When a couple purchased their Baltimore home, the three-acre property came with a whimsical water feature in the form of a sculpture. Inspired by the classic musical “Singin’ in the Rain,” the custom-designed brass figure of a dancing man, umbrella raised against the rain, captivated the homeowners. During a landscape redesign by Chapel Valley Landscape Company, the feature was moved from a pond on the property to a more visible spot by the house. Chapel Valley designed a stone pool for it with an electric pump beneath it that pushes water up through the sculpture to the umbrella, where it showers back down. The water circulates hourly and the pool refills automatically when evaporation lowers its level.
Not all water features are as unique as this one, but gone are the days when a swimming pool was the only way to integrate water into a landscape. Possibilities range from traditional fountains to gurgling brooks that span whole backyards. “They’re fun to design because each one is unique,” says Chapel Valley designer Lucas Castor.
SMALL SCALE Clients working with Surrounds Inc., enhanced their Clifton, Virginia, garden with a simple water feature: three ceramic planters fitted with a pump that gently forces water up, creating a pretty tableau and an appealing sound. “These are the most cost-effective features,” says Surrounds landscape architect Howard Cohen, adding that almost any container will work that allows water to spill over. “We’ve used basalt columns, granite blocks, even boulders with holes drilled through them. You can add lighting and the birds love them.”
To create this ceramic-planter feature, Cohen and his team dug a hole for a submersible pump and an underground basin designed to support up to 2,000 pounds. They covered the basin with a porous surface and placed the planters on top. The water drips back down into the basin through a layer of gravel.
The owners maintain the fountain in summer with pool chemicals to keep the water clear and shut it down in winter so the equipment doesn’t freeze. But a heater with a thermostat could be added to keep the system running year-round.
LIVING LARGE At the other end of the spectrum, an elaborate project designed by Ryan Davis of McHale Landscape Design created an Asian-style Zen garden in Darnestown, Maryland, with a pagoda and a koi pond. Punctuated by waterfalls, a meandering stream flows down to the pond.
This design required a more complicated system. “When you get into large-scale water features with fish, filtration is key because you have to keep the water healthy,” Davis says. Pool skimmers hidden in the rocks pre-filter the water and a bead filter breaks down algae and other gunk, converting it into healthy bacteria. The filter should turn over all the water in the pond every hour, and the whole body of water should be back-flushed weekly.
According to Davis, the right size filter is imperative—too small and it won’t do its job; too large and it will move the water too fast to be effective. The volume of water, elevation of the land, length of pipe and power of the pump are all factors to be considered during the planning stage. Partial shade also helps keep the water healthy; lily pads are a better bet than shade trees, which drop leaves that will need to be removed.
A rubber liner is typical for the pond bottom, but, “Liners can be tricky to install,” says Cohen. “Water wants to get out, and one mistake can result in a leak.” He prefers gunite, which is commonly used for pool surfaces and costs more. To winterize a fish pond, he suggests covering it with a reusable net. Leave the water where it is and when it drops to a certain temperature, the fish will go into hibernation until spring.
Whatever water feature you choose, keep in mind that water itself is a powerful element that can have adverse effects on your materials and design. A stone water feature requires a dense material like granite that will withstand the slow erosion that water causes. “Consider how everything reacts to water,” suggests Castor. “Remember, water is always going to win.”
When it comes to water features, anything is possible. “Find something you connect with from a creative standpoint,” he advises. “There’s really no limit to what you can do.”