Style at Home: LN Gardening

The terraced, cascading fountains of Villa d’Este in Italy.

There’s no disputing that fountains in the landscape create a peaceful ambience, ever providing the soothing trickle of water as a backdrop. But perhaps less recognized is the cooling effect that running water has, making even our St. Louis summers more bearable.

    The most original water gardens are to be found at the Villa d’Este, Renaissance gardens built beginning in 1550 A.D. by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este. I’d seen pictures of these fabulous fountains for decades and drooled in anticipation of seeing them in person. Then luck put me in Rome, and the Pontifical Academy staff arranged for Peter and I to spend a day at Hadrian’s estate, Villa Adriana, and the glorious hillside Villa d’Este.

    Hadrian began building his estate in 213 A.D., and eventually governed the Empire from his cool hilltop at Tivoli. Although water was of fundamental importance to both monuments initially, Villa Adriana today is a dry, excavated ruin, while Villa d’Este is an exuberant living treasure. The contrast between the two estates, as they are now, could hardly be greater. More than 1,300 years separates their periods of active construction, but both were attempts to create a pleasant atmosphere in the summer-dry Mediterranean climate of central Italy. Extreme luxury is evident in each estate, with lavish stone statues, sculpted and inlaid columns, arcades, pavilions and corridors paved with multicolored marbles, granites and other decorative stones.

    The Villa Adriana is an excavated ruin, dry and dusty, with only one pool filled with water and fish. The magnificent tile baths are in varying states of decay, with the best of the remaining sculptures in a protected gallery. The columns festooned with acanthus leaves and balustrades of floral bouquets are all that remain of the once-lush gardens of Emperor Hadrian. It set the stage for us to appreciate, truly, the effect of water on the human perception of comfort, its absence seemed to magnify the heat.

    Where Villa Adriana is mostly flat, Villa d’Este is practically vertical. The palace is perched high on the hill with the gardens spilling down in terrace after terrace. Hundreds of elegant fountains generate streams of flowing water that fall like liquid sunlight spilling on rocks and pools below. The water cascades many times between the top of the hill and the bottom. Some of the water jets are more than 50 feet high! All of the waterways flow from above and require no power to run them.

    On the plaza below, the biggest fountains empty into several large reflecting pools (similar to those in front of the Climatron®), where people gather to enjoy the cooling breezes created as air blows across the curtains of water. Called hydrocooling, this method is still used today in dry Western states as air conditioning, and in production greenhouses like those at the Garden, to create a cool, moist environment.

    In St. Louis, one may appreciate the style and inspiration in the Italianate great-great-grandchildren of these beautiful estates. The wonderful Milles fountain, ‘Meeting of the Waters,’ across from Union Station, is reminiscent of the Villa d’Este. The Italian style of Hadrian’s Villa can be enjoyed by visiting the Basilica on Lindell. The magnificent and skillful artistry of marble inlay can be seen here, in exquisite detail and is as fine as the best of Rome.

    To see the most impressive Italianate water gardens in America, you’d have to visit Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Penn. The DuPont family gardens include both formal fountains and natural-looking waters. The ‘Eye of Water’ is the upwelling font for the grand cascade through the rock garden. Other water features focus on pools with simple reflections of the plantscape around them. The fish are always waiting eagerly to be fed in the lake at the foot of the hill. In the summer, there are night performances of the Dancing Fountains with music and a light show.

    Always refreshing, water in the landscape gives the perception of temperature several degrees cooler, even when it is only a small trickle! On sweltering St. Louis summer nights, a bubbling stream can make a stagnant evening outside delightful. For your home garden, start small with a tabletop fountain or wall-mounted unit. Many inexpensive countertop fountains are available in local shops, but you can also select the pump, basin and stones separately to assemble a personalized unit. Daughter Alice once harvested beach pebbles from the shore in front of a holiday cottage and made the fountain we now have in our kitchen. It bubbles happily below pictures of the view where the stones came from and is a constant reminder of a wonderful vacation.

    For the more adventurous, digging your own small pond or goldfish pool is a grand weekend project. Rubber sheeting or preformed plastic basins ensure a waterproof lining. Once I used an antique ‘Rebecca’ fountain in a show garden. After the event was over, I reused her as the centerpiece in my own garden. I assembled a patio pool in an hour using a single rectangular plastic masonry tub from the hardware store, with a simple pump and tube water feature feeding the statue.

    Reflecting pools with still waters can mirror sculptures or plant forms effectively. Larger pools and waterfalls may be incorporated with swimming areas and hot tubs. In our own garden, we added a long, flowing stream when we dredged and recontoured the fish pond. This project was a major undertaking and required professional assistance. At the edge of the stream, I carved out a space underneath a spreading black gum for a patio area with swing. Just a step or two above the pond, we enjoy the evening hours watching for egrets and feeding the fish. The inviting stream, perfect for wading, and the broad canopy of Nyssa overhead, create a magically cool, restful spot that is refreshing even on the hottest of St. Louis nights. Like the ancient Romans, we beat the heat with water.  

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