Water Features for Your Small Garden

Whether it's a pond or a waterfall, water features can be among the most mesmerizing elements of a garden's landscape design.
Stepping Stones Float Across Pond

Stepping Stones Float Across Pond

Stepping stones in this pond appear to float, but are actually expertly constructed on plinths. Water plants complete the landscape design.

Photo by: DK - Small Garden © 2004 Dorling Kindersley Limited

DK - Small Garden , 2004 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Stepping stones in this pond appear to float, but are actually expertly constructed on plinths. Water plants complete the landscape design.

Water has a compelling quality and can bring light and life to the most limited of spaces. It is both versatile and predictable (the latter being something that plants are not), and lends itself to being contained within an architectural setting. An area of water, however styled, should be treated as an integral part of the garden’s pattern, and its dimensions should be considered in relation to the height of surrounding boundaries.

Creative Uses of Water 

Obviously, space will inhibit the quantity of water that can be included in a small garden. However, water can easily be incorporated into some sort of water feature, and if ground space is very limited, it need not necessarily be one that is horizontal; for example, consider the use of falling water. The effects you can achieve range from the merest trickle from a wall spout to a vertical wall of water. Though water can be cold and depressing, if used properly, it will always be eye-catching or even mesmerizing.

A very significant factor that few consider is that the running, splashing, or trickling of flowing water, as well as being visually pleasing, can help to block out urban noise. On a hot day, the sight and sound of gently running water will have a cooling effect too. 

An area of still water at ground level in a garden creates a mirrored setting for surrounding features. A dark internal lining at the bottom of a pool of water will intensify reflections further, whereas a light-colored glazed tile finish will reduce them. The latter treatment will tempt you to look into the water’s depths, rather than its surface, adding yet another dimension to your garden space. Sunlight playing on the surface of still water produces a Hockney-like, cellular pattern and, if near a building, a reflection rather like light dancing on a ceiling.

Flat planes of water can also act as a foil for planting, either in the water or adjacent to it, such as reeds and water lilies or overhanging blossoms. This is a way of linking part of your garden’s ground pattern to three-dimensional plant forms. 

If plants are used in association with moving water, a fountain or water splash, for instance, the relationship between structure and planting becomes more vibrant. Planes of water can be contained at different heights to create a visual relationship between the ground plan and the boundary. The focus of interest can be water flowing from one plane to another, or the “New York plaza” effect can be created, obviously on a small scale, by allowing it to form a waterfall down a wall. 

Water can also be used as sculptural decoration within a basic layout, rather than as an integral part of the garden’s structure. Because water has such a compelling quality, it is important that a water feature intended as decoration is contained within a strong garden design plan to prevent it from dominating the entire scene. Water can be used as sculptural decoration in the form of a wall splash or alternatively in a dynamic arrangement of water-filled containers, either free-standing or interconnected.

Decorative Pools 

Natural-looking pools of water usually appear out of character in tight urban spaces. However, the Japanese water garden's rather mannered approach to wildness is more sympathetic to urban locations than the soft-edged garden pond, which only suits truly rural settings. 

In the main, unless extremely well-designed and crafted, the simpler the use of water in a small space, the more effective it will be. A tiny courtyard in the South of France comes to mind, in which there is a shallow pool, with a pattern of fish modelled in the tiles that line it – so simple, but constantly compelling. The water must be sparkling clean for this sort of effect, and this means excellent maintenance. There are many water-cleaning devices on the market, of varying sophistication – their installation requires specialist advice.

Water to Relax and Exercise In

“Lap” pools are becoming more and more popular with the health conscious. These are areas of water designed for swimming laps in, and need not be more than 10 feet (three meters) in width, but should be no shorter than 23 feet (seven meters) in length. It is just about possible to incorporate a lap pool of the minimum dimensions in a small garden, though little space will be left for anything else. Any type of swimming pool should work within a scaled layout. 

Frequently, the relationship between pool shape and size and the rest of the garden is ill-considered. Pear-shaped or kidney-shaped pools, so beloved by their manufacturers, are often fitted into an angular space, with the result that the areas left around them look awkward, both in relation to the pool itself and to the remainder of the garden site. A plunge pool (a pool large enough to immerse the body in) is a much smaller alternative. If fitted with a wave machine, it can provide a force of water against which to swim and exercise, and also make a natural focal point for social occasions in the summer months. 

Even smaller in scale are the jacuzzi and the hot tub (or even a combination of the two), which can be included in a sheltered space. If they are close to the house, they can be used in the winter. Immersing yourself in warm water with only your head in sub-zero temperatures can be a stimulating, not to say bizarre, experience.

It is essential when having warm water outside to have some sort of cover to conserve the heat so expensively generated and to keep it clean.

Keep Reading

Next Up

Garden Design: Connect Your Indoor and Outdoor Spaces

Let your indoor space inspire your landscape design plans.

Garden Design: Small Spaces

Tiny garden rule number one: Keep it simple.

Define Your Outdoor Space With a Garden Fence

Discover the materials and design that will work best for your garden boundary, whether it is a fence, wall or hedge.

Small Garden Guide: Paving Is Opportunity for Landscaping Magic

Choosing the right paving design and materials can make small backyards and patios appear bigger. 

Less Is More: Small Space Gardening

Even miniscule backyards, rooftops and balconies can be transformed into relaxing, inviting outdoor living rooms.

Choose the Right Fence for Your Garden

A crash course on choosing a barrier for your small garden.

Meditation Garden Plan

Step away from stress and into your very own garden sanctuary. Use this landscape plan to create a private retreat that's perfect for a little quiet time.

Small-Space Vegetable Gardens

Make room on your fire escape or pot up some tomato plants—you can grow delicious fruits and veggies even if you don't have much space.

Edible Gardening in Small Spaces

Make the most of a small garden space by mixing flowers and vegetable plants in an ornamental edible garden.

Garden to Runway: Water Works

Check out our regular mash up of fashion and gardens.

1,000+ Photos

Browse beautiful photos of our favorite outdoor spaces: decks, patios, porches and more.


Follow Us Everywhere

Join the party! Don't miss HGTV in your favorite social media feeds.