Big ideas for small, money-saving water features

Here are three examples of not-so-big water features that can make a big impact in your yard but carry a small price tag.

Courtesy of Mary-Kate Mackey
This hexagonal concrete bowl will draw birds and butterflies to your yard. It's a good example of an impressive water feature that can be copied for not too much money.
Courtesy of Mary-Kate Mackey
This stacked-stone rill will cost less because it's small. But it's perfect for a woodland setting.
Courtesy of Mary-Kate Mackey
This high-impact water feature is well within the scope of a competent do-it-yourselfer.

A few weeks ago, on Facebook, I got a response about my Diggin’ It posts, saying, essentially, that the fabulous water features I often write about are way too expensive for most gardeners. That's too true in many cases, including my own garden, which does not have an enormous waterfall or a swimming pond — much as I admire those things.

But just because we haven’t got the big bucks doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t have water at all.

The way to cut costs

Designing a water garden or water feature is the same as designing a house: Lower the square footage, and you lower the cost. Bring the house size way down, like the guiding principle in Sarah Sasanka’s Not So Big House, and you have money left for the small crafty details that make a home memorable.

The same is true in the garden. With water, small to the point of miniature can be delightful. The bonus for downsizing is cash for thoughtful plantings and the perfect accessories to finish your watery vignette.

And speaking of vignettes — flower and garden shows are all about them. Because we’re in the middle of the show season, here are some big ideas for small water features. I saw these three at the Yard, Garden and Patio Show in Portland, Ore.

Small, simple, and satisfying

The first picture [above] is a simple circle-in-a-hexagonal concrete bowl. Now this one happens to have a patina of moss that gives it an antique look — easy to do in rainy western Oregon. For other parts of the country, you could try a moss recipe.

Still water always brings the ever-changing sky down into your garden. Shallow bowls are perfect for birds and even butterflies. To keep the water fresh and mosquito free, fill with a hose to overflowing every few days.

The bowl is placed on what appears to be a natural rock, but something as contemporary as mounting it on the flared end of an upright concrete sewer pipe could also be handsome. The point here is not to overlook the simple (and relatively easy) when it comes to keeping water in your garden.

The second photo [at left] is a small aquarium — less than five gallons — hidden by a surround of stacked stones, placed at angles, à la Andy Goldsworthy. A small pump with a green light moves water up through a center bubbler.

This stacked stone, designed by Michael P. Brown is well within the realm of DIY — a rock adhesive keeps it in place. The three-foot-tall fountain brings the sound and sight of water day and night — a good addition to an outdoor dining area.

The last picture [click on the arrows at the right base of the first photo above] features a stacked-stone rill — it’s really not large enough to be called a waterfall.

Designed by All Natural Landscape, one small pump — no need for a biofilter — brings the water up and over the flat rocks. The catch basin of rounded river stones is about two feet in diameter.

This would look delightful in a woodland setting. If no electricity were nearby, a solar pump, with the panel mounted up on a tree branch might be just the ticket. The big plus is that many solar pumps, by necessity, are small — no problem for a “not so big” water feature.


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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