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Five great ideas from water garden designers

Ideas from professional designers that you can use to create your own water garden or water feature.

By Mary-Kate Mackey / April 25, 2011

This fern and moss island appears to float in a shallow pool.

Courtesy of Mary-Kate Mackey

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Flower and garden shows pack more ideas per square foot into one space than any other gardening venues I know. It’s bound to happen when you bring together all those creative horticultural thinkers.

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OK, I realize some ideas are goofy, or impractical, or downright impossible — my biggest gripe is display gardens that group together plants with totally diverse needs, such as dry-tolerating euphorbias planted next to water-loving hydrangeas.

But on the whole, scooping up exciting ideas is what makes these garden shows so alluring. Here are my discoveries about water use at the Portland (Ore.) Yard Garden and Patio Show.

1. Make a floating island – Enliven an already existing shallow pool (or add this construction to your future plans) with the addition of an island that appears to float on the water. The one in the first photo above, designed by Landscape East & West, is mostly shade plants -- ferns and mosses -- tucked around a charming piece of tree stump.

2. Combine water and glass – We’ve all seen colored glass balls like the ones gathered in the top of the water feature shown in the first photo at left. However, the display by Dennis' 7 Dees Landscaping and Garden Center pushes the glass/water connection up a notch. The rectangle of abstract glass art in the niche above echoes and enhances the spillway’s knife-edged waterfall.

3. Repurpose the detailsAutumn Leaf Landscaping’s clever trough fountain employs three spigots to create maximum splashing sound with minimum overall water usage. [Second photo above; click on the arrow at the right base of the first photo.] Designer Kristine Hanson of Green Leaf Design added the perfect eye-catching accent with red, lacy metal encircling each spigot. Actually, they are Crate and Barrel trivets, repurposed for a great water-feature effect.

4. Float the pathway – Bridges like the bluestone slabs shown in the second photo at left appear to float on the black water’s surface. I feel compelled to cross them. Fortunately, Enviromax Landscape Design allowed show goers to do just that. Very satisfying.

DIYers, please note: With these water-level crossings, you should probably get construction help from the experts; the finicky details must be just right to pull off the floating appearance.

5. Don’t forget water’s inherent drama – Over the years, Eamon Hughes of Hughes Water Gardens has proven to be a master of these enormous darkened ponds — lakes, by indoor show standards — and they never leak! [See third photo above.] Mr. Hughes reminds us that water can be enjoyed any time of day — or night — and in any season.

Unlike many displays devoted to celebrating spring, this pool is an homage to the wintery Northwest landscape that we left outside the Convention Center doors. It invites us to stop, stare into the illusion of unseen depths, and notice the quiet reflections. The up-lighting on the dogwood (Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’) is pure display garden showmanship.

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Mary-Kate Mackey blogs regularly about water in the garden for 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. To read more by Mary-Kate, click here.

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