Formal Pond and Fountainscape Features in Naturalistic Settings

Published on October 26, 2021

lighted fountain water feature
The challenge in this backyard was twofold: create a contemporary water feature while preserving the lawn area for a fire pit destination.

By Dylan Arlotta & Tom Dieck

Here at Aquascapes East, we know just how popular ponds and pondless waterfalls have become. Many installers pride themselves on the level of creativity and detail they can squeeze into every creation, taking the placement of each rock and plant as seriously as da Vinci took his brush strokes. Covered in waterfall foam and mud, they approach back-breaking work with a smile. In their prime as they create ecosystem ponds or stunning pondless waterfalls, they practically glow when given a chance to describe how their newest creation will fit so perfectly into a client’s backyard. 

>> Related Content | Creativity Meets Necessity with this Amazing Backyard Fountainscape

As the gleam in their eye fades, many pond and waterfall artists will admit that they also install fountainscapes — the easily ignored little brother of the water-feature industry. 

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Unlike residential ponds and waterfalls, which are phenomena of the 20th and 21st centuries, fountains have been an integral part of civilization for thousands of years. 

By the time B.C. turned to A.D., the Romans had already perfected the fountain game. Using aqueducts to harvest gravity, they established more than 600 public fountains throughout the city of Rome. Some of these were simple pipes pouring into basins meant to be used for drinking, cooking or bathing. Others were monumental displays dedicated to gods and mythical creatures. All of them turned into social centers that brought the populus together with the healing powers of water. Fountains in the public setting reached their peak of artistry in the renaissance, with elaborate examples all over the European continent still working to this day.

three basalt fountains
Inspired by Aquascape’s lead designer Brian Helfrich, this formal fountainscape is designed to bring water as close as possible to the foundation of the house. Three Basalt spires rise up and out of the pond, elevating this formal pond from ordinary to extraordinary while providing much needed oxygen for the fish.

However, as time marched on, the world industrialized the miracle of electricity, which brought much easier access to water. Most of the civilized world’s fountains fell into obscurity. These once-celebrated social centers became relics representative of the past. No longer miracles of engineering or ideal social gathering spots, they lost their allure. 

For modern-day water-feature installers, their general lack of enthusiasm for fountains usually all comes down to one word: formal. 

Formal features tend to focus on straight lines and regular geometric shapes. They feature man-made materials and adornments displaying water in a very controlled and managed manner. Informal features, by comparison, seek to highlight the random beauty of nature by using all natural materials while incorporating organic lines and shapes. 

People who are called to build water features for a living are outdoorsy characters by default. They set out to recreate nature in every construction. With this goal in mind, it becomes difficult for the purist in them to soil a creation by adding something so blasphemous and antiquated as a “man-made fountain.” Defining design elements with the formal vs. informal debate leads to a clear-cut division between styles. This makes it simple to maintain a feeling of continuity in any garden space. 

As the world of water features is expanding, a new design style is emerging that blends the informal world of natural water features with the traditionally formal world of fountainscapes. This “new formal” is a hybridization that incorporates man-made objects and clean lines with the wild and untamed presentation of nature. This new gray area of water feature installations is an untapped treasure trove of creativity just waiting to be opened.

Adding a lush, green element or powerful punch of color from seasonal flowers in the setting of a piece that elsewhere in the design has flowing water gives a pleasing continuity to the balance of formal and informal.

Whether it’s fashion or the latest gadget, everybody knows it’s all about the accessories. Incorporating fountains into natural water features as a highlight or as an integral design element elevates the level of elegance and piques the interest. Adding a formal element to an informal setting such as an overflowing urn fountain in an ecosystem pond compounds the effects of both and gives a result greater than the sum of its parts. 

This large-scale Aquascape Slate Stacked Urn is visible from every vantage point of this vacation home. The color-changing lights just dance all night long.

The addition of a fountain to an existing water feature can make the lush garden setting seem more elegant and mysterious. Even standalone fountains can benefit from the addition of natural rock work and aquatic plantings. Once the barrier has been broken between the formal and informal worlds of design, it becomes easy to fine tune the design to just the right mix to fit the client at hand. 

Mix it Up!

boulder fountainscape water feature
Every fountainscape that we take on must have a backdrop that holds your eye. Here our landscape team traverses this natural rock outcropping to prepare each available crevice for a flowering perennial.

My personal aversion to fountain pieces made this transition between formal and informal designs difficult at first. Hopefully illustrating some of the techniques we use to blend these worlds will help you break down the formal barrier as well. 

When building ponds, we often place larger “character boulders” scattered throughout the feature to provide a natural appearance and give the impression that the feature is tied into the earth. Try replacing one of these boulders with a larger fountain piece. Even partially submerged, they perform the same job by visually anchoring the pond to the landscape. 

Another great way to get the creativity rolling is by using a fountain piece as the source of flowing water in your next project. Placing a fountain piece at the top of a stream or pondless waterfall will make the flow of water appear to be provided by the fountain itself. 

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Many of the objects used as fountains will overflow, allowing water to spill out as a display. Whenever possible, we love to take some of these same fountain elements that usually flow water and use them as planters. Adding a lush, green element or powerful punch of color from seasonal flowers in the setting of a piece that elsewhere in the design has flowing water gives a pleasing continuity to the balance of formal and informal. Using ground covers or spreading plants will give the impression that plants are cascading from this fountain planter.

At Aquascapes East, we try to use the natural elements to control the man-made objects. This is one of the most impressive ways to improve the synergy of formal fountains and informal, natural settings. We will often trim man-made fountain pieces to fit around the organic shapes of rocks as if nature had consumed the fountain piece itself. This technique requires patience and skill, but the results are well worth the effort.

Whether you simply place a small bubbling rock into your next waterfall or decide to go all out and custom cut a fountain piece to fit into the rock work of your feature, breaking down this barrier is the first step. I have no doubt that once the creative minds of the pond construction world are unleashed on the old and stuffy world of formal fountainry, the result will be a vigorous rebirth of the age-old concept that catapults us into a new age of hybridized fountainscapes — where the sky’s the limit on creativity. 

signature pond slate-stacked walls
The signature pond here at our office showcases a myriad of architectural slate-stacked walls. We sank them, blended boulders into them, used them as risers for steps and, best of all, cut open sections to create the coolest fish caves.
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