Monday, October 24, 2016


Look at any of the world’s most famous gardens—the Alhambra, Versailles, Stourhead—and you’ll find they have one thing in common: water.  Without water, a garden is a static composition.  Add it, and the garden becomes a banquet for the senses.
Wang Shi Yuan in Suzhou, China—a twelfth century
courtyard house surrounding a water-filled garden.

Water has always been part of the garden.  The Babylonians, who conceived of their gardens as representations of paradise, included channels and ponds in them not only for irrigation, but for the simple, sensuous enjoyment of cool water in a dry and unforgiving land.

The Chinese, too, made water an integral part of their garden designs, which reach back at least to the eleventh century BC.  In fact, the Chinese word for landscape, shanshui, means "mountains and water". Wang Shi Yuan (“the garden of the master of the fishing nets”), built in Suzhou in the twelfth century, was an informally arranged courtyard house constructed around a meandering pond, with small streams crossed by stone bridges.  Here, as in all Chinese design, water was essential as the balance to land—the yin to the land’s yang.

Louis XIV didn't mess around when it came to
adding water to the garden. He figured that if
one fountain was good, then 14,000 would be better.
And after all, he could afford it.
The rigidly symmetrical design sensibilities of Louis XIV France could hardly differ more from those of the Chinese. Yet at Versailles, in a garden designed to represent man’s dominance over nature, the Sun King installed a staggering 14,000 fountains and pools for the pleasure of his court. They remain among the palace’s most famous attractions.

Why does water figure so prominently in garden design?  Because it’s one of the simplest yet most effective ways of involving all of the senses—which, after all, is exactly what a garden is supposed to do.    

•  Sound.  The calming sound of water immediately adds ambience to a garden, as well as helping mask out objectionable sounds such as traffic. Again, it doesn’t take Niagara Falls to make a garden come alive—a mere trickle splashing into a wood basin will do.

Still, it doesn't take much water—or Louis XIV's
budget—to get a huge impact. A little
fountain like this one is enough.
•  Smell.  The splashing and dampening effect of a small fountain adds cooling moisture to the air as well as activating the fragrances of the garden. Plants, wood, and even concrete take on a more pleasant and evocative smell when damp.

•  Touch.  What child can resist splashing his hands in a pool or fountain? And what forthright adult can either, for that matter?  On a hot day, a cool water source to dip into is one of life’s simple pleasures.

•  Taste.  I’ll never forget the little public fountain at Bressanone in the Italian Alps, with its gargoyle spouting water, where villagers came to fill their water jugs or have a cool drink. Even if you don’t actually drink from a garden fountain, the soothing psychological effect of having water at hand is probably enough.

•  Sight.  Psychologically, the very presence of water provides a calming, cooling effect. But water also creates ever-changing highlights and reflections in the garden, especially when it's moving. Even a small pool or pond fed by a spout will have enough surface movement to create sun-dappled highlights on trees and nearby surfaces.

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