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Outdoor Living: Cool Oasis

Fountains and other water features add splash to a garden. Whether you want a pond with frogs or a container of water lilies, here are expert tips.

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There are many theories about why water in a garden is so pleasing. They range from the deeply philosophical (our first home—in the womb—is watery) to the not so deep (it’s pretty). Water also reflects light in dreamy ways, and it feels good when you dip your hand in it on a hot summer day.

The greatest appeal of water may be the sound it makes when it moves. Rain, waterfalls, flowing rivers, the ocean—they all make sounds so appealing that there are apps available should you want to fall asleep to the sound of water from your iPhone.

Landscape designer Jane MacLeish has managed to provide a public service with the pond she installed in her front garden in DC’s Cleveland Park neighborhood. It’s round, rimmed with stone, and fitted with a simple but robust bubbler.

Says MacLeish: “Delivery men come to the door telling me how great it is to hear that water from the street.”

She can hear it from inside the house. MacLeish’s grandchildren love to watch the fish, and they drop in pebbles—a strong but beautiful grate just above the water’s surface keeps the kids from falling in.

Water Concert

Moving water attracts birds and other wildlife, just as it attracts people. If you don’t mind spending the money, you can have a landscape designer fix you up with, say, water walls that slide down hand-cut granite into quiet rectangular pools.

But smaller gardens with smaller budgets don’t have to go without. In even the tiniest of gardens or balconies, there’s enough room for a little water.

A pretty, glazed vessel—maybe 18 inches high—can be easily fitted with a simple bubbling fountain. The bubbler can be a bit higher than water level for a quiet gurgle or elevated for a robust splash. Arrange it so the water flows gently over the rim of the pot, and you’ve got a waterfall, too.

Right off the bat we should say: Don’t worry about mosquitoes. Their larvae don’t like moving water. If you add a few fish to your vessel, you may be producing a net loss to the mosquito population.

One of the most beautiful fountains I’ve encountered was an elegantly shaped, darkly glazed, wide-mouthed vessel about waist high. Water bubbled up from the center, then spilled over slowly and evenly, making the sides glisten. Everything about the arrangement was calming and elegant, from the pot made by Lunaform, a company in Maine, to the professional construction.

But a person who can saw PVC pipe and dig holes can probably do it herself. The basic materials include a waterproof basin that will be under the vessel and whose rim will be at ground level, a grate and screen for the top of the basin on which the vessel will sit, a pump, and some piping. Diagrams and instructions abound on the Internet; a good video from Fine Gardening magazine can be found at Click on “videos” and then “how to build a pot fountain.”

If you use a clay pot for the vessel, keep in mind that it will have to be waterproofed with sealer; otherwise, you’ll lose water to leakage through the sides.

For more ideas, go to, click on “garden collection,” and be prepared to swoon over the possibilities.

If you’re planning to bring water into your garden, remember this word: level. Whether you’re having professionals install an elaborate water feature or you’re filling a pot from a hose, the vessel that holds the water should be level. If it isn’t, water will overflow on one side where you don’t want it to and reveal the insides of the vessel on the other.

The Lure of Lilies

A water garden with plants in it is even simpler. Exotic plants such as elephant ears and some cannas like to be grown with their pots submerged in water.

All you need is a large watertight basin. Some people use whiskey barrels with waterproof liners, but I think the lightweight, synthetic planters sold at garden centers look better. They hold water, and you can get them with no drainage hole in the bottom, which is the way you want it.

Arrange plants within a basin by resting them on upside-down clay pots, bricks, or cement blocks. To mask this engineering, dye the water a mysterious black with non-poisonous dye sold at garden centers.

Surround your water garden with plants such as fragrant datura or broad-leaved banana, and you have your own tropical paradise.

It’s possible to grow a single, small water lily in a container the size of a half wine barrel. The problem with water lilies is that one leads to the desire for a dozen, and one—a small one at that—is all that will fit in a freestanding container. When picking out a water lily, you’ll have multiple choices. Some have mottled leaves, some bloom at night, some are fragrant. Not to mention all the colors. Non-hardy ones tend to be more fragrant, but they don’t live through the winter.

Unlike fish, plants prefer quiet water but will tolerate movement. Add to or replace non-moving water frequently, or you’ll attract mosquitoes. You can also use mosquito dunks, discs containing Bacillus thuringiensis, a natural substance that kills larvae.

Most water plants need to be in full sun to be at their most lush, but a few, such as big-leaved alocasias and colocasias, prefer part sun or even shade.

Most garden centers carry a variety of water plants including lilies, but ground zero for all water plants, equipment, and fish is Lilypons Water Gardens in Adamstown, Maryland. The place is wonderful to visit, but it also has a comprehensive Web site,, that takes orders.

Fish and Frogs

If what you really want is a large pond with fish and frogs and lilies, you can have that, too.

It’s hard to get a big pond to look as if it belongs in a back yard unless it’s professionally installed, but it can be done. Here are a few things to remember: If you want fish, dig the pond three feet deep. Fish can live through the winter if they’re not frozen, and there will be unfrozen water at the bottom of a three-foot pond. Fish also need aeration, which you can get with any bubbler or fountain.

Plants such as water lilies and lotuses take up more surface area than you think they will, and as heavenly as they are, they don’t look good bunched up.

Ideally, you’ll have a filtering system to keep the water clean, though a pond with the right mix of fish and plants doesn’t always need filtration.

One reason to install your pond so the water surface is level is so that the pond liner—black PVC—doesn’t show. And think about how you want to embellish the edges, again to hide the liner.

No matter the nature of your water feature, try to put it where you’ll hear and see it most often. If the sound is what you crave, position it by a bedroom window.

Apps for iPhon
es are fine, but real water is better.

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