, to greet arriving visitors, we placed a basalt column fountain, patterned after the one in the English Woodland Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden. A dry stream flows from our bubbling boulder along the base of the steep rock garden. At the far end, we flattened out enough room by adding a retaining wall and pierced parapet for a bluestone terrace cloistered enough for two, but large enough to seat a dozen folks. I draped the refreshing waterfall along the rocky side, seeping and spilling down stacked boulders of native holey lime, and built a narrow wading pool with a long, wide rim to catch and recirculate the water flow. The pool edge and parapet are just the right height for sitting on--perfect for catching the slight summer breeze or dangling fingertips into the water.

Add Moving Water to Your Garden

• Start small. Begin with a straightforward self-contained tabletop fountain kit or a small wall unit. These kits are simple for beginners as they are easy to install, clean and maintain.

• Graduate to a larger floor or wall unit after you have learned the basics and feel comfortable about maintenance.

• Creating an in-ground pond or pool with a rigid liner is an easy next step.

• Building a waterfall, stream and pool in a garden is a major undertaking. Manageable on a small scale by handy homeowners, larger installations requiring electrical additions and poured concrete are best left to the professional pond designers.

A Simple Start for a Fabulous Fountain

Some of my best memories from visiting grandma’s house were the lazy summer days spent playing with tadpoles and feeding the fish in her garden pond. It was an in-ground, concrete basin about 6 feet across with a small classical boy statue as the font. I am sure it was a strong influence on my career path as it was here that I learned about life cycles, water plants and dragonflies. Children are drawn to the mysteries and magic of water in the garden and I wanted to recreate that experience for our grandson.

The kids just bought a new house, and since we are downsizing, we have 'stuff' to share. One of our pass-alongs is a garden treasure, a fountain head made of a rough, vertical limestone slab with carvings of green bamboo and tranquility characters, and a copper drip basin mounted through a hole in the top. Building a new base and pool for it was a great summer afternoon project for the kids and me. Starting out with this stone made this easy as it set the scale and style of the design. Later, if they enjoy this small fountain, we have a larger, in-ground liner for a goldfish pool, and will create a free-form dripper/font from soft copper tubing and driftwood.

For this easy installation, the shopping actually took as long to complete as the construction did. The project list included:

• tools needed: a long, level shovel; hose-washer; marking flags; work gloves

• a small (24”x 42”) rigid black plastic basin (wide at both ends, slimmer in the middle)

• a pump with lift for three feet and suitable for a 3/8” copper supply line (130 GPH, variable speed, submersible)

• extra tubing to connect the pump to the fountain stone

• a box-style float valve for water autofill

• about 40 broken-face, tapered concrete wall blocks

• about 40 pie-shaped cap blocks

• caulking gun and tubes of landscape block adhesive

• a 50-pound bag of sand

• a 50-pound bag of Mexican beach pebbles

• a moisture-safe outdoor extension cord coupling box

• potted plants

• natural rocks gleaned from the garden

Back at home, we tested out several locations. Is it visible from the patio? Close to a grounded outdoor electrical outlet? Reachable by a long-term garden hose for autofill? We selected a nook in an existing stone wall, with the corner placement creating a greater sense of connectivity to the mature garden. The spot was almost level, so little digging was involved. We just scraped the high side down an inch, and added the spoil to the low side. Using the sand as the final leveler, and marking flags to show the outline, we set the wall blocks around the footprint of the rim. We dry-laid all of the materials first to assure fit and level before gluing them together with the landscape adhesive (see photo).

After laying all of the wall blocks, we test-filled the basin with water to force it to settle between the walls, with the rim sitting flush with the top stone. It was only three rows of blocks for the height of this pond liner, but if yours doesn’t fit exactly, dig deeper into the soil under the liner only, or go up one row higher and backfill with builder’s sand. The exposed black edge of the pool is simple and plain, and may be covered with thin cap blocks. These must be secured firmly with adhesive if small children will be climbing on them.

When we were satisfied with our level pool, we pumped the water out and began the installation of the font stone and plumbing. Simple and straight-forward, we used leftover wall blocks covered with a top layer of natural stones to hold the larger slab upright, leaving cavities for both the pump and the float valve. Just attach the pump port to the supply line, adding a hose clamp, if needed, and use the suction cups on the pump to hold it against the basin wall. Attach the garden hose to the float valve and clamp it to the pool edge at the desired height. Turn on the water, and allow the pool to fill before testing the pump. The auto shut-off of the filler valve may need to be adjusted up or down to give the exact water level desired. Plug in the pump, and use the speed dial to create the best flow rate for your spitter or font.

Try not to have water splashing out of the basin as this can lead to algae or moss build-up and exaggerate water loss. We finished off by adding rinsed Mexican beach pebbles to the bottom to add texture and a more natural look. Drop a few baskets of ferns behind to cover the mechanics and a colorful potted annual on the front edge, and step back to admire. For us, the whole assembly took about two hours. Add more time if extensive leveling is needed, less if the fountain is going on a flat deck or patio.

We chose a time to work when others were away from the house. No distractions for us and a great surprise for them on returning home. Our grandson, now 4 years old, reacted immediately with glee and had his hands in the water in seconds. His mom, weary from running errands, pulled up a chair to sit next to the soothing water. We will now have to have the f-i-s-h conversation quietly on the side as this pool could easily support a pair of goldfish for the summer, but not the winter. They would have to move inside or build the larger, deeper, winter-safe pool soon. What lovely decisions to be made!

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