Beyond Bird Baths: Water Features for Small City Gardens

July 01, 2014

Footed Urn Fountain

Footed Urn Fountain (Picasa, Restoration Hardware)

Water views are a prime real estate asset, but for those whose home doesn’t front an ocean or lake, there are ponds.

The romance of garden ponds conjures images of breathtaking water lilies, the most celebrated, of course, in a series of paintings by impressionist Claude Monet, whose garden northwest of Paris in Giverny still is a top tourist destination.

Along with fire pits, water features have been among the most sought-after elements in outdoor home design in recent years. But not everyone has the space or budget for lush mega-ponds with multiple falls, boulders, koi and masterpiece-worthy water lilies.

So the concept has been downsized, with several options for introducing water elements, including falls so small they’ve spilled into a new category: Pondless.

Brian Helfrich, construction manager at Aquascape Designs, which has built thousands of ponds in the last 20 years or so, thinks it was inevitable, especially in urban areas.

“Urban sprawl space is limited,” Helfrich says. “Not everyone has an acre, a half acre or even a quarter of an acre. But with a footprint of less than 5-by-5 feet, you can still create quite an impact.”

What has evolved is something beyond bird baths (although even those have been tricked up with bubblers that make them less static and add a delightful aural aspect). Most of the innovations have to do with technology that allows water to recirculate and create a constant flow, much like the devices that generate pond waterfalls.

Aquascape creates corners with trickling water, shallow bowls cut into retaining walls spouting tiny streams and long tables with a hollowed-out center that allows water to pool over the side, like a trough sink. When Helfrich designed it, he envisioned the concept of tossing in some ice cubes to chill beverages.

The simplest way to import a water feature into a garden is with a free-standing piece, which means you get a two-fer, because most are designed to double as sculpture. They vary in height and are crafted out of a variety of materials, including wood lookalikes like bamboo and real or synthetic stone. At Restoration Hardware, there are classic birdbath styles with bubblers, as well as streamlined plinths with water jets rising from the flat-topped centers and tall fountains with spigots on the vertical planes, all crafted from steel hot-dipped in zinc.

Most garden centers sell water features along with statuary, even big-box stores such as Home Depot, where some are available for under $50 (a three-tier cascaded resin corner fall with LED lights to illuminate it up at night retails for $185). Plus, they’re available online through Aquascape (aquascapedesigns.com) and Amazon (amazon.com).

Why is water so appealing?

“Seventy per cent of our planet is covered by water,” Helfrich says. “Our body makeup is mostly water. We vacation by water and enjoy boating, swimming, hiking up a creek. It’s elemental. We’re drawn to it.”

Plus, the sound of water is calming. “It’s relaxing. People need that more than ever.”

In addition, Helfrich says, water features can serve as an educational tool. “It’s awesome, something to pull kids out of the house to learn about the environment in the backyard, as the water draws birds, butterflies, hummingbirds and dragonflies. You learn about sustainability and changes through the seasons. Many keep their falls running in the winter, as the ice formations really are beautiful.”

Whatever water feature you choose, Helfrich recommends making sure it will be visible from inside your house.

“That way you can enjoy it from (the window by) your kitchen table or sunroom.”

Even a small artistic focal point of water, Helfrich says, can do wonders.

“It’s all about trying to create your own oasis.”

Water feature DIY

For a rooftop garden or city deck, a small bowl can do the trick. If you prefer more one-of-a-kind pieces, like the fabulous antique iron pot you scored at the flea market, some high-end garden centers will drill out and plumb them for you, provided that the material is sturdy. Fees vary; some flat, others by the hour. Pumps and tubing also are available online, and there are plenty of DIY YouTube instructions that cover everything from small waterfall features to building ponds.

If you want to add aquatic plants, Aquascape sells more than 100 different varieties. Other online sources like pondmegastore.com also sell goldfish and koi.

This post originally appeared on ChicagoTribune.com on June 30, 2014.

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