Secret Garden Designs by Christina Oates BACK TO "Christina Oates - Garden Writer" Main Page


(published in the April 2000 issue of The English Garden magazine)

Water is of course THE essential element in a garden - without it plants will not grow. However, as many civilisations masterfully demonstrate, basic irrigation systems were soon transformed into magical rills and fountains to bring sparkling life to cool spaces. The continued fascination with water is obvious today in the vast choice of water features available. I find, though, that many of my garden design clients who want to bring the element of water into their garden flounder completely when faced with the bewildering selection.

For instance, one site I am involved with is bounded by a river but, much as my clients love this natural part of their garden, they also want to enjoy water in different guises closer to the house. Before we became engrossed in drooling over glossy watery pictures in coffee table books I started out by quizzing them thoroughly:

• Which characteristics of water attracted them most. Was it still quiet reflections, inky depths and glassy pureness, or exhilarating tumbling foam and soaring jets, or perhaps gentle tinklings and sparkling drops?

• Next, what kind effect were they looking for - immaculate formality, daring modernity, intimate burblings, relaxed bosky lushness, amusing quirkiness?

• Were there any obvious positions in the garden? Any existing objects or materials which could be utilised?

• How much time did they have for maintaining the effect?

• Finally, and prosaically, what funds and/or construction skills were available?

What emerged was that they were lucky enough to have the space (and funds) to incorporate three different water features in order to exploit a variety of watery traits. I had already identified possible positions which would be enhanced by the inclusion of water and so I set about matchmaking.

Against the high brick garden wall, a pergola for eating al fresco was already planned. I boosted the outdoor room feel by the use of a wall mask spilling a gentle ribbon of water into an existing stone trough and overflowing onto cobbles. This is the equivalent of an eye-catching ornament on the sideboard. I made the mask work even harder by positioning it opposite a door which when open on summer days would provide an enticing view straight through the house from the front door thereby drawing one out into the garden.

Wall masks are great devices for adding definition to a space and there is an amazing range to choose from. If starting from scratch, you can use the wall mask to set the scene. Stone lion masks imbue a classical feel, metallic celtic spirals a more spiritual ambience and a shot of modernity can come from imaginative use of copper pipe and slate. They are perfect for town gardens which often have expanses of walls to exploit but not much ground space. And, best of all, they can be a senses-soothing essential, creating white noise to block out surrounding intrusions.

Whereas a wall mask can be easily tucked into a garden scheme, a fountain demands centre stage. The perfect place to show off a fountain's qualities in my clients' garden was a large courtyard. Not only is this looked down upon from main upstairs rooms but glass doors from a garden room open out into the space. High brick walls abut the stone house and the fourth side has a large opening with a long vista down a lime avenue to the river beyond. A fountain here would perform many functions: a stunning centrepiece to formal box-edged beds creating a satisfying ground pattern to look down upon; a height-giving device for arresting the eye on its flight out of the courtyard; and, most importantly, as a mood enhancing, light-catching object of delight.

Usually the choice of the fountain bowl with perhaps a statuesque centre is the first consideration but, as the whole point of a fountain is its playful manipulation of water droplets, it is very important to see the spray pattern before buying. And, of course, added visual and audible layers of enjoyment can come from tiers of overflowing basins. Another practical consideration is how sheltered is your site - a gusty corner will mean that the jet of water will be blown off course.

A final check before committing yourself is to establish that the scale of the fountain is going to be right for the space. Nothing beats mocking-up the bulk and height of the fountain using cardboard boxes and canes.

Water in its show-off forms is very exhilarating but I wanted to bring a quieter, more tranquil air to another part of the garden. Steps down through newly created terraces under a wide open sky prompted an interpretation of a Lutyens' detail I had seen at Hestercombe. In order to explore water's reflective capacity and its deep mysteries, I designed a square lily pond for the centre of the middle terrace. The pool is set flush with the surrounding paving and has stone ledges stepping down into the water echoing and, in a way, continuing the steps down to the terrace itself. Drawn ever downward, one appreciates the dark depths and yet also enjoys the clear reflection of the sky above. It goes without saying that the construction of such a pool needs to be perfect and that the water must be crystal clear.

Going away from fairly formal arrangements, a more relaxed water ornament is the ubiquitous bubble fountain. If care is taken to place it sympathetically, then this easy-to-install feature can give great pleasure. I am always happiest tucking it into a corner of a paved area where large cobbles around the spout can fade out into gravel with scope for tucking plants in and around the stones. The paving slabs can also be randomly feathered into the gravel - think of icebergs breaking away from the ice flow.

You can stamp your own style on it by using alternative materials. Years ago another of my clients emerged triumphantly from under the stairs clutching her Scottish grandmother's curling stone asking me if it would be of any use. The polished pad of granite with its pre-drilled hole for the water now sits proudly amongst other Scottish pebbles collected by her children on holidays.

I always delight in including water in as many of my designs as possible and take most enjoyment from showing somebody how they can have this vital element in their garden whatever its size. Even a balcony pot garden can include a shallow pebble pan with central bubbling mound. I know I would feel just as forlorn as my plants without some water near me in the garden.

Copyright Christina Oates


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