Fountains – Adding Serenity to the Garden

Fountains in the garden can bring peace and serenity. The sound and movement of water in the garden is like a symphony in full glory. Water is music, and fountains are the easiest way of adding that music to the garden. They do not have to be huge; they can be as small as a tabletop bubbler or as big as a bubbling boulder.

When I hear the sound of moving, rushing, splashing water in the garden, it draws me in. I have always been fascinated by water in the garden. Ever since I started gardening at my own home, I have added my own unique spin on fountains. I like to use rustic, farm-related relics to center my fountain on. When I was 20 years old, my Mom bought me a well pump that I have used in 2 different fountains.

How does one go about choosing the right elements for a fountain? And how hard is it to build? And should I use plantings around it, or just place it among rocks and boulders? All this and more I will lay the groundwork out for you. But you have to build a fountain for yourself, or call the office and one of our designers can help you.

Putting Fountains in Your Garden

When you are choosing the right fountain for your garden, you must first know your garden style. If you do not already know this, then take a hard and careful look at your plantings, your design elements, and the flow of your garden. Different gardening styles deserve different fountains. For more in depth looks at styles, see the descriptions below.

  • Cottage Style – A cottage style garden will have a variety of plant colors, textures, and blooms. Beds are usually curving, but can be boxed or even have straight lines. Edges are typically made with fieldstones, bricks, logs, or concrete shapes. Unlike many other gardens, they are typically considered more “fun” or a feast for the eyes.
  • Formal Style – A formal or traditional garden is usually full of straight lines, and balanced plants and textures. Expect to find tightly clipped hedges and trees, solid masses of single colors, and an abundance of evergreens. Bed edges are usually made of straight lines of concrete, steel, or wood.
  • Natural Style – A natural style garden contains elements of nature which attracts wildlife to the garden. It often contains sweeps of native plants, wood or rock piles, and large water gardens or ponds.
  • Meadow Style – In the meadow you find waving grasses, some large boulders, and a lot of wildflowers. Nature thrives here, with the songs of insects and birds.
  • Woodland Style – The woodland garden is home to large, overhead shade trees, understory trees, and spring ephemerals. It can be silent or have slightly babbling brooks and wandering paths.
  • Rock Garden Style – Rock gardens contain xeriscape plants, dry soils, and usually lots of succulents. Gravel gardens also fall into this category, though they often have a lot of diversity in plants.

Placement of Fountains in the Garden

Once you have determined what style of garden you have (maybe you have multiple styles intermingling), you can determine where and what type of fountain to add. Just remember, adding a large fountain may require adding more maintenance to the garden.

What is the purpose for your fountain? If you are adding it to be a focal or decorative part of the garden versus adding it for pure beauty and sound, then you will want to place it not only where you can see it from a frequented spot, but also where visitors to the garden will see it too. This might mean putting it by the front gate, or a bend in the path, or near a large sitting boulder or bench.

I would recommend putting fountains where you, the gardener, are going to enjoy it the best, no matter what kind of visitors you get. If you spend a lot of time reading in a favorite nook, or hanging in a hammock, or watching butterflies from a boulder, place your fountain nearest one of these places. This is so you can hear it and be affected both mentally and spiritually.

NOTE: Be sure to have your fountain with 100 feet of a water source or run an irrigation line to the fountain for easier filling. You will also need a source of electricity for the pump.

Choosing the Type of Fountain for Your Garden

The type of fountain you choose to add should reflect the style of the garden it is placed within. For example, a bubbling boulder is best placed into a woodland or rock garden style garden. Below are some different types of fountains and where to best place them.

  • Bubbling boulder or group of boulders – best placed in woodland, rock, or meadow styles.
  • Formal fountains – best for formal styles or entry gardens.
  • Sculpture or art fountain – can be used in meadows, cottage, or natural garden styles, depending on material.
  • Pondless waterfall – can be a sole feature on its own, or incorporated into cottage, formal, rock, natural, or woodland style.
barrel fountain
This barrel fountain could be used in a formal or entry garden, despite its whimsy.

Building Fountains

One of the most asked questions surrounding fountains or pondless waterfalls is “How hard it is to build on my own?”

Let me tell you now, fountains can be easily added into the garden. If you are a natural builder aka do-it-yourselfer. then putting in a fountain will be no big deal. But many gardeners find that anything beyond planting is out of their comfort zone. But most types are not as hard as you would think. Other than maybe needing some large equipment, such as a mini skid loader or backhoe to dig a hole or move a boulder, all can be done by hand in a weekend.

Step 1 – Prepare the Basin

By now, you should have the potential location of your fountain marked or saved in your memory. The first step in putting in the fountain is to dig a hole for the basin. How big should the hole be? That depends on the size of the basin, or how much water is flowing through your fountain.

You need to have enough water in the basin while the pump is running so that the water level does not drop below the pump, but also enough space to hold the water from the pipe when the pump is turned off. While you can run your fountain in all seasons with some precautions, it is best to have extra room in the basin for maintenance times when the pump needs turned off.

Most fountain kits that you might purchase will come with either a preformed plastic basin, or instructions on how big the hole will need to be. If you are using your own thing (antique water pump or artwork) as the main feature of the fountain, then you will have to determine how big the hole needs to be. For example, in my own fountain, which included 2 running pumps, with pipe runs on 3 feet high and 2 feet high respectively, I needed a 20 gallon basin.

step by step fountain kit install

Digging the Hole and Placing the Basin/Liner

Dig out the hole for the basin and go 2 to 6 inches deeper and wider than recommended. Smooth out the hole and remove any rocks or tree roots that might puncture your liner or tub. I like to put a layer or sand 1 inch deep, then weed fabric, then my pond liner. I have used plastic milk crates as filler space to hold the above features, but for heavier fountains with boulders or grind stones, you will need a special basin basket designed for that use.

Step 2 – Placing the Pump and Piping

The pump is the machine which moves the water from the basin through the fountain. Most fountains should be no taller than 6 feet to have an adequate flow of water. Choose a pump based on the gallons per hour (GPH). I recommend a pump that provides a flow rate of at least 100 gallons per hour over what is needed for your particular fountain. So if you have a 3 foot fountain and need 300 GPH flow, get a pump that can handle 400 GPH, with an adjustment dial if possible.

Put the pump in the lowest part of the basin, but not too far from the fountain feature, and pipe from the pump to the spill-out with 3/4 inch flexible water pipe. Larger fountains and pondless waterfalls are often plumbed with the feed pipe (from the pump to the top) outside of the basin or pump and inside a larger pipe. We run our pipes around the falls for easier maintenance.

fountain view

Step 3 – Adding Rocks and the Fountain Feature

The fountain feature is where the water comes out from. In my own case, I have my antique water pump housing and a 5 gallon cream can. Yours could be something similar, or a fountain pot, boulder, or other item where the water emerges from. Sometimes water comes from a hard pipe set in a small pond.

Once you have your hard basin or basin baskets, and the pump and pipe placed where you want them, add the main feature or rock now. If you are working with and enclosed system with a hard plastic basin, you should be able to place the boulder, pot, or other feature before adding any rock or decorative materials.

If your system is open like mine, you want to use large boulders or flagstone now. I use limestone or sandstone flag around the edges of my fountain. Then I placed the water pump and cream can (suspended on boulders at an angle) and attached the pipes. Finally, I added smaller fieldstones and decorative rocks around the feature.

For a more formal look, use only 1 type of rock, such as Mexican beach pebbles or Kansas river rock.

Step 4 – Test the Fountain and Water Capacity

After everything is hooked up and all the weight of rock is added, fill the basin with water. When it is 3/4 full, turn on the pump and continue adding water until the fountain is flowing at full capacity and there is at least 3 inches of water above the pump in the basin. Run it for 6 hours and check periodically for leaks or water loss. If you lose more than 25% of your water in less than 6 hours, you may need to make the basin larger, or check for too much outward splashing. Adjust the flow of the pump (if possible) to reduce the amount of water.

Also, hot summer days will evaporate the water faster out of the basin and if you are hand filling you will have to do so more often. It is a good idea to plumb an irrigation line to the basin with a fill valve. The fill valve automatically adds water when it gets below a certain point.

Planting Around Fountains

If you are placing your fountain into a pre-existing landscape, then most likely the plants are already there and nothing more needs done. But sometimes you build the fountain first, and add the landscaping around it. Or you need to fill back in after placing a fountain, because you usually have to remove some plants for placement.

Remember your garden style before adding any new plants around fountains. You do not want to add something you impulse bought at the garden center to the fountain area if it does not match your garden style. I like to add plants that compliment both the garden style and the fountain itself.

Weeping plants, trees, and bog plants are typical plants for adding around fountains. Below are some plants that would work well around a fountain, for each individual style of garden.

author's fountain project

Plants for Cottage Style

  • Siberian Iris – considered a water or bog garden lover. They come in a variety of flower colors and styles. ‘Pink Parfait’ is my favorite.
  • Old-fashioned Bleeding Heart – this spring ephemeral blooms in near full sun but dies away in the heat of summer.
  • Beautyberry – with graceful, arching stems, it has delicate pink flowers and dark purple flowers.
  • Japanese maples – using a short variety such as ‘Orangeglo’ or bending one to shape so it overflows the fountain.
  • Strawberry – there are many strawberries which can be let grow as a groundcover and they also have red fall color.
  • Northern sea oats – this native grass has decorative seed heads and can also be used for floral arrangement.

Plants for Formal Style

  • Japanese maple – again, these are multi-use trees which have a large variety of selections.
  • Yew – this shrub is easily pruned and shaped, though I advise caution when shearing around the fountain.
  • Boxwood – another easily pruned and shaped shrub.
  • Shrub roses – there are many cultivars now available and they can easily be matched in shape with slight pruning.
  • Daylilies – easy to maintain and keep looking fresh, many flower styles and colors are available.

Plants for Natural Style

  • Native grasses – switchgrass, big bluestem, prairie dropseed, Indiangrass, and prairie cordgrass are all good.
  • Cardinal flower – a native wetland wildflower with scarlet red flowers in late summer.
  • Big blue lobelia – similar to cardinal flower, but with blue flowers.
  • Culver’s Root – likes dry or wet soils, very showy white or purple flowers.
  • Rose turtlehead – wetland or bog plant with large pink flowers.

Plants for Meadow Style

  • Native grasses – switchgrass, big bluestem, prairie dropseed, Indiangrass, and prairie cordgrass are all good.
  • Sedges – low growing, grass-like plants with interesting seed heads.
  • Michigan lily – showy orange and black flowers.
  • Cardinal flower – a native wetland wildflower with scarlet red flowers in late summer.
  • Siberian iris – considered a water or bog garden lover. They come in a variety of flower colors and styles. ‘Pink Parfait’ is my favorite.

Plants for Woodland Style

  • Japanese maples – needing shade, they work very well in woodland gardens.
  • Hostas – can be used around the fountain. There are many varieties available.
  • Aralia ‘Sun King’ – lacy chartreuse foliage on compact plants, with unique flowers.
  • Ferns – many like extra water and humidity. They also add fine texture to the garden.
  • American bladdernut – a small tree with unique flowers and seed capsules.

Plants for Rock Garden Style

  • Tall sedums – ‘Autumn Fire’, ‘Autumn Joy’ and others blend well against a fountain.
  • Catmint – many cultivars make planting these aromatic plants a must.
  • Coreopsis ‘Zagreb’ – very drought tolerant, it is a very tidy plant with small yellow flowers.
  • Lavender – as long as its feet do not get wet, it will grow well next to the fountain.

Maintaining Fountains

Now that I have covered how and where to build the fountain, it is time to talk maintenance. This is usually everyone’s least favorite part about the fountain (mine too). Although, it can be quite rewarding to clean out a fountain in late winter or early spring in preparation for the coming seasons of blooms and color.

The most important decision regarding maintenance is whether you are going to leave the fountain running all winter long or not. If you leave it on, you will need a heat source to keep the water from freezing completely. This can be done with a pond or stock tank heater. Use one that is designed to be used in plastic tanks, because the ones for metal tanks require a metal guard that is quite ugly.

Spring maintenance of the fountain requires shutting off the pump, and cleaning out the water with a wet/dry shop vac or pumping the water out with the pump by pulling the pipe from the feature (the pump cannot remove debris such as leaves, so I recommend the shop vac). To clean out a large fountain follow the following steps.

  1. Turn off the pump, any lights, and the heater if used.
  2. Blow off any leaves or debris from the surface.
  3. Cut back and remove any plant debris nearby.
  4. Remove large rocks until the basin structure is visible.
  5. Remove the pump
  6. Suck out the water and any debris with the wet vac.
  7. Wash and clean the pump and replace in the basin.
  8. Refill with water and turn pump back on to make sure it is running correctly.
  9. Replace the rocks and enjoy!


Fountains can be an important part of the landscape, adding beauty, music, and serenity. They can be incorporated to any kind and size of garden, from a 100 acre meadow to a patio container garden. If you want to start adding music to the garden, start with a water element such as a fountain. And let your imagination grow.

Happy planting!

author of fountains

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