All About Garden Fountains
Adding the pleasing sights and sounds of flowing water to your backyard can transform it into a relaxing retreat
Few things soothe like running water. If you don't happen to have a meandering stream in your yard, there's another way to harness water's therapeutic benefits: a garden fountain. It provides the same calming qualities and can dramatically lift the look of your landscape. Styles run from classical tiered towers to contemporary orbs, and a fountain's design speaks to more than aesthetics; the architecture determines how the water flows and the music it creates, from a splashing that drubs out street noise to a bubbling that provides a subtle background score to patio conversation.
On the flip side, the way the water moves and catches light has a lot to do with the feature's visual appeal. Water sheeting off a colorful, rounded urn is more playful than a forceful stream pouring from basin to basin. You pick a fountain for its looks, but knowing the options in materials can streamline the search. Glazed ceramics come in colors that pop; lightweight fiberglass can be elaborately shaped; cast concrete looks just like stone. In any case, you'll want to head to the garden center to see them in person. That is, right after you read everything you need to know right here.
Shown: On a patio bound by pavers and boxwood hedges, this formal tiered fountain begs guests to sit and stay awhile.
A pump hidden in the basin of this classic tiered fountain recirculates the water, sending it through the tubing to the top, where it continually fills and overflows each tier.
What's it cost? About $150 for a kit with a 3½-foot-tall two-tier fiberglass fountain and pump, or about $500 for a cast-concrete version that size. An ornate 7-footer in cast concrete can easily run up to about $2,000, not including delivery.
How much maintenance? Keep the fountain filled with debris-free water during the season so the pump doesn't burn out. Before winter, drain the basins to prevent water from freezing and cracking the structure.
Pro or DIY? Pair a pump with rocks or an urn to create your own, or buy a kit and set it up yourself—unless the fountain is too heavy. Call in a pro to install cast-concrete kits over 150 pounds.
Safety? If toddlers will be present, go with a "pondless" type that collects water below ground, to nix any risk of drowning.
The path water takes down the fountain helps set the tone of the feature, not to mention the volume level and how often you'll have to refill it. Here are five options to consider.
Tip: Fountain too loud? Try adding a layer of river rocks to the basin. They'll soften the crash of the water while reducing the distance the water falls.
A sheet of water slips down the surface of an object, such as an urn, to a reservoir that holds a pump beneath a layer of decorative stone (a pondless fountain). Smooth surfaces make the water sound like a running garden hose, while something textured disrupts the flow, creating more of a trickling sound. Water clinging to the side of the fountain is not easily lost to splashing, but that thin layer evaporates quickly on hot days, so frequent refilling may be required.
A bubbler set in a basin gently churns the surface of the water, providing a primarily visual experience—and a strong magnet for birds and butterflies. Because the water doesn't tumble down the side, bubblers are probably the quietest fountains. They lose very little water to splashing or wind, minimizing your refilling duties.
Dozens of droplets squeezing through holes and falling like a beaded curtain into a pool of water or a rock-filled basin create the hypnotic patter of a rain shower. The taller the structure and the deeper the pool, the louder the storm. A lot of water splashes out and gets carried away by wind, so plan on replenishing the pool frequently.
Concentrated streams of water gushing from one level to the next into open pools make a forceful sound, like that of a pot filler—distracting for some, meditative for others. Leapfrogging basin-to-basin leaves the water vulnerable to wind gusts, so maintaining the level can be a bit of a chore.
Water spilling over from the top pool and into subsequent tiers produces a symphonic splashing that can mask unwanted noise. This fountain also needs to be refilled more often than the other configurations, save for the rain fountain. The pump's flow control can reduce the fountain's volume and splash loss, but the point of this style isn't to cue up quietude.
Tucked into a planting bed, a gently bubbling urn attracts pollinators. Scale it slightly taller than adjacent plants to make it visible from other points in the yard, and keep it away from loud mechanical noise—air conditioners, say—that might overpower its soothing sounds.
A 6-foot-tall fountain is hard to miss, from either the yard or a window with a view. Place a traditional tiered version at intersecting pathways in a formal design that divides the lawn into quadrants. Keep a feature this large about 8 feet from any entertaining area, to avoid having to shout over your glass of rose.
Use a fountain as the focal point of a gathering place set in a far corner of the yard. Encourage guests' sense of discovery with a style that can be seen or heard from a distance, and create a winding path to its location. Complete the scene with planted containers and seating, and you have a relaxing little hideaway.
Before you haul your new fountain home from the garden center, you need to prepare the spot you've picked.
1. Dig a footing: Water won't flow properly from a fountain that isn't level, and you can't expect it to stay that way if you plop it on a patch of turf. Treat the base under a fountain like a mini patio: Pack a mix of ¾-inch crushed stone and stone dust in layers; top with a flat stone or paver if the pedestal has a narrow footprint.
2. Run electrical: Hire an electrician to install a dedicated 110-volt line to a protected GFCI outlet. To determine the outlet's location, subtract about 4 feet from the pump cord's length to leave ample slack to install the pump.
3. Plan for water: How often you need to refill a fountain depends on its size, the way water moves over it, and heat and humidity. Quick access to a spigot makes a sometimes daily chore easier.
Most people simply use a hose to refill the basin. Another option: Install an autofill valve, which taps into an existing irrigation line and provides automatic refills.
Take a stack of rocks—or use an old planter or any decorative garden object—and pair it with a pump to create your own water feature. Here's how to do it:
The most practical DIY option, aside from sticking a bubbler in a bird bath and calling it a day, is to build what's called a pondless fountain. Pondless, as in there's no visible pool or basin—water collects in a reservoir below ground, where the pump pushes it to the top of whatever object you want the water to run down. The beauty of this approach is that you can repurpose just about anything as the fountain, as long as you can drill a hole through it for the water line (we used a masonry bit on the creek stones pictured here). Going pondless also minimizes maintenance because leaves can't collect in the reservoir.
Regardless of what you choose as a fountain, the steps for the project are the same: Dig a pit for the reservoir, rig up the pump, and cover everything. The trick is figuring out how big a pump to buy, and there are a lot of numbers to crunch to determine that. We cheated and asked Rolf Nelson, of Nelson Water Gardens and Nursery, which popularized pondless ceramic fountains. Assuming you use a reservoir at least 2 feet square and 1 foot deep, the main variable is the fountain's height. You want a pump with enough oomph, expressed in gallons per hour (gph), to reach the top.
120–200 gph for a 1-foot-tall fountain
250–350 gph for a 2-footer
350–700 gph for a 3-footer
900 gph for anything taller, up to 5 feet.
Find the full step-by-step instructions: How to Build a Fountain
If you want to illuminate the water with a blast of white light as it rushes from the top of your fountain, upgrade it with an LED fixture. A doughnut-shaped fitting ringed with eight waterproof LEDs slips onto the end of the water tubing and lights up the water as it passes through. A low-voltage power cord threads along the tubing and plugs into the GFCI outlet. Built-in photo cells automatically turn the lights on at dusk and off at dawn. About $35 per fixture; Atlantic Water Gardens
Fountains look best when they echo the feel of the surrounding landscape. Click on for four ways to use them within a variety of garden settings.