Babbling Beauties

March 20, 1994|By Beth Smith

The first thing you notice is the sound.

As you step through the French doors of Jane Small's house onto her intricately designed brick patio, you immediately hear the engaging gurgles and splashes of running water.

The sound draws your eye to the focal point of her landscaped back yard -- a 40-foot water garden that meanders on two levels under the spreading branches of a crab apple tree. The centerpiece of the pond is a small waterfall cascading into a lower pond that is stocked with koi. Pink waterlilies and parrot's feather float on the surface. A white lotus blossom pops up near the small bridge that connects the main patio to a smaller one under the tree. Here and there, along the fieldstone edge, are clumps of iris, rush and cattail.

"You just take one glance at the water garden and you get this wonderful feeling of relaxation and calm, but at the same time you feel energized and refreshed," says Ms. Small of her Baltimore County back yard. "I like to start my day having coffee, listening to the water and watching the pond. Then at sunset, I like to do the same thing. When I go outside, I am only steps from my door, yet I am in my own little world."

Jane Small has discovered what water gardeners have known for thousands of years: Water ponds -- and their surrounding landscaping -- can be visually and aesthetically stimulating and at the same time refreshingly soothing. Once reserved for great estates and public institutions, water gardens are now nestled in a growing number of American back yards.

Water gardens were considered quite stylish at the turn of the century, and about 20 years ago began enjoying a resurgence in popularity, first in California and now in the East.

This was fueled in part by the affordability and durability of materials such as PVC and rubber liners, says John Stevens of Willow Crest Water Gardens, a 5-year-old company specializing in water garden design.

The resurgence was aided also by refinements in materials and landscaping that now allow water gardens to be built on just about any type of property.

"There are three components to a water garden: water, plants and live fish; and three approaches to building one," says Mr. Stevens, who has designed and built more than 140 gardens.

A property that gets at least six hours of sunlight can have a full-sun garden with lots of waterlilies and heavy-blooming plants, he says. Shady gardens can be successful if the water and its movement, rather than the plants, provide the excitement. And a koi pond is the third choice; it requires deeper water, little or no plant material because the koi eat plants, and often a filter system to keep the water clean.

The location selected for the pond will make a difference.

"Don't put a water garden out on the back 40," Mr. Stevens says. "Water gardens have a tendency to grow with people adding to them, improving them, buying special lawn furniture to complement them. They should be next to a patio or off a deck, in a place you can see from a window."

Jane Small couldn't agree more. Her garden is visible from many rooms of her house. Sometimes she opens the doors to her great room and listens while the sound of the water, a gentle noise she calls immensely soothing to a frazzled psyche, reverberates off the high ceilings.

In 1989, it was a rather barren expanse of grass, punctuated with two standard 8-by-10 decks and one crab apple tree. Now Ms. Small has just what she wanted -- a four-season water garden that is as beautiful covered with snow in the winter as it is awash in flowers and plants in the summer.

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"The secret to a water garden," says John Donofrio, president of John P. Donofrio & Associates Design Group Inc., "is to blend it in with the mood of the entire property. It has to be shaped to the land and look natural, like it belongs and isn't contrived. When you look at a water garden, you should feel peaceful and serene. If you do, then the garden is a success."

Mr. Donofrio has worked with water gardens since 1936; he has seen their popularity wax and wane and then rebound during the past five years. Two of his most successful projects were built in the 1960s; they are still working and lovely to see.

One is tucked behind a contemporary home in Pikesville, in a woodsy landscape where the water garden blends discreetly into a design focusing on a lagoonlike swimming pool and pool house.

"We wanted to give the illusion that the swimming pool was a natural pond that flowed into the waterfall and water garden," says Mr. Donofrio. "Actually they don't connect at all."

Built about 25 years ago, the garden has been revamped with new plants, but the design has remained the same. The garden is filled with water that has been pumped over a small fieldstone waterfall into a large pond, on which float dozens of waterlilies and other plants.

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