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Is a Water Feature Right for Your Garden? Here Are the Pros and Cons

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Is a Water Feature Right for Your Garden? Here Are the Pros and Cons

July 19, 2023

Enter a garden with a well done water feature and, instantly, a sense of wellbeing washes over you. It could be because of the soothing sound; the cooling, reflective qualities; or the sight of fish frolicking among aquatic plants. Whatever the reason, the presence of water in a garden creates a relaxing environment—which explains why so many people add a water feature to their wish list when designing or refreshing a garden.

However, like most things in this world, there are pros and cons to water features. Knowing what lies ahead—the good and bad—can help you decide. So, before you build or buy a water feature, let’s break down the basics so that you can make an educated choice on whether this watery element is the right addition to your garden.

N.B.: Featured photograph by Jackie McKeon, from Garden Visit: Classic English Garden Style at Hollister House in Connecticut.

Garden designer Todd Carr crafted this water bath for his home garden in Oak Hill, NY. Photograph by Todd Carr, courtesy of Hort and Pott, from Garden Visit: A Couple’s Lush and Romantic Sanctuary in the Catskills.
Above: Garden designer Todd Carr crafted this water bath for his home garden in Oak Hill, NY. Photograph by Todd Carr, courtesy of Hort and Pott, from Garden Visit: A Couple’s Lush and Romantic Sanctuary in the Catskills.

What are the different types of water features?

Many types of water features exist but here are some main ones to consider:

1. Bird baths.

2. Drilled rocks—made with materials such as slate, limestone, or sandstone—that have a hole on top through which water bubbles up.

3. Container ponds, often featuring barrels, metal containers, or large plastic vessels.

A galvanized steel stock tank becomes an above-ground pond in this Eugene, OR, garden. Photograph courtesy of Mosaic Gardens, from Rehab Diary: A Garden Makeover for a Ranch-Style House in Oregon.
Above: A galvanized steel stock tank becomes an above-ground pond in this Eugene, OR, garden. Photograph courtesy of Mosaic Gardens, from Rehab Diary: A Garden Makeover for a Ranch-Style House in Oregon.

4. Pondless types that usually incorporate a large vessel or a drilled rock. The water flows up through the container or rock and then trickles down through rocks then recirculates back up. This style is perfect for families with dogs and/or young children as there is no risk of drowning and there is no water for dogs to go renegade swimming in.

5. Rills, which are basically narrow and shallow canals that stream water in a straight line. This style is perfect for classic or contemporary gardens.

A rill garden on a vast property in Connecticut. Photograph by Jackie McKeon, from Garden Visit: Classic English Garden Style at Hollister House in Connecticut.
Above: A rill garden on a vast property in Connecticut. Photograph by Jackie McKeon, from Garden Visit: Classic English Garden Style at Hollister House in Connecticut.

6. Water blades, which are a modern feature where a blade allows a curtain of water to continuously flow over and into a small basin. You can either buy a pre-made one with a small blade already built in and has a basin, or you can custom build this style.

7. Wall fountains, a classic water feature for small patios that come in kits that are easy to install.

8. Streams/ponds, perfect for a woodland or Asian garden. Some gardens just have a pond, some a waterfall and a pond, and larger properties have a stream that flows into a pond.

What are the pros of water features?

A fountain purchased from Williams Sonoma completes this outdoor living room. Photograph by Jeffrey Brian, courtesy of Kate Anne Designs, from Steal This Look: A Luxe Outdoor Living Room in Glendale, CA.
Above: A fountain purchased from Williams Sonoma completes this outdoor living room. Photograph by Jeffrey Brian, courtesy of Kate Anne Designs, from Steal This Look: A Luxe Outdoor Living Room in Glendale, CA.
  • It can be one of a kind. You can totally think outside the box when it comes to water features and create a watery experience that suits your taste, style, and garden. You can hire a contractor or DIY a water feature that no one else has. The options for materials, size, and shape are endless. A quick Google search yields hours of inspiration.
  • It can be instant satisfaction when you buy a pre-made water feature that comes with a pump, filter, and a power cord.
  • It can be simple. I wanted an element of water in my garden but after knowing the cons of a larger, more complex feature, I settled on a simple bird bath. This serves two purposes: it helps my local feathered friends and adds a pleasant, subtle feel.
Above: A non-toxic pond dye was used to color this pond black in order to highlight the reflection of the tree and clouds. Photograph by Janet Mavec, from Garden Visit: Jewelry Designer Janet Mavec’s Bird Haven Farm in NJ.
  • It can add beauty. Well-designed water features are pleasant and engaging. People also tend to linger longer in gardens with water features.
  • It can be a soothing auditory experience.The sound of trickling or rushing water is relaxing; plus the white noise is especially helpful at drowning out freeway and other road noises.
  • It can provide a focal point. A sure way to add drama and lure the eye (and ears) is to add a water feature. Properly placed, a water feature can take center stage or complement a garden area. It can even make a garden look bigger by being “nature’s mirror.”
  • It can attract wildlife. Water naturally invites and supports all sorts of visitors, from tiny insects to bathing birds to visiting frogs and turtles.

What are the cons of water features?

A pair of trough fountains flank a walkway. Photograph by Art Gray, from Landscape Architect Visit: A Refined Family Garden with Flexible Play Zones in LA&#8\2\17;s Pacific Palisades.
Above: A pair of trough fountains flank a walkway. Photograph by Art Gray, from Landscape Architect Visit: A Refined Family Garden with Flexible Play Zones in LA’s Pacific Palisades.
  • It can attract wildlife. Some people might not enjoy an influx of wildlife. Also, stagnant water can attract mosquitos, so prepare to either add mosquito fish, a safe additive, or use a pump that circulates the water.
  • It may be too loud. Before buying a pre-made fountain, make sure to listen to the sound it creates. Sometimes, the streaming water may sound more like a leaky toilet. Or it may rush too loudly and disrupt casual conversations.
  • It can be costly. Water features can be pricey to buy or build, especially larger custom ones requiring excavation, plumbing, electrical, and pallets of rock material.
Above: A poured concrete trough fountain spills over into a recirculation grate hidden beneath a layer of pea gravel in landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck’s Austin, Texas, garden. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista.
  • It can be hard to maintain. The biggest drawback of a water feature is the upkeep, especially if it’s situated under messy trees, where leaves and petals and seeds can gunk up the water and clog the filter and pump. (Pro tip: Avoid building a water feature or placing a pre-made one under pines or oaks. Trust me on this one.) Your maintenance chores will include:
    • Regularly removing excess debris and dead leaves. Some water features need to be regularly drained, scrubbed to remove excess dirt and algae, and then refilled.
    • Monitoring water levels. Losing too much water to evaporation will stress out a pump—and replacing filters and burnt out pumps is expensive and a total pain.
    • Be on the lookout for leaks. Even concrete-based water features can spontaneously start leaking.
    • Care for the fish. If you add fish to your water feature, then care for them needs to be factored in.

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Frequently asked questions

What are water features?

Water features are decorative elements that incorporate water into a garden or outdoor space. They include fountains, ponds, waterfalls, and streams.

What are the benefits of having water features?

Having water features in your garden can create a soothing and relaxing atmosphere. They add visual interest, mask noise, attract birds and wildlife, and help to cool the air.

What are the different types of water features?

There are several types of water features to choose from. Some common ones include freestanding fountains, wall-mounted fountains, bubbling urns, pondless waterfalls, and koi ponds.

What are the pros of having water features?

Water features can enhance the aesthetic appeal of your garden, increase property value, provide a focal point, drown out unwanted noise, and create a habitat for aquatic plants and animals.

What are the cons of having water features?

Water features require maintenance, such as regular cleaning and balancing of chemicals, which can be time-consuming and costly. They may also attract mosquitoes and need to be properly winterized in colder climates.

How much do water features cost?

The cost of water features varies depending on the type, size, and complexity. Simple fountains can start from around $100, while larger installations like koi ponds can cost several thousand dollars.

Do water features require a lot of maintenance?

Yes, water features require regular maintenance to keep them clean and functioning properly. This includes removing debris, checking pump filters, treating water for algae, and cleaning the fountain surfaces.

Are water features suitable for small gardens?

Yes, water features come in various sizes and designs, making them suitable for small gardens as well. There are compact fountains, pondless waterfalls, and container water gardens that can fit into limited spaces.

Can water features be installed indoors?

Yes, water features can be installed indoors as well. Indoor fountains, wall-mounted waterfalls, and tabletop water features are popular choices for adding a touch of tranquility to interior spaces.

Are water features energy-efficient?

Water features that use recirculating pumps are generally energy-efficient. However, the electricity consumption may vary depending on the size and type of the water feature, so it's important to choose energy-efficient models.

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