clock menu more-arrow no yes

All About Garden Fountains

Adding the pleasing sights and sounds of flowing water to your backyard can transform it into a relaxing retreat

Landscape Feature

Photo by Andrew Buchanan/Subtle Light Photography/homeandgardenphotos.com

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.

Anatomy of a Fountain

Illustration by Rodica Prato

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.

The Vitals

Photo by Kolin Smith

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.

Falling Water, Five Ways

Photo by Kolin Smith

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.

1. Running

Photo by Karen Bussolini

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.

2. Bubbling

Photo by Courtesy of NYBG/Ivo M. Vermeulen

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.

3. Raining

Photo by Courtesy of Water Features Direct

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.

4. Pouring

Photo by Elke Borkowski/Gap Photos

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.

5. Cascading

Photo by Rob Cardillo

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.

The Big Picture: Where to put Your Fountain?

Illustration by Rodica Prato

There's a fountain for every kind of yard, but selecting the right spot calls for balancing its size and shape with the style of your garden

The Accent

Illustration by Rodica Prato

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.

The Centerpiece

Illustration by Rodica Prato

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.

The Destination

Illustration by Rodica Prato

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.

Prep Steps

Photo by Kristine Larsen

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.

Screen Out Noise

Photo by Jerry Pavia/Gap Photos

To help mask the constant hum of a neighbor's air conditioner or the rumble of street traffic, situate the fountain between your main seating area and the offensive noise. Place quieter fountains, like these urns, about 6 feet from where guests gather.

Got some stones? Make a fountain!

Photo by Kolin Smith

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.

How to Build a Pondless Fountain

Illustration by Gregory Nemec

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.

He recommends:

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

Light it Up

Photo by Courtesy of Atlantic Water Gardens

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

Stay Ahead of Common Upkeep Issues: Waterloss

Illustration by Rodica Prato

Water evaporates faster in smaller fountains than in larger ones. Check the water level after 8 hours of use—sooner if your fountain splashes excessively or the location is windy.

Stay Ahead of Common Upkeep Issues: Mosquitos

Illustration by Rodica Prato

When the pump is on, the moving water keeps mosquitoes from landing. Add drops of a pet-safe mosquito killer to dispense with the pests when the fountain is off.

Stay Ahead of Common Upkeep Issues: Algae

Illustration by Rodica Prato

Use an algaecide safe for ponds to kill green slime. The additive doesn't evaporate, so replenish it only when refilling water lost to splashing, lest it become too concentrated.

Stay Ahead of Common Upkeep Issues: Leaves

Illustration by Rodica Prato

Remove them before they settle inside the fountain's lowest tier, where the pump can suck them in and get clogged. Consider proximity to deciduous trees when planning the fountain's location.

Stay Ahead of Common Upkeep Issues: Freezing

Illustration by Rodica Prato

Before the first frost, drain and vacuum the basins, and bring the pump indoors. Drape towels over the edge of the lowest basin, to absorb condensation, then cover the structure with a tarp.

A Great Garden's Finishing Touch

Photo by Keller & Keller

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.

Earthy Accent

Photo by Elke Borkowski/Gap Photos

Screened behind a fence of greenery to create an inviting alcove, this running urn is scaled to complement the nearby salvia and hosta. The plume is a dominant visual element, and it can be lowered at the pump to a more discreet level.

Formal Focus

Photo by Andrew Buchanan/Subtle Light Photography/homeandgarden.com

Set among topiary shrubs and sheared hedges, this traditional two-tiered fountain's aged finish underscores the garden's classical feel. Hedges encircling the basin keep children a safe distance from the water.

Romantic Retreat

Photo by John Glover/Hometica

This sculptural pedestal adds a striking vertical element with water spraying in a fan pattern that draws attention; the cast concrete in earth tones blends with the surrounding flagstone, letting the garden's more saturated hues take center stage.

Asian Oasis

Photo by Jerry Pavia

Nestled among a Japanese maple, evergreens, hostas, and ferns, this weathered fountain looks as if it predates the garden itself, giving the impression that the landscape has evolved over time.