Water features are extremely wide ranging in design, purpose, and cost. Some type of water element can find a home in nearly any landscape- from the smallest courtyard to the most expansive estate- even in tight spaces, like small nooks or in planting beds, or on blank walls on a home or garage.
We’ve built a lot of different types of water features over the years. This post is going to attempt to explain the different types of water feature commonly constructed in Bay Area landscapes.
As you would expect, the larger and more complicated the water feature, the more potential issues that can arise. Water features have the reputation of being high-maintenance, and in some cases, this is certainly true. When the water has to travel over a lot of area, at a high rate, or up slope, more components are required to keep it working its best. A simple recirculating urn or boulder is a relatively simple project, compared to a pond with a waterfall, which has many components that need to work together for a water feature with a long lifespan.
The simplest water features aren’t even connected to a water supply (plumbed). They are seasonal, and rely on rain to fill and flow. Birdbaths could be considered this type of water feature, where the reflection of the water, attention of wildlife, and the sound of rain against a pool are the main attractions. When the weather is dry, so is the feature. A simple boulder with a crevice or hollow could fill this niche, or a more traditional pillar with a bowl mounted on top.
Nearly as straightforward are wall fountains or tanks with a submersible pump, which is hidden within the water trough or bowl. They are refilled as needed from a hose or pitcher, as the water will splash, evaporate, or be used by animals for drinking or washing. All they really need is a standard outlet near the unit – they are plugged in to get the motor running and the water circulating. These water features can be mounted just about anywhere. They usually don’t require a lot of attention, unless you forget to refill but leave the until plugged in, in which case the motor makes a disturbing grating noise and eventually, burns out.
Next up are some of the most commonly found water features, which also utilize a submersible pump and require a 110v outlet, but they also include an autofill pump. When the water level gets low enough, they will open a valve to fill themselves. This is similar to the valve in an automatic irrigation system, and the components are sometimes used in tandem. The downside to this is the water feature won’t have water supply when the irrigation is off in winter (but ideally, rain would provide it. This year is clearly an exception). These water features can overflow and recirculate from within, or have an external spout the water flows from.
These same principles are applied with wall fountains, with water spilling into a reservoir and recirculating through piping. In this case the pump and tank are often located away from the basin, in an obscured but accessible location. Wall fountains vary greatly in style- they can be veneered with tile, stucco, stone or metal, and can have multiple spillways or scuppers. ‘Sheer Descent’ systems are quite popular, with water sheeting down from a horizontal spout. The distance the water travels away from the scupper depends on the power of the motor, and can be adjusted with a valve. The basins for these water features can also vary greatly, from large basins to pebble covered grates where the water seems to disappear into the ground.
Finally we come to ponds, which can vary greatly in size and material. Usually they are designed to appear like natural water features you might see along a creek bank, with boulders and flagstones carefully placed to direct the water to meander into a large reservoir. The reservoir can be built by excavating and installing a waterproof pond liner, or constructed out of poured concrete, like a pool, and sealed. Ponds usually incorporate aquatic plants, and may even provide a home for fish. The maintenance required with a fish pond is significant, and can be overwhelming. Plus rascally raccoon and predator birds will try to make off with your marine life. Uncool. We’ll get into more of the pros and cons of different water features in my next installment, “Water Features: The Why.”