Designing with Water

In my last post A Change in Perspective, I showed you how I had taken advantage of the diagonal line across a rectangular lot to improve the function and make a small garden feel larger. Understanding how to use the line of sight – or axis – is a fundamental design principle no matter how large or small your space and there are different ways it can be accomplished.

On a recent trip to Pasadena, CA I was struck by several gardens, both public and private, that used water to highlight an axis. The  examples here showcase a rill, a reflecting pool, small ponds and a bubbling fountain, all used to highlight either a single or cross axis. The style and placement of such water features will determine whether the view is lengthened or foreshortened.

A Rill that Elongates the View

I've always been fascinated by rills and the way they draw the eye down a long axis but this one was especially captivating. The water was diverted into four narrow channels at intervals, causing it to move and ripple in interesting patterns down its length. On either side were wide, symmetrically planted borders accented with large rustic green containers.

The upper portion of the rill at The Huntingdon

The upper portion of the rill at The Huntingdon

The water commences its languid journey from an understated circular depression in a granite slab, flanked by pillars that are topped with succulent bowls. At its endpoint the water flows into a wide rectangular pool where it is pumped back to the head.

The overall effect was stunning; an oasis in a desert climate (it was 102' that day) that drew the eye through the space and out towards the themed gardens beyond. The lush planting on either side added color and dimension, softening the design yet not detracting from it.

Using Water in  Cross Axes

A private Pasadena residence

A private Pasadena residence

The most compelling element of this private garden was the remarkable water feature that  highlighted both the long and short axes across the space. The long axis was dominated by a turquoise reflecting pool (possibly used as a lap pool) that led the eye to a domed pergola and trellis fence in front of which was a border of agave, aloe and other drought-tolerant species. This layered focal point is all the more dramatic for the pool pointing to it.

An assortment of water loving plants added color to the ponds

An assortment of water loving plants added color to the ponds

Intersecting the reflecting pool  was a series of partitioned ponds and a simple spillway that met visitors as they entered the gate and led them visually into the garden. These ponds were filled with water loving grasses, Canna and water lilies. Stepping stones encouraged close-up viewing and strolling.



Water features that are still or move very slowly afford the best reflections as can be seen above.

Marking an Intersection with Water

A simple fountain placed at the intersection of two paths

A simple fountain placed at the intersection of two paths adds a focal point

A second private garden demonstrated the use of a bubbling fountain at the intersection of two axes. This area was formerly a badminton court, reclaimed some years ago and transformed into a delightful strolling garden filled with water-wise shrubs and succulents , framed with brick and gravel and accented by a unique piece of garden art to draw ones eye to the farthest reaches of the space.

The use of a circular motif (the gravel path around the fountain, round container and spherical barrel cacti) helps to disguise the rectangular court dimensions while placing water in the very middle encourages visitors to slow down as they meander from one garden room to another.

Have you used water to emphasize an axis in your garden? Leave a comment and tell me all about it  or post a photo on my Facebook page. I always love to hear your ideas

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  1. commonweeder on October 7, 2015 at 6:41 am

    Wasn't that tour of the Huntington wonderful? So many ideas. So much information. Unfortunately we couldn't stay for the private garden tour so I am especially thankful for the additional photos. The only thing I regret about the weekend is that there wasn't enough time to talk to the other attendees.

  2. Diana/Sharing Nature’s Garden on October 11, 2015 at 10:14 am

    Those water features added such a cooling element to the gardens suffering from a heat stroke. Oh, wait, that was me. Just looking at them was so refreshing, and they did define the space.