Gardening: A soothing trickle of artistry

Installing a fountain in your garden is not as difficult as you might think.
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Perhaps this is a tactless time to talk about water in the garden. June has given us almost too much of it, though I'm not complaining. The old beech trees are sighing gently with contentment and relief as the rain works more and more deeply into the soil around their roots.

But the heat-wave that coincided with the Chelsea Flower Show in late May made water the most important single element in the show gardens there. You needed its cooling promises; you were seduced by its sparkle in the brilliant light; you were calmed by the sound of water rippling back into itself from simple jets or bubble fountains. Italy in central London. It can be done.

You will need help (see above). Water has to stay where it is put and I wouldn't be any happier fiddling around with its provision in the garden than I would be sorting out the plumbing in the house. I'm thinking here of something more ambitious (and satisfying) than a free-form, pre-moulded amoeba pool of the type you find in garden centres.

A water feature may be no more than a large sink or stone trough, filled with shells and with a circulating pump cunningly hidden below. The water bubbles up through a pipe in the centre of the trough and spills out over the stones to return to the pump below. Such a feature is soothing, relatively cheap, and simple to set up. Stylistically, it is the garden equivalent of the beige suit. It will go anywhere. It can sit on a wooden deck five storeys above ground or be tucked under a wall in a basement well. It is as happy in a Japanese garden as it is in a Mediterranean one. Once you get into the territory of lion's masks and fake lead troughs, you need more particular props: box hedges, lilies, a garden made with nostalgia in mind.

A lion's mask (or any other kind of waterspout) will need to be fixed against something solid, so this kind of water feature is likely to be tucked against a wall, with the water falling from the lion's mouth into a trough below. The water will make more of a plashing noise than the gently bubbling pebble fountain, but the water itself can be recycled in just the same way.

If you want a proper pool, your gardening life will become more complicated and more expensive. A pool can't be dropped into place as easily as a lion's mask spout. It needs to link in with the overall plan of the garden. You may want it sited so that you can see it from inside the house. You may want it next to a sitting-out area. If you have a conservatory tacked on to the back of the house, you could do something tricksy and have half the pool inside the conservatory, half outside.

The position of the pool will be affected by the way you decide to install it: dug out so that the water is at ground level, or built up so you avoid the mess and expense of excavating. With both it is the finish that is important. There may be practical reasons why digging out is not an option. Many town houses have no rear access: there is no way you can get even a mini-digger into place and all earth has to be carted out through the hall. But a built-up pool will work only if, in a visual sense, it is properly "anchored" to the ground and the rest of its surroundings.

A box hedge planted round the retaining wall of the pool will do this and give the charming effect (provided that you design the lip of the pool with a light hand) that the water itself is held only in a bowl of box. Or you can make a virtue of the raised retaining wall round a pool and treat it as a garden seat, extending the lip with wooden slats. You could render the wall and plant it with ivy.

Whether the pool is raised or excavated, the edging will make or break it. The designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd, who scooped the Best Garden award at the Chelsea Flower Show this year, brought the grass surround of her pool right up to the water's edge, with no paving in between. The effect was stunning though some gloom and doom merchants saw difficulties in edging grass in such a situation. I'd say it was worth the effort 10 times over, and not difficult if you edge with a tool such as single-handed sheep shears. You could then hold the tufts of grass in your other hand to stop most of it falling in the water.

The shape of a pool matters, too; the simpler the better. In the long, narrow configuration of a typical town garden, a circular pool, set centrally, will break up the space and work profitably against the geometry. If you have brick paths or a brick patio, then the surround of the pool (if there is to be one) should be brick, too. The smaller the garden, the fewer different materials you should use in it. The pool needn't be planted, but a simple reflecting pool works best if it is painted black inside. I'd still have a jet installed, even if it rarely jetted. The noise of water is an important reason for having it in the first place.

Fact File

Mark Anthony Walker Landscape Architects, 1 College Street, St Albans, Herts AL3 4PW (01727 840038). At Chelsea Mark Walker created the impossible: a wild, willow wetland crossed by a crisp modern deck. His decking was designed by Gunnar Orefelt at Orefelt Associates, 5 Haydens Place, London W11 (0171-243 3181).

Simon and Kate Harman, Dorking Aquatics, Tarn Hows, Broad Lane, Newdigate, Surrey RH5 5AT (01306 631064). Check them out at the Hampton Court Flower Show (9-12 July); they have taken Monet's paintings of his own water-garden as the inspiration for their display.

A good contractor is Colin Withycombe, Park Garden Services, 6 Shepherds Rise, Vernham Dean, Andover, Hants SP11 0HD (01264 737296).

Solar-powered fountains from Solar Solutions, 29 Wallis Street, Fishguard, Dyfed SA65 9HP (01348 874762) need no mains electricity cables. The standard version has a biggish glass solar panel, and costs pounds 154. The de luxe version has a smaller, unbreakable panel, at pounds 289. In sunny conditions both can pump 700 litres an hour. If it's raining, you probably won't be sitting by the pool anyway.

For ideas on designing a water feature with the safety of small children in mind, contact Tetra, Mitchell House, Southampton Road, Eastleigh, Hants SO50 9XD (01703 620500).