Water is always a powerful element in a garden, but you don’t need a rushing cascade to capture the magic. It only takes a splash. You can have water in your garden and conserve resources, too.
Garden designers rely on water features of all kinds to complement their plantings and give gardens dimensions — sound and light and movement — that plants alone cannot provide. Water features can transform the feel of an entire garden. A reflecting surface of water — even something as simple as a birdbath — scatters light among the flowers. But water is one of the most fundamental resources, and conserving it while taking advantage of its soothing, cooling effect can require a little planning.
To make the most of water in the garden without wasting a drop, cut back on the spray. Just as oscillating or whirlybird sprinklers use more water than drip irrigation, a fountain that shoots up in the air consumes more water than a bubbling fountain. Splashing fountains lose a lot of water to evaporation, which means they will need to be replenished more frequently than a basin with a bubbler or a fountain that relies on a trickle of water to soften city noises and make a corner of your backyard feel like a world all its own.
The placement of a water feature also has an effect on the amount of water it needs to function. In bright sun or in windy exposures, you’ll lose more water to evaporation than in a protected spot. The best place for a fountain or water feature is where you can see it, of course, and that spot just might ideally be in the shade on a patio instead of out in the middle of a sunny lawn, where a specimen plant or a piece of garden art could as appropriately be a focal point.
Water-wise water fountains or ponds also should have a minimum of exposed surface. In a pond, pads of water lilies on the surface of the water limit evaporation and help moderate fluctuations in the water temperature. Bubbling fountains, set in a basin covered with a heavy wire screen hidden by a layer of stones, also lose less water to evaporation because the surface of the water is not exposed to sun or wind. The screen and rocks also limit the amount of garden debris that falls into the basin, helping keep the recirculating pump from getting clogged up.
Gardeners in western states are perhaps the experts in low-water-use water features. In California, master gardeners offer courses and tips on making the most of water features so that there’s no need to give them up. Deeper is better, says Rachel Oppendahl, a master gardener in Sonora, California, in the hot, dry foothills of the Sierras. Shallow water heats up and evaporates quickly, she says. Moving water also evaporates faster than still water. If you’re really trying to conserve and want the lowest-maintenance water feature of all, choose a birdbath and let the birds provide the occasional sparkle and splash.
Waterfalls are among the most popular features among gardeners with ponds, says Aquascape, the Chicago-area pond specialist company, but you don’t really need a pond to have a waterfall. The company designed a pondless waterfall to capture the effect. They’re great in small gardens and low-maintenance gardens, or in gardens where a pond might be a hazard for young children. Since the surface area is limited, evaporation is not a significant problem.
Recirculating fountains require electricity; unless you are prepared to run a dedicated line, pick a spot fairly close to an outdoor outlet. Unlike trees and shrubs, a fountain will never outgrow its space, so you can place it right by a porch or patio or along the front walk, where it will be a very welcoming sight. They’re natural focal points, but are effective tucked into a corner, too. Water features of all kinds also add dramatic impact just inside a garden gate.
Keep the plantings around a water feature simple. Ornamental grasses seem to complement water, catching the shimmering light from a surface of still water or sparkling in a bubbling fountain. Small shrubs, such as boxwood or spirea, frame a water feature nicely, and long-blooming perennial flowers bring the garden to the water’s edge. Low ground covers are another natural choice. On a patio, plants in pots will give you a lot of flexibility around a fountain: Try ferns or hostas in pots in a shady spot, or a cheerful pot full of zinnias in the sun.
Small, water-wise water features have the additional advantage that you don’t have to be an engineer to install them. They conserve your own energy, too, so you have just a little more time and inclination to enjoy the pleasant sight and sound of water in your own backyard.
By Marty Ross