March 22 2021 11:55 AM

Use water features to bring out the best in the design of an outdoor living space.

Water features can be a thoughtful and exciting addition to a landscape design. Contractors already have the technical know-how in terms of what it takes to install these features.

The key is determining how they best fit into the landscape design, as there is certainly an art to incorporating these elements. Whether it’s a small bubbler, a larger fountain or maybe even a pondless waterfall, with some forethought and planning, these can be an amazing value-add for clients.

Mason Shaffer, landscape designer with Blanchford Landscape Group in Bozeman, Montana, says that helping clients choose the water feature that is right for their property comes down to understanding their wants and needs. An expansive property might warrant a large statement piece such as the Italian-style, three-tiered fountain Shaffer designed into a Tuscan-style landscape in Bozeman. However, small water features can still make a big impact. In a small garden space, a bubbler can be an optimal addition.

Location is also key. According to Mary Dresser, RLA, ALSA, a landscape architect with Earth, Turf, & Wood Inc., located in Denver, Pennsylvania, determining where a water feature is best suited on any given property comes down to figuring out the “why” behind the reasoning for the feature in the first place. Is it strictly visual or is the client also attempting to filter out some noise? Do they already envision it somewhere on the property or do they just know they want one? After fully understanding the client’s wants and needs, Dresser says she will then consider the functional and spatial definition of the landscape design and where the water feature might fit best.

“Ideally, we want to situate the water feature somewhere that it can be enjoyed on more than one level,” Dresser says. “For instance, if we can design and install it where it can be seen from certain windows of the house, it will get so much more enjoyment.”

Often, clients don’t specifically ask for a water feature, but Dresser says that listening closely is important.

Sometimes what the client is describing might mean a water feature would be a great fit, even if they do not explicitly ask for it.

Alyson Landmark, CNLP, landscape designer with Southview Design in St. Paul, Minnesota, says if clients have a property that would be well-suited to a water feature and if it seems to fit in with their wants and needs, she might suggest it to gauge the client’s interest. Like Dresser, Landmark agrees that the benefits of the water feature can be maximized with proper location. Making the water feature a focal point of the landscape design in terms of visuals is important, but it should also be in a place where its sound can be enjoyed, particularly if that’s important to the client.

“The soothing sound of flowing water is a key benefit of water features,” Landmark says. “It reduces stress and enhances the outdoor experience.”

And, as Dresser points out, it can also have an impact on minimizing other noises. She completed one water feature design for clients who were looking for a way to ignore the sound of cars from the nearby highway.

Shaffer adds that water features can be excellent additions to courtyards or near a garden wall, where that sound can reverberate. He shares an example of a water feature he incorporated into a private townhome courtyard space, where the homeowners could often hear others talking. It helped to create a sense of privacy and seclusion.

Considering logistics

While it’s clear there is an artistic element to incorporating water features, there are also important logistics. Shaffer says that a consideration that is often overlooked is simply installing the feature near a power source.

“It’s nice if you already have a power source nearby, otherwise you’ll need to hire an electrician to pull power to the feature,” says Shaffer. “You’d have to be dealing with extension cords, which can be an eyesore.”

Dresser adds that sometimes the lay of the land can be an obstacle to overcome. If the client envisions a waterfall but has a very flat property, Dresser says you have to be sure you create the proper stage for it to prevent it from being awkward.

Krisjan Berzins, owner of Kingstowne Lawn & Landscape in Alexandria, Virginia, says that some properties are more naturally suited to water features than others.

“With waterfalls, in particular, when you can incorporate them into a naturally sloped property, it doesn’t feel as though you’re forcing it into the topography,” he says. “If there is a low area in the property that already tends to be wet and has water running through it, this could naturally lend itself into creating a water feature that works with the existing landscape.”

Of course, Berzins says that smaller fountains or bubbling urns can be incorporated into some softscaping or hardscaping without needing to take the topography into account.

Shaffer says that it’s also important to consider water plants as they can serve not only an aesthetic purpose but an important functional one, too.

“If you’re creating medium-sized water features, you want to be sure to develop some shelf areas where you can have plant life grow at different heights,” he says. “This looks and feels right but it also serves the functional purpose of helping steal nutrients from algae and keeping the water shaded to prevent evaporation.”

Water feature trends

Over the years, water feature trends have evolved. There was a time, says Landmark, when larger ponds, such as those with koi, were trending. But fast-forward about 10 years to present day, and the majority of clients who are interested in water features are looking for something low-maintenance.

“I think people started to realize how much work a pond can be,” she says. “For the most part, people have largely moved away from requesting these. Occasionally, there will be a client who enjoys the idea of caring for a pond. But most people are looking for something low-maintenance.”

Berzins says that there aren’t many companies who provide pond or water feature maintenance, so most clients want something that isn’t going to end up being a lot of work.

In terms of design trends, Berzins says there’s always a place for natural, freeflowing design, but there’s currently more interest in a contemporary, modern style of water feature. It all comes down to the property and the client’s wishes. There’s also been some interest in combining fire elements and water features for something highly unique.

Earth, Turf, & Wood’s Dresser has also worked with the latest “fire and water trend,” and in fact has custom-designed a unique feature that incorporated both. The clients wanted it centered on a patio so it could also be viewed and enjoyed from the kitchen window and their adjoining screen porch. Dresser says that custom features aren’t right for everyone as they don’t always fit the budget, but on the right property it can be an amazing addition. In general, it comes back to fitting the landscape as a whole.

Landmark says this is ultimately the bottom line of water features: They must fit within the style of the landscape.

“No matter what water feature you ultimately decide to do, it must fit, not look like it was just added there as an afterthought,” she says. “If it’s a modern landscape, it should be a modern water feature, and if it’s a more naturalistic space, it might be more of a natural design. In the end, it should look like it was meant to be there.”

Lindsey Getz is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at

Smart water use in water features

These days people are more conscious than ever of smart water use. While water features aren’t generally a heavy draw on water, it’s important to talk to clients about making these elements even more water-use friendly.

According to Mason Shaffer, landscape designer with Blanchford Landscape Group in Bozeman, Montana, a pondless waterfall using a pondless basin is a great way to achieve smart water use. There is always a little bit of splash to consider, but it helps minimize evaporation since not all of the water is exposed to the elements. A pondless waterfall also helps to keep algae down and is generally preferred because of its lower maintenance nature.

Alyson Landmark, CNLP, landscape designer with Southview Design in St. Paul, Minnesota, says that most clients are already sensitive to water usage because of the rising cost of water. However, she says that clients often do not understand just how much water can be lost to splash and evaporation. The more spillways you design in the feature, the more water you will lose, so this is an important consideration.

“If there is already an irrigation system present in the landscape, we like to tie the water feature into it and use an auto-fill so that it’s not running out of water and the client is having to go out and refill it,” Landmark says. “At the very least, this is lessening the amount of work that the client has to do in terms of keeping the feature running.”