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Water Gardens

PUBLISHED: 11:22 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013

A bridge brings you closer to the water-tranquil and serene

A bridge brings you closer to the water-tranquil and serene

When it comes to water gardens the only limit is your imagination, as Mandy Bradshaw discovered

Water features have come a long way since the days of merely digging a pond and filling it with fish. Today they range from formal courtyard fountains and naturalistic yet manmade streams to water trickling over hewn rock and designs made of glass and steel.

Indeed, Newent-based landscape designer Peter Dowle believes the only limiting factors are budget and imagination.

"Water features can be whatever you want them to be," he says.

A staggering 80 per cent of his clients want water in their finished garden and his work ranges from the traditional to the ultra modern.

Yet, water features can be tricky, get it wrong and you'll end up with a constantly leaking pool, or one where the liner is permanently visible.

"It's not something to try yourself," said Peter, who trained at Pershore and then cut his horticultural teeth working with garden centres Hurrans and Jardinerie, and for his father, Julian Dowle, well known for his Chelsea medal-winning designs.

"You need to be quite wary with water - if there's an opportunity to leak, it will find it."

The starting point for any design is scale: a small courtyard might have space for no more than a wall-mounted feature, something that would be lost in a larger area. Conversely, a sweeping expanse of lawn might lend itself to a large pool, complete with jetty.

Having decided on the size, the next consideration is the style - formal or informal. Again, the setting is crucial, with other garden features, such as borders and the architecture of the house all having a bearing.

"The connection with the building comes into play," explains Peter. "You would not use metal or a finish like that if it was all Victorian."

Streams and cascades are one of the most popular informal styles and, thanks to clever design, a natural source of running water is not necessary. Instead, it is pumped in a continuous circle down a manmade stream of carefully laid rocks and back to the top again. The watercourse can end in a small pool or disappear into a culvert.

"You should be hard pressed to see the human intervention, that's the challenge. It's manmade but the trickery is it looks natural in the garden. It's magical."

The key to success is understanding how rocks lie naturally and matching them carefully; Peter and his team handpick them from quarries, although local Cotswold stone is too soft to be used in this way.

Stepping stones or large 'harbour stones' set into the water - an idea borrowed from Japan - allow you to get closer, particularly effective where there is a waterfall.

"You can get right into the water and hear it crash down next to you."

In the same way, Peter often incorporates a jetty into large ponds, giving both a place to relax and a different viewpoint, while natural-looking 'beaches' along the water's edge also allow closer access.

Formal designs include raised pools, some with ornate fountains, narrow rills that draw the eye across a space, water spouting from wall-mounted lead masks and the crisp lines of Italianate canal gardens.

Again, the close contact with water is important: "With any water feature, at any level you have got to be able to get close enough to interact with it."

So, some may have a strategically placed bench, others a carefully constructed ledge for sitting on.

Sometimes only the sound of water is required and here obelisks are the perfect choice. Water, stored in a reservoir below, is trickled down a piece of rock, selected for its shape.

"We may choose a piece with a fossil, something with a bit of character."

Unlike pools, there is no problem with algae and it is the perfect choice for young families.

One project even saw a swimming pool incorporated into a water garden. Artificial rocks, made from hardened foam by a company that constructs film sets, were used to line the pool, hiding the blue liner underneath and giving it the appearance of a large pond.

"It was no longer a big, square blue blob and in winter it was just part of a bigger water garden."

As well as attracting a host of wildlife, including birds, dragonflies, frogs and even ducks, to the garden, a water feature also provides the perfect opportunity for planting a wide range of aquatic and marginal plants.

Among Peter's favourites are water mint, the white-flowered Houttuynia cordata and myriophyllum, though he urged caution when planting aquatics, as many are invasive.

"You have to understand that when they do get away they move quickly, although they often look better en masse rather than piecemeal."

Further away from the water and the ground may be damp enough to plant marginals or to create a bog garden. This might include gunnera, hostas, astilbes, lysimachia, candelabra primulas and rodgersias.

Alongside stream gardens, Peter often incorporates ferns, their soft foliage a perfect complement to the rocks and water.

Plants are also vital in maintaining a healthy balance in the pond, along with a good filter.

"A good balanced eco-system is the clearest water you will get but it can take three to five years to get sufficient balance in the plant life," explained Peter, who has worked on 18 Chelsea show gardens, including Chris Beardshaw's tribute to Hidcote at this year's show.

Nearly all of Peter's water gardens incorporate lighting, a feature he considers to be an important addition.

"Lighting and water go hand-in-hand."

Again, the range is wide from fibre optics illuminating a column of tumbling water to single spots lighting a rock or uplighters showing the tracery of falling water droplets. Lights can be placed under waterfalls or used to create reflections of nearby plants and trees, while carefully lit jetties make their own statement.

"With lights a water feature becomes an absolute piece of art at night."

And it is this sensual quality that makes water so important in a garden.

"The connection is subliminal, water takes us right back to our roots. It can add such an ambience to a garden. It's just a question of letting your imagination run."

For more information on Peter Dowle Plants and Gardens, call 01531 820345 or visit


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