The ripple effect: A tasteful water feature has the power to turn even a tiny plot into a tranquil oasis

We all like the thought of water in our gardens – a pretty pond, with dragonflies hovering above water lilies; the soothing sound of flowing water; a cool, deep pool reflecting a clear sky. But somehow, the words "water feature" don't conjure up such idyllic images. Instead, we think of artificial rock formations or noisy fountains gushing from ugly fixtures; faux monoliths or carefully balanced urns dribbling into each other. Frankly, Charlie Dimmock has a lot to answer for.

Happily though, the water feature is shaking its reputation as the worst thing that can happen to your garden – just don't go "Googling" for inspiration. Unless your idea of chic garden design is a "Bunny Bubbling Brook", with a family of frolicking resin rabbits, internet shopping is best avoided.

Most top garden designers understand the power of water in a garden, and insist that even in a small city patch it can be put to good use, creating a well-designed, attractive water feature that's more Chelsea 2010 than Ground Force 1997.

The right water feature for the right garden

Anthony Archer-Wills, who's been designing water features for 40 years, says that first things to ask yourself are: "Why do you want a water feature? What will it be used for?"

"What you want will really affect the positioning and design," he explains. "If it's an extension of your living area, you might want a raised pond that you can sit on the edge of, put a glass of wine on. But if you've got young children you'll want to think about safety, and having higher walls so they can't fall in."

Archer-Wills also recommends looking at the architectural shapes of your garden. Your water feature should have some relationship with the architecture of your house or garden, and when it comes to formal pools, he suggests making one side parallel with the line of the house or terrace. "You don't want a point, that's very discordant on the eye; it should look restful. Reflect the architecture or natural features of the garden – it has to be in harmony," he adds.

Ensuring your water feature reflects its environment is a point all our experts make. Nick Dexter, who displayed at RHS Chelsea last month, suggests that "the problem with many water features is that they try to recreate natural situations but fail miserably – they become a pastiche." Piling up rocks or trying to produce a country stream in a city garden is likely to look naff, he explains, because you're "not representing the natural surroundings in your own garden"

Dexter also suggests designing your proposed water feature to suit your home: "Formal pools work well nearer newer architecture and design, matching the more linear lines." But he's also in favour of "mixing the natural elements with the formal" – his garden at Chelsea last year featured a natural stream with a layer of glass on top, combining the wildness of water with a minimal, modernist finish, while his garden at Hampton Court includes a trail of water cutting through formal paving stones.

Andrew Ewing, the water feature designer responsible for the distinctive reflective tanks in Tom Stuart-Smith's 2009 Chelsea garden, advocates "letting the water do all the talking, rather than having an overpowering form the water moves across." If you want a "good, crisp reflection", have still water on a dark surface; if you want movement and pattern, flow water rapidly across textured stone, rocks and boulders or cast bronze.

Small spaces

Dexter's Chelsea garden this year flowed water vertically down through bundles of birch stumps. Inspired by avant-garde artist Sonia Delaunay, it was certainly chic and modern, but Dexter insists this can work in your backyard too – using verticals is a neat trick when short on room.

Ewing insists that lighting can play a big part in a small space. "By using lighting creatively you can make a bigger impact," he says. Try using submerged LEDs to uplight a pool. This will be particularly effective in one with spouts or falling water, and will give watery-uplighting on a nearby tree or wall.

"Keep part of it hidden," is Archer-Wills advice. "If there's some mystery from the house it always seems bigger, and because you feel you have to go explore it invites people out to see what's around the corner."

Quality and price

"Quality is really important, especially where it shows," says Archer-Wills. "Using good materials is essential on the conspicuous parts of the garden – use natural materials where possible. But if it is a modern garden and a modern feature, you can use things less natural like concrete, but it needs to be well done: don't scrimp on the finish."

But with a bit of imagination you can create effective features out of unlikely materials. "The objects that make a good water feature aren't necessarily expensive," says Dexter. "We used grey MOT scalpings [crushed concrete pieces] and some old stone from the Hillsborough football ground for one garden, and just flowed water over it. It was far more believable than these Caledonian pebbles you can buy. Water will always find its way, so we just kicked them around a bit and the water began to braid and direct itself in interesting ways."

Ewing agrees: "If you can be creative, you can do it cheaply. You can use standard plumbing fixtures and tanks – it all depends on how sophisticated you want to be."

Troubleshooting

So you want a water feature, and you're letting your imagination (and quite possibly the water and your budget) run wild, but what are the practical considerations?

"Don't use small pipes," says Ewing. "The classic mistake is using a 15mm diameter pipe and you can't get the water through it." He also points out that maintenance can be pain unless you think ahead – include an easy-access drain that you can empty and clean, as dead leaves and other gunk will always fall in.

"One thing worth thinking about is noise and splashing," he adds. "If your garden is in a a town or city, the neighbours might not enjoy the noise as much as you. As one of my clients said to me, 'there's nothing worse than a fountain that sounds like a horse relieving itself'. Large jets can be quite noisy, but if you run water down a surface of stone or concrete it'll be much quieter."

You also need to consider the kind of water pump you install. Shop around and make sure you get an energy-efficient one, with a timer or motion sensor. Solar pumps are an option, although Ewing warns that you may need a very large (and ugly) solar panel in order to create anything more vigorous than a trickle of water. "Pumps can use as little electricity as a light bulb," he points out. When asked about the green credentials of a water feature, Dexter is quick to point out that by having water you will bring wildlife into your garden, claiming that "the positives outweigh the negatives."

Finally, make sure you actually like your water feature. It might sound obvious, but as Archer-Wills points out, "the whole point of having a garden is to enjoy it. Use your imagination. Any water garden is designed to raise quality of life."

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