Two versatile water gardens

Water gardens can be versatile and easy-care. A contemporary water oasis and a series of babbling streams show off water’s many garden uses.

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    A rectilinear contemporary water garden retreat beckons across metal bridges.
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    A naturalistic pond offers inviting vistas.
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    Salmon sculptures leap above a knife-edge spillway in this contemporary water garden..
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Here are two inspiring water gardens I saw at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show. They couldn’t have been more different. The first was smoothly modern, taking its cue from architectural hardscapes. The second hearkened back to natural forms.

Calm smooths the edges

In contemporary designs like this first one (in Photos No. 1 and 3 above), the water element becomes architectural, its very flatness replicating the surfaces of the surrounding concrete, wood and metal.

I was totally attracted to this calm clean space. The steel walkways invited me to cross over the water with all the allure that bridges possess. The destinations included handsome wooden benches on one island, and very luxy seating on the other.

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I could imagine this installation occupying an entire small backyard, especially in an urban setting. Or it could be a pocket garden, tucked next to a house, for the added pleasure of water views from indoors.

It was a retreat where grown-ups retire at the end of hectic day, or friends gather — I didn’t see this area as appropriate for small children; it would need some kind of discreet fencing.

The space was high on attractiveness and low on maintenance. Designed by Huettl Landscape Architecture, the water garden employed the latest in biological filtration technology, installed by Concord Feed. The water is kept clean and sparkling and chemical free, always a bonus in any gardening situation.

The surrounding plantings, in islands and in containers, both in and out of the water, softened the severe rectilinear approach. Leaping salmon sculptures on the far wall also supplied the balance of curving shapes, and added a hint of levity to all that calm.

Nature bubbles through

The second display garden (at left and Photo No. 2 above), put together by Ripple Effect Water Gardens, was a series of naturalistic meandering streams and pools.

The cheerful sound of the water flowing and the use of river rocks and tree limbs in the streams created a satisfying gardening experience that, with the right screening, could fit into any backyard setting.

The plantings on the surrounding banks were often natives, ferns, or other minimal-care woodland plants.

This water garden reminded me of my favorite streams in the woods, places where I played as a child. It invited you to explore the banks, to find out what was growing there, and to peer into the water to see what you might discover.

Compare and contrast

What was the same for both gardens? Biological filtering. Maintenance was actually very similar in both spaces. Per square foot, water designs like these two can be one of the most easy-care gardens, consisting of weekly filter cleanings and quick sweepings for floating debris, along with a yearly deep clean, usually done in spring.

These disparate styles of water gardens worked for me.

To make a comparison, I think the first involved my head — the fabulous geometrics — and the second, my heart — naturalistic pulls me in. Both, of course, would involve my hands, if I were the gardener in charge, but the minimal plantings in the first garden would probably take less time.

Which use of water do you like? In the end, it comes down to what you define as your own style. Who knew water could be so versatile?

Mary-Kate Mackey is one of nine garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She is co-author of “Sunset’s Secret Gardens — 153 Design Tips from the Pros” and contributor to the “Sunset Western Garden Book,” writes a monthly column for the Hartley Greenhouse webpage and numerous articles for Fine Gardening, Sunset, and other magazines. She teaches at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communication. She writes about water in the garden for Diggin’ It.

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