Water in Traditional Garden Design

If we cherish the belief that a garden design must be a place of restfulness as well as a place of visual beauty, then water must surely be the essential ingre­dient. Of all nature’s elements, water is the one that brings a feeling of peace to the landscape. It plays on all the senses- sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste- and offers a cornucopia of design possi­bilities in gardens of all sizes and styles.

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On a grand scale, imagine a country garden design complete with a lake edged by gently sloping banks, a meandering stream spanned by a Monet-style bridge; on a minimal scale, think of a Japanese water fountain with a stone water bowl providing a cool resting place for native birds.

Our Past Heritage of Water Garden Design

The role of water in garden design has a long and illustrious history, both in the East and in Western gardens. During the time of Plato, public fountains adorned parks and temple groves, while sacred fountains and shrines to Pan, nymphs, and the muses nestled in pri­vate garden sanctuaries. Homer’s Odyssey describes the Sanctuary of Nymphs at Ithaca, where streams tumbled over rocks and boulders to a shrine known as a Nymphaeum, dedicated to the nymphs and complete with fountains designed to represent a natural grotto.

Ultimately, the development of hydraulic engineer­ing and aqueducts in Rome produced many ornamental fountains and water garden designs including Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, which boasted an extravagant dis­play of waterworks in the form of streams, canals, fountains, and pools. Even today in the Vatican you can see the wondrous gilt Byzantine fountain La Pigna in the shape of a pine cone sprin­kling water. In the Paradise Gardens of Islam, water was an integral feature with water canals representing the ‘four rivers of paradise, dividing garden plots.

The luxurious villa gardens of rural Pompeii are recorded in wall paintings and engravings that show elaborate trellises and urns. Rills (small constructed rivulets) are mentioned in literature describing the period columned terraces with fountains and deep channels that formed artificial rivers. The beauty of these garden designs, buried beneath volcanic ash and for 16 centuries, was uncovered early in the 18th century when workmen digging a well accidentally stumbled upon the remains. The region was rich in natural beauty; and water must have been plentiful to have supported a variety of ornamental water garden designs.

Water was also a powerful theme in the gardens of the Mogul Empire, usually around mosques and places where people bathed. In China and Japan the influence of water was pervasive; no Chinese garden was designed without a combination of water and mountains. The landscape of these two countries is for their use of water: streams, springs ponds, small fountains and lakes cleverly designed to emulate wild nature. The use of boulders and rocks, and the selection of carefully scaled plant material, add to the beauty and serenity of these gardens.

In Egypt, the gardens of the Pharaohs and other members of the wealthy had two priorities-water and shade—to combat the relentless heat. Garden designs were always an oasis of beauty, with scented shrubs forming an understory to shade trees. Walled gardens, established to create a cooler microclimate, contained simple rectangular pools, with spouts from the roof playing water into the pool, where ornamental fish were probably kept. An Egyptian garden design discovered in the tomb of a high official at Thebes demon­strates a quite sophisticated irrigation system, as well as vine-covered places and terraces of sycamore and palm trees.

In European gardens of the Middle Ages a fountain or water basin was considered essential, and was usually located in the middle of a walled area. Monastery gardens, where herbs were grown for medicinal purposes, are well recorded; and here water was also impor­tant as a religious symbol of purification. Garden designs were practical as well as spiritu­al features, produ

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