Water in the Landscape


This article is one in a series of topics on the use of water in the landscape. As Editor, I felt that it was important to set the stage for this subject by having an overview on how water has been used for this purpose for thousands of years. Today, the creative use of water in gardens and the ever-expanding interest in this subject is due in part to the contribution that past cultures have made to improve their and our quality of life.

  • Garden maintained by Editor in 1958.
    Garden maintained by Editor in 1958.
  • A unique ecosystem near Kingston, Ontario.
    A unique ecosystem near Kingston, Ontario.

Robin Ryan, "Pondmaster's Plus", covers the practical considerations towards the end of this article. Both Robin and I will be covering this subject in detail over the next several months. We will also provide dynamic photos of water garden installations from beginning to end. Check "Services" in the side margin for regular updates.

Small backyard pond.
Small backyard pond.

Historical Synopsis

For thousands of years, water has been used both creatively and functionally in the landscape for practical, aesthetic, and symbolic purposes. The early Chinese and later Japanese cultures sought the perfect balance in nature between stone, water, and plants.

Koi in a pond.
A great reason for having a pond!

During 1989, I visited many of the beautiful gardens of Japan including several in and around Kyoto, the center of Japanese garden design. Here the contemplative simplicity and symbolism of raked pebbles and stone in a dry garden is a sight long to be remembered. Water is also an integral component of their gardens. It is commonly used to create a sense of peace and tranquility.

  • Raked Japanese pebble garden near Kyoto.
    Symbolism between stone, water, and plants.
  • Japanese water garden with bridge.
    Water creatively used in a Japanese Garden.

The ancient Egyptians had an abundance of flowers, fish and aquatic birds in their gardens that were primarily used for private enjoyment and relaxation. A canal that was close to the nobleman's home and garden characterized his residence. Symmetrical pools were oftentimes laid out on either side of the gatehouse with trees planted on both sides of a water feature.

Swans doing swanny things.
Swans provide movement and interest in the landscape.

The Babylonians and their King Nebuchadnezzar built the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon that once was listed as one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World. The hanging gardens, some 300 feet in height, were irrigated by a water and hydraulic system for lifting water from one level to the next.

The Greeks featured water and sculpture in their landscapes as did the Roman civilization. The Roman house was symmetrically balanced and viewing of the courtyard with its formalized pool was designed to be seen from above.

A courtyard with a pool and/or fountain in its center characterized a plan of Old St. Peter's Cathedral from the Early Christian Period.

The gardens and architecture of India also had water as an integral component. The Taj Mahal at Agra with its long beautiful reflective central canal is a magnificent tribute to the Shah's wife, Mumtz.i.Mahal. This memorial preceded Versailles by approximately 20 years.

The French used canals, fountains, and statuary in their gardens. Versailles, designed by Andre le Notre, had a canal specifically dug for its water features. The French carried the use of water jets to a grand scale at this garden.

During the summer of 1999, I visited Versailles and experienced the creative flamboyancy of the French. The magnificent vista from the Hall of Mirrors is a memory that I will cherish for a lifetime.

Gardens at Versailles (along main axis).
The flamboyancy of the French.... main axis at Versailles.

While I did not have an opportunity to visit Giverny on this trip, I plan to visit this garden in the near future. Having recently seen one of Claude Monet's canvases on water lilies at the Albright Knox Art Gallery, in Buffalo, N.Y., this helped trigger my enthusiasm to visit several Parisian gardens and those near the capital of France. "Monet's Passion" was not only painting, but also gardening at Giverny. Monet developed his famous two-acre water lily pond in 1893 at this site.

The English Formal Gardens, particularly at Hampton Court Palace, were magnificent when my wife and I visited these gardens during last summer. Vistas along a sequence of terraces, avenues of trees, and effective use of water all contributed to the educational value of this experience. We also visited Sissinghurst in Kent and met Nigel Nicholson, the son of Vita and Harold Nicholson, co-designers/developers of this wonderful garden. A moat surrounding a part of this beautiful garden shows the creative and functional use of water.

Garden at Windsor Castle showing central water feature.
Garden at Windsor Castle showing central water feature.
Water / sculpture creatively used at Regent's Park, London, England.
Water / sculpture creatively used at Regent's Park, London, England.
Waterfall in Regent's Park, London, England.
Waterfall in Regent's Park, London, England.

In the United States, the one garden that immediately stands out when it comes to the effective use of water is Longwood Gardens. Located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, it has a magnificent display of water as well as a world-class display of gardens (a must see!). Longwood has several separate fountain gardens and water features.

Formal garden at Longwood showing effective use of water.
Formal garden at Longwood showing effective use of water.
Longwood hybrid waterplatters.
Longwood hybrid waterplatters.
New York Botanical Gardens, New York City.
New York Botanical Gardens, New York City.

In Canada, a few years ago I enjoyed visiting the Japanese Gardens in Lethbridge, Alberta and more recently, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Gardens in Vancouver. Water played an important role in both of these landscapes. In addition, you might want to look at how water has been used in the Public Gardens in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This garden, the oldest public garden in Canada, is worth visiting when you make your next trip to the Maritimes.

Water used for aerification / aesthetic purposes at Bouchard Gardens, B.C.
Water used for aerification / aesthetic purposes at Bouchard Gardens, B.C.

Questions ... Questions ... and More Questions

Today, as in the past, water from a designer's point of view is an integral component of private gardens and municipal parks. During a recent meeting with Robin Ryan of 'Pondmaster's Plus' in Hamilton, Ontario, he discussed with me some of the questions that he often asks potential clients to determine their real interest in a water garden. His list of questions is as follows:

  1. What kind of water feature are you specifically interested in?

    Robin normally sends them to the local library or suggests a tour of different types of ponds. By establishing the kind of water feature that the client is interested in from the outset of the planning process, this sets a budget for the project. It is important to establish a price range from the outset of the client/designer relationship.

  2. Do you want something quiet or noisy?

    You can achieve good water sound with a fountain or a low waterfall providing there is sufficient flow.

  3. Do you want a large or small feature?

    Tabletop fountains or barrel ponds exist if space is an issue in many different styles and sizes.

  4. Will your water feature be the center piece or just tucked away in the corner?

    A water piece is very calming and should be in an area so it can be seen as well as heard.

  5. Do you want to put in plants, fish or both?

    In most cases, both will successfully co-exist. However, the one drawback with too many plants is the difficulty in finding the fish. When Robin designs his ponds, there is a 99% chance that some fish will eventually be featured in the pond. Fish are an excellent way of keeping mosquito larva down to a minimum.

  6. Do you want to have Gold Fish, Show Koi or Domestic Koi?

    Filtration will vary based on the type of water quality you wish to achieve depending on the type of fish and the number of fish in the pond. If you want "Show Koi", you probably do not want many plants in the pond. "Show Koi" require an advance filtration system.

  7. How much time are you willing to spend on the water feature per week?

    All water features take work. As a general rule, a smaller water feature requires more work than a larger facility. This is due to the fact that it does not take much to throw the water balance off and create an unwelcome algae problem. There are several different types of systems on the market that will decrease your workload on your pond.

  8. Do you want the water feature to be as maintenance-free as possible?

    Do you want some sort of skimming system for your leaves or a bottom drain to make your pond maintenance easier?

  9. Do you have the proper power supply?

    Check all electrical devices that will be attached to this outlet and make sure it is able to handle the load. On older homes, make sure the outlet is on a "G.F. I." (Ground Fault Interceptor System). Any electrician can set this system up for you.

  10. Are you going to have lighting in or around the pond?

    Think about using a good quality lighting system to add to the ambience of the setting.

  11. What are your by-laws governing your water feature?

    Most communities use "Swimming Pool By-laws" to govern ponds. There could be restrictions on depth or it may depend on the number of gallons in the pond.

Robin's experience, to date, includes constructing over 450 water features and ponds, including over 60 alone in1999. Technically, he has kept himself up to date by taking many water and stone-related courses. He does sub-contract work for 17 landscape related companies and 5 pool firms.

Professionally, he has been building water gardens for close to 10 years and has in excess of 20 years experience in landscaping. Robin will be contributing additional articles on this subject during the next several months.

He can be reached by e-mail at: pondman@sympatico.ca


Plumptre, George. The Water Garden. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London. 1993

Murray, Elizabeth. Monet's Passion. Pomegranate Artbooks, San Francisco. 1989

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