Saturday, 26 February 2011

Water in Gardens

In garden design water has always played a vital role, and literally so – vital as in ‘life’.   The very earliest gardens we know of were devised as ways of providing access to water which was also used to grow trees for shade. In the otherwise hostile desert environments of ancient Persia and the Middle East these were rare paradises, shelter from the surrounding desert, arid and dusty.

Vita Sackville-West, travelling in Persia in the early part of the 20th Century recognised the value of these two elements – trees and water.  After weeks of riding horseback in relentless sun she knew that ‘it (is) not…flowers and their garishness that your eyes crave for, but a green cavern full of shadows…and the sound of little streams’.  

The Islamic tradition - rills and pools in the shade of trees or pavilions offer respite from the heat and glare of the sun.

The use of water in gardens today comes to us from these ancient gardens, via the courtyard cisterns of ancient Rome, the patio rills of Islamic gardens, the vertically accented torrents of Renaissance Italy and the grandiose horizontal mirrors of the French style.  In all of these settings, water played a symbolic role. Water can soothe, excite, reflect the 
changing sky, provide focal points and demarcate pathways and routes of flow.

Formality helping to define the grand French style of the 17th century

In the grandest gardens water has often been used to define a dominant axis. It can be still, offering a chance for contemplation, giving the eye a place to rest after the stimulation of a visually busy part of a garden, or it can move, making sounds varying from the gentlest murmur to a galloping roar.
What makes water so special is that it can work at any scale – if there is room in a garden for a large pot there is space for a free-standing pool, home to perhaps a miniature water lily and a few water-beetles. 

A restful sheet of water now covered with duckweed.  
Thanks to Anthony Paul.

If you have space for a pond, then you have any number of options: ‘natural’ ponds look incongruous in urban settings, but pools can be created with timber, stone or brick surrounds, can be tiered to give movement and sound or fitted with a water jet to capture light.  Moving water can bring life to solid shade or minimal settings, or it can be allowed to rest, offering a respite from the visual onslaught of a plant-rich garden.

Moving water enlivens the urban scene.

A patch of water, of any size, will rapidly attract insects and other animals – within a few days water boatmen, whirligig beetles and water fleas will be in residence, brought on the feet of birds drinking in the water or flying in, attracted by the reflection of the sky.  Oxygenating plants, filtration and pumps have to be added if you intend keeping fish in any number, and although these will eat everything in sight and are not suited to wildlife ponds the chance to sit near a pool with lilies, rushes and fish on a summer evening will be compensation enough for many people.