At the Root

Nothing makes a bigger splash in the garden than a water feature, but it doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive to be a sensual oasis

Story Felder Rushing

Water is essential in the garden. It reflects the sky, attracts thirsty birds and honey bees, and, if there is a shallow area with gravel just breaking the surface, even butterflies. It doesn’t have to move to be effective, but most folks sooner or later add a small pump to circulate the water up and over something for soothing sound and motion.

Even a simple bird bath counts. Some folks think they attract mosquitoes, but c’mon — we got ‘em anyway, right? And all you have to do is dump out and replace the water every now and then. Or get a few small goldfish or some pond minnows — they eat mosquito larvae.

While I have photographed water gardens around the world, including huge man-made lakes created just for reflection to countless temporary but clever pools at flower shows, my favorite of all is a plain old antique iron sugar kettle, once used to cook down cane sap into syrup.

It’s just a vessel of water plunked beside a path in my garden. Every few months I have to scoop out fallen leaves, but even replacing all the water to its reflective glory takes just about five minutes with a bucket and a hose.

My other two water features are more complicated. One is a small but deep pond with a steady stream of water cascading over a large flat “fall” rock, just splashy enough to drown out background city sounds. The other more quirky one is my great-grandmother’s old claw-footed bathtub set just under the edge of a corrugated tin porch roof. A small pump sends water up to a hidden bit of pipe with a row of holes drilled into it. The water cascades back down the roof into the tub like rain running off in rivulets.

What about plants, or fish? I personally don’t do either because I like the simplicity of the water itself. Fish are interesting but have maintenance issues which go against my “keep it simple” approach to gardening. Besides, toads and frogs come and go seasonally, as do prehistoric mosquito-eating dragonflies.

And in spite of the great palette of floating, sunken, and emergent or wetland plants, the rest of my garden has more than enough plants, so I enjoy the water as a nice, reflective contrast to my already-overstuffed flower beds. Why go to the trouble of creating a water feature just to fill it with plants?

Those aquatic plants that I just can’t garden without can be grown on the deck in smaller containers of water, like individual water gardens scattered where I want them — without having to dig holes.

Anyone who has ever discovered colorful mold growing on the surface of some week-old coffee, has all the basics of watering gardening “down.” Everything else is a wonderful, sensual variation on that theme.