Bring water into your landscape
Learn how you can make water a part of your yard, and how to decide what feature is best for your location.
This pond in Battle Ground, Wash., typically would cost $70,000 to $80,000 to build today. // © Hughes Water Gardens
Mysterious, delicious, soothing water. It calms, inspires and excites us. We crave its coolness and freshness. That's probably why, as life grows increasingly stressful, water is playing a larger role in home landscaping.
Water fits in your landscape whether you're on a budget or you have no budget at all. You can make a dry creek or rain garden for free. With $300 to $500, you can build a small, simple pond with water lilies, irises and goldfish, says Eamonn Hughes, co-author with Helen Nash of "Waterfalls, Fountains, Pools & Streams: Designing & Building Water Features for Your Garden."
If your pockets are deep, you can create a fantasyland with waterfalls, ponds, creeks, wetlands and lagoons. You can add pagodas, bridges, fountains and sculptures.
Imitating nature convincingly can be tricky and expensive. The most elaborate streams, waterfalls and ponds on lifestyle TV can involve big investments in engineering, excavation, plumbing, pumps and maintenance. Hiring a landscape professional to build the simplest water feature can cost around $4,000, says Hughes, owner of Hughes Water Gardens, a landscape contractor, nursery and water-feature supply store in Tualatin, Ore.
Will a water feature add to the value of your home? Possibly not, says John Bredemeyer, spokesman for The Appraisal Institute, an organization of industry professionals. In higher-end neighborhoods where expensive landscaping is the norm, it could boost your home's value to the top of the price range, he says. But at the lower end of the market, cash-strapped buyers could see a water feature as extra work for them or an added expense in the way of a maintenance service. They may prefer using the outdoor space on features their children would enjoy, such as a play set or a big lawn.
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Scale and commitment
Once you've decided to build a water feature, impulsiveness is your enemy.
"The main thing is to avoid the temptation to just jump in and dig a hole," says Bob Brzuszek, associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Mississippi State University. He offers these tips for getting started:
1. Picture your dream. Begin by envisioning the experience you're after. Water "gardens," the current trend, re-create a natural ecosystem, including plants and fish, and attract local wildlife. Do you want the meditative stillness of a pond for relaxing, or a lively creek or waterfall as a backdrop for entertaining?
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2. Study your location. Here's where amateurs can go wrong by forgetting to imagine how their water feature will appear in their home setting. For example, a cascading waterfall can look odd tumbling from an artificial hill that rises abruptly from a small, flat backyard.
3. Take clues from nature. Brzuszek carefully studies ponds, creeks and falls near his home to identify what looks natural and feels right in his part of the country. Ponds are uncommon, so he concentrates on building creeks and streams. "Where you have steep topography with a lot of elevation on a site, you can take advantage of that with waterfalls and little creeks that have some elevation on them," he says. Local stone and native plants help make a project look convincing. Local plants will also best tolerate seasonal changes in temperature and water conditions.
4. Think about scale. Is the size of your dream project manageable? Will it fit on your grounds, and is the size right for your time and money? Water features can be sinkholes for money. A detailed plan will help you decide. Estimate costs for each component, including landscaping and a realistic assessment of time required for digging and installing, whether you do it yourself or hire a contractor.
5. Learn about sound. Crashing, swishing, burbling. Water makes many sounds, depending in part on its rate of flow, the surface it strikes and the distance it falls. Match your pump size to the pond and to the water feature's proximity to living and entertaining areas. Take the time to plan, read and consult with a knowledgeable retailer to get a relaxing, multi-toned, background water sound rather than an intrusive monotone noise.
6. Do a reality check. Understand what you are getting into. "For people with limited time, complex water gardens are not probably the way to go," Brzuszek says. If you want low-maintenance, make a simple pond and put it as far as possible from trees. Trees drop leaves that must be removed. More complexity means more labor and expense. Pump filters will need cleaning. Add fish and you must monitor the water's pH balance.
7. Remember safety. If young children will be nearby, consider their safety. Check with your home-insurance agent before beginning construction, because your policy may have specific requirements. To insurers, a pond may be an "attractive nuisance," just like swimming pools and trampolines, says Chris Hackett, spokesman for Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, an industry organization. If so, you're responsible for making sure even uninvited guests won't be injured.
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One couple's water garden
To get the lowdown on what it's like to live with a water garden, we talked with Patti and Tim Slattery. Seven years ago, they built a pond, a 20-foot stream and a waterfall with a 2-foot drop on their nearly two-acre property in Schaghticoke, N.Y., north of Albany.
At first they were inspired by the idea of using an underground spring on their land. As it turned out, that wasn't realistic.
"We're on clay," Patti Slattery says. "It was a mess." Surprises like this can be common with ambitious landscape projects.
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The Slatterys designed the pond themselves. It is 4 feet deep at the lowest point and has shelves at three different levels so they can grow a variety of water plants. Shallow-rooted "emergent" plants at the pond's edges and deeper-rooted plants in lower areas play various roles in the pond's ecosystem, locking in nutrients and filtering sediments and nutrients, minimizing algae growth. Fish, frogs and insects are lured by the cool shade from plant leaves. The more plants the better, because photosynthesis improves water quality by gobbling up carbon dioxide and adding oxygen.
They paid a contractor $7,000 to excavate the hole, 22 feet by 16 feet. Included in the price were the purchase and installation of a rubber liner, water plants, landscaping boulders and small stones to cover the pond bottom. The price also covered landscaping fill dirt, a pump, pipes and a skimmer — a screening mechanism installed at the pond's edge to captures leaves and other debris. The contractor offered to landscape the surrounding grounds for an additional $7,000. Patti Slattery did it herself instead.
The pond attracts wildlife — a heron visited recently — and the falls make a soothing sound. The Slatterys love it, and it's a terrific backdrop for outdoor entertaining.