Water Garden Refuge

By Susan Newman

It's hard to be uptight when you're listening to the trickle and gurgle of a waterfall, or dipping your toes in a tranquil pond. Water sounds connect us to nature in an immediate way, lowering the decibels of everyday life to a dull roar.

"People want to create an oasis at home, and water features are central to most landscape designs," says Bob Franey, president and founder of Total Landscape Inc. "Higher-end landscape installations almost always have water features as a design element."

Indeed, a recent survey by the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) shows that landscape installation and construction accounts for $11.2 billion of all home improvement spending. And because landscaping and water gardening have developed from an afterthought to the main event, full-service landscape services are doing more business than ever with homebuilders.

A very small, self-contained pond can be installed over a period of several days, for about $3,000. According to Franey--who has completed projects ranging from $7,000 to $40,000--the median price is between $15,000 and $20,000. That includes a typical waterfall, plantings and the pond's installation. More elaborate projects might include installing large boulder outcroppings, or reconstructing the natural topography of the property.

While nobody's saying you can't design and install your own water features (there are literally hundreds of Web sites and countless books on the subject), it can pay big dividends to hire a design and build firm. Hiring professionals, such as landscape architects, helps homeowners save money by avoiding costly mistakes.

"Designing and installing a water garden properly is not only skill-based, it's an art form," says Tom Dunn, president of Dunn Lawn & Land. "And if homeowners are at all wary about the process, a professional for the job is the way to go."

Again, the ALCA cites a study of home sales in Greenville, S.C., suggesting not only that well-landscaped homes sell better, but also that homes with sub-par landscaping in neighborhoods with good landscaping sell for up to 10 percent less.

To reduce cost and complications, homeowners should work with Mother Nature as much as possible. "Water features need to look like they belong within the existing landscape," Dunn says. "Large creeks and ponds are dramatic and beautiful, but may not belong on a property."

Once you're ready to pick a contractor (or roll up your sleeves), there are innumerable options to choose from. You might go with cascading water, which ripples peacefully from higher to lower elevations. Or you might prefer the fountain effect of bubbling water.

"Water can be designed to sheet off a central weir, or roll down a hillside at a slow trickle," Dunn says. "Different degrees of velocity of water create different sounds and overall looks."

And though background, or "white" noise, can be relaxing, homeowners don't need to go overboard. Jason Burney, president of Ecological Design Solutions, says even an old whiskey barrel filled with water lilies can bring a sense of tranquility and peace. "Water is such a dynamic element," he says. "Even in small, compact urban spaces like Lafayette Square, reflections of light bouncing off water can awaken our senses like nothing else."

If you're planning on stocking your pond with fish, it should be at least two feet deep. This will allow the fish to survive Missouri winters, where the freeze line averages between 12 and 18 inches. Japanese Koi can survive even the harshest winters by hibernating at the bottom of a pond.

Plantings can also add a richer dimension to water features, but require hands-on attention from homeowners. Experts recommend a mix of four types of plants for a self-sustaining system: deep water plants; bog or marginal plants; submerged plants; and floating plants.

But when all is said and done, the key to any successful water project is imagination and planning. "From these general ideas, there are lots of ways to customize a water project," Dunn says.

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN PLANNING A WATER PROJECT

  • Give scale, existing topography and the placement of the water garden special consideration. When planned correctly, the outside view becomes an extension of the living area inside the home. Vantage points to think about include the dining room or master bedroom area.
  • Try to avoid building at the bottom of a hill, which encourages ground water runoff and chlorination--not an optimum environment for healthy fish and plants.
  • Try to build your pond in the sun, which offers better options for plant material.
  • Take advantage of the industry's latest low-maintenance offerings. Ecosystems are evolving into self-contained user-friendly packages, such as skimmers buried along pond edges. The latest biological filters make it easier to create beautiful waterfalls and keep the ecosystem in pristine condition.
  • Remember that waterfalls and limestone don't mix. The lime will leech into the water, elevating the acid level and stimulating algae growth. While simulated rock-like materials are available, weathered fieldstone or sandstone are better choices.

Susan Newman is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.