Water gardens - BOLD VISIONS, GREAT DESIGNS - Garden Design (2015)

Garden Design (2015)

Bold Visions, Great Designs

Water gardens


A contemplative reflective pool of shallow water creates a moat around an intimate patio. A filtration system was fitted here to keep the water clean and clear, and to maintain the pebble effect.


CALM AND REFLECTIVE or bold and dramatic, water creates a powerful effect, whatever the design intention. Use it to enliven a space with a cascade thundering into a pool below, or create a still pond fringed with plants or featuring a single water lily to convey a sense of peace and tranquillity.

Dramatic effects

Of all the features that can be included in a garden, water is the most powerful. One of the natural elements that collectively cradle human life, it is unsurprising that water has such a profound effect on our sense of wellbeing, compelling us to embrace all it has to offer. Creatively, it is the chameleon of the garden. Amorphous and fluid, water assumes both its shape and character from how it is used: dark and reflective, languid and romantic, playful and capricious, or dramatic and forceful, it conveys the style and tone of the garden’s design. The sounds it produces are as diverse as its visual qualities, with notes ranging from high-pitched drips to a melodious gurgle and cacophonous crash.

Wherever water is located it will attract wildlife, helping us to connect with nature. While a splash pool will act as a welcome stop for passing birds, more permanent bodies of water will support complex and important ecosystems. Properly managed, even a small pond will become a significant nature reserve, especially when linked to other sites in the neighbourhood.

While water features are frequently included as incidental focal points, like pieces of sculpture, a water garden is any design where the ornamental or creative use of water predominates. Schemes can be culturally influenced by historical precedents to suit the architecture or landscape, or they may be contemporary, using this fluid medium to relay something new and distinctive. But even in modern gardens, water features are informed by techniques that were devised thousands of years ago. Many designers also draw on historic designs for inspiration, reinventing them using the latest materials, technologies and styling.

Water gardens through history

Water has been an integral part of garden design for many centuries. Essential to life, clean water is a precious commodity, especially where it is scarce in areas such as the Mediterranean region, Arabia and southern India. Deeply embedded in religious and social culture, its ornamental use was historically regarded as a privilege, reserved for the wealthiest in society.

Some of the first water gardens were created by the Chinese over 3,000 years ago. They evolved an asymmetric garden style, creating stylised evocations of the surrounding mountainous landscape, with rocks, trees and water laid out according to carefully devised rules and conventions. Japanese water gardens evolved from the Chinese style in the 9th and 10th centuries, and their influence is referenced in the work of many contemporary designers from both Asia and the West who are drawn to their symbolism and celebration of the natural world.

The Italian Renaissance of the 16th century brought water gardens to life. Wealth and status was paramount during this period, and water features, such as the fabulous terraced water gardens of Villa D’Este, allowed the nobility to show off their power and influence. Likewise, the water features in the formal parterre gardens of 17th century France, such as Versailles and Vaux le Vicomte, were a demonstration of wealth and new technologies. Pools and fountains were used to contrast with the intricate patterns of clipped plants and fine statuary, creating a canvas of astonishing human endeavour when viewed from above.

As a reaction to the tightly controlled French style, the English landscape school of the 18th century sought to imitate nature. Landscape designer William Kent created romantic settings adorned with cascades, canals, rills and lakes at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, while Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, influenced by Kent’s designs, was famous for his grasslands punctuated by serpentine lakes.

Designing with water

The use of water should echo the style of your garden, with a single feature or assembly of smaller pools and cascades linked together to create a unified scheme, either filling the whole garden or an element in a larger concept. In many period gardens, water features are traditionally formal and geometrical in design close to the dwelling, becoming free-form or natural looking further from the house, but you do not have to follow this rule. A natural pond can complement a cottage or wildlife garden right next to the house, while a formal pond would inject a dramatic focal point when used to counterpoint meadow-style planting in a contemporary design. The hard landscaping and planting also influences the character and personality of a water garden, with features surrounded by paving tending to look more formal than those edged with plants.

When creating water features that mimic nature it is best to locate them at the lowest point in the garden, just as you would see them in a natural landscape. Nothing is more alien than a pond sited where water has seemingly run up hill to fill it, unless it’s perched in a recess in the landscape.


Often used as inspiration for contemporary water gardens, the paradise gardens of Persia date back to 400 BC. Their design is based on the pattern of irrigation channels, symbolically and physically representing water as the source of life. Four rills intersect in the centre of the garden, referencing the four rivers of life, with a fountain often set at the point where they meet. This style, along with Roman and other Islamic artistic influences, gave rise to the cloistered gardens in Spain, the most famous being Generalife and the Alhambra at Granada. Paradise gardens can be easily evolved to create beautiful courtyards in modern settings, the rills and fountains lending us the same sense of peace and tranquillity in our hot and dusty cities as they did thousands of years ago in the Middle East.


Cleve West’s modern interpretation of a paradise garden


Bisected by paving, a formal stepped rill creates drama and movement across the garden.



A limpid pool shrouded by leafy plants forms an intimate retreat, with stepping stones allowing access to the water.



A sunken tank provides a crisp edge to an urban water feature. Echoing gardens in arid regions, the planting comprises leafy drought-tolerant species, such as euphorbia and iris, rather than marginal plants.




A contemporary water garden

This country garden, designed by Ian Kitson with planting designs by Julie Toll, is adjacent to an east-facing property set up on a hill. The curvaceous free-form pool was created from an area that had previously been a tennis court, and, had the client not been brave enough to remove it, the potential for this lower part of the garden would never have been realised. The vision for the pool area was two-fold: firstly it needed to remain an integral part of the overall design language and character of the garden, and secondly, it had to act as a valuable wildlife habitat. The boardwalk is the culmination of a journey through the upper sunken gardens and naturalistic perennial plant displays, while the deck echoes the shape of the plant forms on the distant hills beyond the boundaries. The space provides a key vantage point, with views across colourful planting to the house, while the marginal plants merge into wild flower meadows that blend into the surrounding landscape.


Ian has been a garden designer since 1980, and holds qualifications in landscape architecture, architecture and the conservation of historic parks and gardens. He is also a Fellow and past chair of the Society of Garden Designers. His work is celebrated for its originality, and he has created award-winning schemes throughout the UK for private clients, as well as public bodies, often leading multi-disciplinary teams. He operates from studios in central London and Yorkshire.



1 Creative lighting

Sprays of fibre optic cable with LED lighting at the tips provides the illusion of a nighttime firefly display along the deck edge.

2 Pond edging

Black painted blockwork disguises the pond liner and ensures a crisp edge. The water level is topped up automatically, maintaining an average depth of 90cm (36in).

3 Marginal planting

Continuous planting from beds below the water surface to the surrounding garden forms a seamless transition from pond to land.

4 Sinuous decking

The curved hardwood decking boards, used to construct the boardwalk, were machine-cut off site to create a perfect arc.