As you lie in your lounge chair and listen to the gurgling of a small stream and the chirping of some nearby birds, the sun's rays are luring you into a nap. The light touch of one of the plants near the water's edge tickles your leg and you're awakened out of your lazy daydreaming. You get up to look at the water and are greeted by several colorful koi fish that dart playfully around beneath you.

Sound like a nice idea for a vacation? Many people in the U.S. -- more than ever, in fact -- are having that experience in their own backyard! A feature that most people would consider appropriate for the 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous' set is becoming much more accessible and affordable.

Landscape contractors are catching on to this phenomenon, too. Water features, they are quickly realizing, are a great addition to their service offerings, providing a unique touch to an overall outdoor setting. Better yet, the latest developments in the design and equipment related to water features have made them easier to install and less of a headache for their customers to maintain.

The American Nurseryman Association reports that water features are the fastest growing trend in landscaping since 1990. The number of installations has been doubling every year since then. But, why the sudden spurt of growth in this beautification method?

"The reason for its popularity is that everyone's got kind of a back-to-nature, environmentally-focused outlook," says Gregg Wittstock, owner of Aquascape Designs, Inc., a company that specializes in designing and installing ponds, waterfalls, and water gardens for commercial and residential customers. Aquascape Designs also manufactures and sells the equipment to build the water features and trains contractors on selling and installing them.

"Large expanses of high-maintenance lawns are being replaced by more natural features like native plants, less chemicals, more biological means of controlling weeds and such," explains Wittstock. "Basically, the consumer market is looking for more natural landscaping . . . less formal, less maintenance. In that regard, water gardening, in a very natural way, brings a bit of nature into your backyard. It's really caught on."

"The addition of a water feature to your home is quite literally bringing a little nature to your backyard," agrees Fred March, president of Oase Pumps, Inc. He recalls the dramatic change to his own home. "Within weeks of installing my pond," says March, "I noticed frogs appeared, almost out of nowhere. In short order, the bird population increased dramatically, as they splash and play in the cascading water. Interestingly enough I have recently seen species of birds that I had not seen before [installing the pond]. It's as if a whole new micro environment was created. It's absolutely wonderful!"

Wittstock is also looking forward to his new home, which is currently being built. He has just completed construction of a one-acre lake -- just a (much) larger version of the same ponds he designs for his customers. The lake will be a prominent feature, to say the least. "The lake butts up against the entire back of the house," he says, "so when you're in the house, it looks like you're literally living on the lake. There's no separation between the home's foundation and the lapping of the waters. You can open all the windows and feed the fish right out of the window . . . Once the house is finished, we'll stock it with fish -- koi and goldfish and everything else."

While these qualities of water features certainly do appeal to the senses, the features actually make sense as well. March points out that it's an excellent use of space. Small or awkward areas are traditionally either planted with sod or shrubs to effectively make them disappear. The same space can easily and inexpensively be used for a water feature, and instantly become a stunning focal point. It not only provides pleasure for the eyes and ears but is a definite stress reducer for the mind as well.

Residential vs. Commercial
The worlds of residential and commercial water features, although quite similar can be distinctly different in both motivation and design. "Residential water features are more personal, for pleasure and stress relief," says March. "They're normally of a more subtle and subdued nature. Commercial applications tend to require a much higher visual impact, more spectacular by design to attract attention to the project. Commercial applications don't normally lend themselves to the relationship that's
established in private applications. In other words, if I have a water feature in my yard, I sit by it, read the paper, and I learn about the plants and birds. It becomes a hobby."

He cautions his customers to be wary of simply looking for the 'instant gratification' that even a poorly-constructed water feature can provide. The effects are wonderful and have been an integral part of many cultures around the world for many years. The fast pace of the American society often lures us into the 'instant gratification' mode. There's a lot more to a quality water feature than meets the eye.
As in almost any industry, there are proper ways to do things as well as less expensive, less functional alternatives. Oase is one of several companies providing new technologies for the water feature industry to ensure beautiful, and easy-to-maintain, ponds and fountains. A rushed project, with improper design or ineffective equipment, will most certainly result in a high maintenance and problematic water feature.
"There's nothing that has the same effect for a commercial site like a high quality water feature," says Wittstock. "The typical commercial area," he says, "used to consist of just digging out a retention pond and putting a fountain in the middle. Now, they're adding aquatic plants, installing a waterfall. . . . Since water features have become so popular, they're going above and beyond, making the water effects more decorative."

But, beyond the decorative nature of the installations, Wittstock maintains that no other feature can make as much impact in a landscape as moving water. "Let's say you're walking through the courtyard of a hotel," he says, "where you might see a $50,000 landscaping project with gazebos, patios, and plant material . . . Most people just take that for granted. They just walk right on through because they see that kind of landscaping at hotels, at shopping plazas or at airports. They really don't appreciate it."

"You take that same landscaping project and put a $5,000 water garden in," he continues, "and everybody -- I mean everybody -- will hear the sound of the waterfall, walk up next to it and put their hands in the water. They'll feel the cool, refreshing water as they see a sea of dancing clouds reflected in the water, and fish dancing about, birds coming and bathing in the stream. Water is moving, it's alive, it creates sounds, it's refreshing, and because of that, it makes an impact on the landscape that's unparalleled."

Wittstock also believes that water features provide the landscape contractor with something unique-an opportunity to generate some income for himself down the road. He claims that water effects are the only form of landscaping that sell future work. "Let's say you're hired to do a residential or commercial landscape job," says Wittstock. "Your customer wants grass and sod, some sand, some perennial plantings and a patio. When you're done with that work, you're done. The patio itself doesn't sell future work; neither does the sod (unless you're also maintaining it).

"A water garden cannot stand alone," he continues. "It needs a 'hardscape' and 'softscape' to be complete. Can you have a water garden without aquatic plants? It wouldn't be a water garden. That's softscaping. You're also going to have terrestrial plants around it, because you wouldn't have it sitting there by itself. Then, people don't want to sit around it on lawnchairs. They want the hardscape -- the deck, patio, a gazebo -- something overlooking that water feature, so that people can get right up close and personal with it. So, when a landscaper installs a water effect, it is the first stage of a multiple stage project."

Might some landscape contractors feel uncomfortable with aquatic plant life? Wittstock doesn't think so. "Aquatic plants are much, much easier than terrestrial plants, in terms of care -- at the very least, they're self-watering," he jokes. "I've had people ask me to match their water lilies to their drapes. That's not my line of business, but a landscape contractor is used to dealing with requests like that, when he's bringing in plant material.

"Generally water gardens in northern areas use mostly perennial plants," he continues. "They come back year in and year out. The only thing a homeowner needs to do is divide them periodically when they grow excessively, and feed them with time-release fertilizer tabs. In terms of watering them like a terrestrial plant, you don't have to do that."

If there's anything that Wittstock and March agree on, it's the need for landscape contractors to be competent and educated about water features. "We encourage our customers -- the architects and contractors -- to become more knowledgeable," says March, "and, more critically, be cognizant of cost cutting and the impact thereof."

Wittstock adds that a landscape contractor has to keep current with the technology. "The problem in the industry," he says, "is that it's so new and it's become popular so quickly, people have not kept up with the technology of water gardening. If you open the latest issue of Better Homes & Gardens or Garden Deck & Landscape, they'll tell you that the way to build a pond is the same way that they told people 30 years ago, even though things have completely changed in the water gardening industry. The information out there hasn't kept up, even though things have been drastically revised."

New technology in design and equipment relating to water features have made them easier to build, install and maintain. They are the hottest trend in landscaping today.