Water is life and occupies a central place in the garden. This can be in the form of human made lakes, ponds, streams, fountains, or just a simple basin. There is something reflective, tranquil, and calming about the presence of water. Whether that be the sound of a gentle trickle, the gush of a waterfall, or the mirror like surface that drums in radiating circles when the rain falls upon it.

In this essay we will start with a walkabout to look at water features far away from here. Then, we will come home to San Francisco, and observe water features close by. We will then discuss their basic construction, maintenance, and care over time. We will end with the ecological benefits of well cared for water elements in the garden, and a discussion of their viability in light of severe drought and high maintenance requirements.

Chinese gardens are big on ponds. The people don’t mind the green algal water so much, and they enjoy the cultivation of koi type goldfish, water plants like lotuses, and the incidental visitors like frogs and tadpoles. Oftentimes, water plants are grown in pots in a fenced off area, especially when they are young. Otherwise, the fish would nibble them all to death before they were established. Plus the pot helps hold the roots together and hence settle down. Its helpful in a pond to have an over flow drain in case of heavy downpours, so that the water does not end up flooding the walkways and buildings nearby. Aside from lotuses, papyrus are also a good water plant, having neat structural form, and not minding its roots standing in the water. A canal of water running through a garden is a remnant and reminder of old time farming irrigation and implements like water wheels and crops like rice paddies. Additionally, the water raises the humidity and allows for the growing of plants that like that sort of ambiance – of being next to a creek. Plants like columbines, horsetails, sedges, dogwoods, and so on.

Southern Spain has old time water features like moorish fountains that are scattered throughout the Andalucian towns. They give you a nice respite from the heat and connect you up with the Sierran snow melt flows. Oftentimes the water is hard, cause its been running past the limestone and picked up all that cal, calcium. Where the water originates for distribution to town dwellers it is the nacimiento, the birth place so to speak. From there it is parceled out to the local farmers with gates and channels by folks who work as an aguador, like a water keeper. There is a lot of old fashioned marble type fountains too in the classical style here and there. More so in the public places and fancier tourist plazas.

Down in the south, in New Orleans, water is all over the place. It back and forth through town and on the outskirts too, where the swamp cypress trees meet up with snapping turtle and the alligators in the bayou. At the botanical garden there was a symmetrical pond, with plants labelled, in the formal European design. And across from the beignets and coffee restaurant was a water trough for horses.

Back home in California, the state is branched by numerous rivers going mostly east to west. They have names like American, Russian, Eel, Mad, Merced, Tuolumne, Pit, Feather, and Yuba. It is imperative that you, as a designer, visit the a sandy bank along the river on a hot summer day and take a plunge into a deep pool lined by granite. Then you bake a little while on the willow and alder banks. This will provide you with an appreciation for water and light, and inspire you as you create water features of your own. This here is a glimpse of the Cosumnes.

Here at the Civic Center in San Francisco, the design of the plaza has changed over time. Over the past 100 years, it has gone from a formal, monarchal, decadence to something strictly utilitarian and minimal in flowery touches. It once had water features, there are none today. Check out the epic round fountains and the long reflecting pool that once ran down the middle. In the latest rendering by landscape architects there is a water feature again. Not sure about how the use of others’ photos is these days, but this set is all from google images. So thank you to google and the photographers.

Heading into Golden Gate Park. A fun spot to go to is Stow Lake which is about in the middle of the park. There, you can rent pedal boats and cruise around. The water is recirculated via large pumps in pump house shacks. It goes up to the top, then down the water fall with gravity. Over the years, people have released numerous fish into the lake. Plus there is the constant feeding of geese, ducks, coots and copious guano. This is why the lake is green with algae, from all the wealth of nutrients. This is why this is not a lake for swimming in. Once in a while when heavy rains overflow the banks, you can catch large eels and catfish that wash out on the road.

Inside the botanical garden, almost every individual geographical garden has some kind of water feature in it. Sometimes it is just the suggestion of water – like a dry stream bed of roundish pebbles and sinuous lines in the Australia and the California gardens. There are two fountains made of granite, concrete and tile, with pumps. These are at the center by the big meadow, and at the library courtyard entry garden). In other cases, theres a series of natural ponds – a system of well thought out, expertly crafted, no pump necessary, interconnected features that lead from one to the next. The connecting pipes are made of terra cotta about six inches in diameter. In temperate Asia, the head waters are at the Annelli Pond, then water travels to the dwarf conifer pond, descending to the bamboo pond, past the big dawn redwoods, then to the previously carnivorous plant pond, and finally under the redwood bridge and ending at the California native garden pond.

These wonderful ponds are constructed in the old time manner, which is lined with either concrete or with bentonite clay about six plus inches thick. They will silt up over time, and require a gardener to hand dredge a few tons of mud and vegetation a year. The clay bottom seals itself for the most part, and are only problematic at the edge where coyote and raccoon dig for crawfish, causing small leaks. Hydraulic cement to the rescue! Again, an attentive gardener is the only remedy. Nowadays many water features are lined at the bottom with EPDM rubber that comes in a large roll. The sides of the rubber pond liner are then held down with rocks. Just make sure you don’t go digging or poking around the bottom of such a pond because you will puncture the membrane and have to drain the whole thing to find the hole and fix it.

If aquatic weeds are weeded, open pockets are maintained, and chemical pesticides are not used, then fish, dragon flies, and damsel flies will also thrive. There is a local frog called the red legged frog which used to live in the garden, laying its eggs at the edge of the ponds. Have not seen it in a whiles… Plus, birds love the water. Or more specifically, some birds love to hunt in the water. Healthy water will bring all sorts of fun critters to your garden, and make life a little bit more spicy and flavorful. It really is worth it. The wee bit overgrown pond at the John Muir nature trail is here, followed by an old view of the carnivorous plant pond many years back when the gardener performed periodic actions mimicking periodic floods.

The water feature does not have to be a big deal. It can be a basin that is cleaned out every few days and refilled with fresh water. It can serve as a vase for flowers or a bird bath. The important thing is that it does not become stagnant and start to breed mosquitoes or disease. This sort of water in a pot design used to be relatively common and in vogue. At the local nurseries there used to be a water plants section with taro, cannas, and water lilies. And folks would have mosquito fish or small feeder goldfish in these basins. Nowadays its all about vertical gardens instead. Who knows if and when the simple water features will make a come back?

A fountain is a really easy thing to make. Basically there is a small pump at the bottom of a reservoir that sucks water in, then pushes it up a pipe. The water trickles and drops back down to the reservoir on some kind of ledge or side or lip. Thats it! You do need a GFCI outdoor outlet to plug in the pump, and a pump that is capable of pushing oh so much water up a steep gradient at a measured rate. A few problems can and often do occur. One is that bits of fallen debris and gunk clog the pump. No pump, no fountain. So make sure in your design you can access and clean out the entire contraption. Or find or invent a tool that is capable of doing so. Filter elements help but they too can become clogged. A small amount of chemical like chlorine can also deter the growth of algae. As can a design where the water is minimally exposed to the light and spores. That is to say, if the reservoir is underground in the dark, then less stuff will be able to grow in the water. Pay attention to the fountains out in front of the shopping centers and you will understand this preventive design technique. There are also UV lights which the water swirls around as it is pumped and filtered. The ultraviolet light kills algal spores and keeps the water clear like in a high mountain trout stream. Then theres the skimmers. And gravel hosting beneficial bacteria. And charcoal media, and so on until you are fully immersed in aquarium culture.

Aquatic plants are of fantastic variety. Some can be entirely submerged all the time, while others like their feet wet only part time. A handful of the plants that ‘take over’ for us are duckweed, parrot weed, willows Salix lasiolepis, cat tails, and tule. Water primrose can be a fast grower too. These have to be cut back time to time in order for the pond to be balanced and harmonious. That is when you don a pair of chest high waders and jump right in. The water weeds are great compost.

If you start to look for water features they are still around, just not as much as in the days past.


They do take work to maintain, and yes we are still in a drought. Nevertheless, in the western parts of town especially, evaporation is minimal and the water is just going around and around. It may cost you a little money in electricity and a bit of time in keeping it clean; that’s not too bad for the ambiance it creates. The water really is soothing in the garden, and takes the mind to a place that is not busy and stressful. You turn into a lizard on a sun lit slab of volcanic rock, time is flowing like water down to the sea, and the swirling gurgling liquid bellows bubbles and dream.

Assignment: design a water feature and draw it on two or three pages. Plan view, elevation, and or perspective. You might want to experiment with different materials and have water slush and fall over them at different rates; and fall into reservoirs of varying depths and textures. You are observing the pattern of falling water, its clingyness, and the sounds it makes. Good luck!