Water Garden Whimsy: Infuse Your Pond with Personality!

Water Garden Design Whimsy

It all began over 20 years ago with a goldfish that had outgrown our aquarium. It had grown so large that swimming and turning in the tank was difficult—if not impossible. A larger tank was not in the picture at the time as we continued to build our interior decorating and painting business in a small house in Easton, Pennsylvania. So, the poor fella had to go.

Water Garden Gerard Touhey

The decorative ceramic fish heads all came from a small shop in Dublin that I would visit (often along with fellow pond builders) every time we went to Ireland for pond installations.

With apologies and a sorrowful parting, I released him into the nearby river one afternoon, thinking it to be the most humane way to say “goodbye.” Upon his introduction to the wild new world, he just stayed there in the shallows, looking up at me and seemed to be saying, “Don’t leave me!” I finally had to walk away, miserable and crying like I was at a dear friend’s funeral.

Returning home, I was struck with a solution when I looked into the garden! I could dig a hole in the backyard, line it, fill it with water and move my goldfish outside! Literally running back to the river shallows where I had released my old friend, I could only hope he was still there and I could bring him back home.

He was gone. In the wake of my experience I was resolved to never have to leave another fish friend on his own in the wild.

Growing like a Goldfish

We built our first pond in our Easton backyard garden in 1995. Since then, Water Features by Gerard has installed and worked on over 200 water features, including ponds in Disney World, Mexico, France, Ireland, Chicago and other Illinois cities as well as Boston and the surrounding Lehigh Valley area.

As an appreciator and collector of unique pieces of art, I began to experiment with placement of some of the pieces of statuary in and around the water garden several years ago. The colorful ceramic fish heads came from a small shop in Dublin, Ireland. I would bring back one or two of these “one-of-a-kind” pieces on every trip home to build ponds or visit family. Many were resold to customers visiting my water garden displays at my home. (I don’t really “know” art…but I do know what I like!)

As a rule, most pond contractors visit the customer’s premises as part of a “design consultation” to discuss location, size and type of water feature desired.

We don’t. If a customer would like a design consultation, we set up an initial appointment (at no charge) for them to come to our garden so they can see firsthand the wonder and beauty of what is possible in a small space. We feature our “piano falls” as well as another fountain and a pondless waterfall at the entry to our home property. As we go to the side yard we see the deck-side pond; cross the glass bridge over the pond to the deck; and work our way back to the “large swimming pond,” with falls and wetland filter and statuary throughout.

Altogether, the visitor can see five distinct water features when visiting our gardens.

Our Philosophy

We begin with the idea that a water feature should look as natural as possible. It should appear as if the pond or stream or falls were there before the house or garden was built. “Volcano Waterfalls,” or steep berms at the headwater of a feature, absolutely kill a natural appearance. Although steep berms at a waterfall can be “softened” by stone or softscape that meet the eye at a higher elevation than the start of the falls, the stream course must still be dug into and not be elevated above the surrounding landscape.

Water Garden Design Whimsy

The “Jump for Joy” frog in the waterfalls remains a garden centerpiece and perhaps the “Chief of Whimsy” in our pond.

The ratio of stone sizes that works best in most features is a 1:2:1 size. (One fourth of the rocks should be in the smallest size range, one half in the mid-sized range, and one fourth the largest size range—all by weight and not volume.) If the feature requires four tons of stone, the quantities would be: 1 ton small, 2 tons medium and 1 ton largest. This provides for the most natural appearance in most cases.

Then the Real Fun Begins!

Driftwood, logs, stumps and branches along with moss can be added to provide some “naturalizing” and “softening” effects prior to planting aquatics and terrestrials in and around the feature. For many, this completes a perfect, naturalistic installation of waterfalls, streams, cascades and ponds. Many customers enjoy this type of installation for decades without any further additions. But for those desiring a more personalized installation, there is even more fun ahead!

Now for a Wee Bit O’ Whimsy!

Perhaps it has to do with my love of unique works of art…including our water features. Perhaps a career as an interior decorator/designer/painter inspires the appreciation of the whimsical. Or it could be that my Irish heritage leads me to look for delightful surprises in the garden as well as within the walls of our home. Or, most likely, “I like the things I like” and want them to be a regular part of what I enjoy daily! Thus, the things with which I decorate our home display features are things I simply like to look at as often as possible!

The photos here are all of our Water Features by Gerard home display water gardens, on a narrow lot in the heart of a residential area in Easton. When I am on my deck feeding the fish, or in the glider by the brightly painted chimera in the shape of a large koi next to the “swim pond,” or looking out my kitchen/dining room window, these artistic additions in and around the water features bring me joy!
They also serve as a reminder and are mementos of the good times I have had working with other pond builders in Ireland or the U.S. over the past 20-plus years! I see the bronze statuary of the children, turtles or ducks and recall the trip to Aquascape’s Pond College, where I worked with other pond builders, attended classes and purchased all the statues on display!

Frog Water Garden Decoration

We had a local fabricator build this piano to our specifications out of stainless steel and aluminum before powder-coating, so it will last for years!

The “Jump for Joy” frog in the waterfalls remains a garden centerpiece and perhaps the “Chief of Whimsy” in our pond. The “Dancing Frog Couple” keep us company near the deck!

The decorative ceramic fish heads all came from a small shop in Dublin that I would visit (often along with fellow pond builders) every time we went to Ireland for pond installations. I would bring a few home with each trip as carry-ons so they would not be broken.

The Waterfall Piano installation was inspired by a display built by Brian Helfrich and crew at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show. We had a local fabricator build it our specifications out of stainless steel and aluminum before powder-coating, so it will last for years! (A wooden feature like the one used at the show would deteriorate in a few seasons.)

Among my most favored pieces around the garden are the Celtic Crosses. They represent another strong connection to my Irish homeland and provide a focus for reflection.

Birdhouses and bird feeders, whether colorful or rustic, make a great addition to the spaces around your water feature and provide enhanced habitat in urban areas. Just be sure the bird feeders are far enough from the margins of your pond to avoid unwanted feed or other bird related “products” from getting in your water!

Water Garden Design Whimsy

Among my most favored pieces around the garden are the Celtic Crosses. They represent another strong connection to my Irish homeland and provide a focus for reflection.

The Old Canoe lends an “outdoorsy” and slightly nautical touch to the scene and makes me think I could be camping on the lake. The fire gently crackling in the nearby koi-shaped chimera enhances the sense of being in the out-of-doors—especially with the sounds of the waterfalls masking the noise of the neighborhood!

Lighting not only extends enjoyment of our pond and waterfalls into the evening hours, but it is a must for softly accenting additions of statuary and favorite pieces in and around the pond. Just like installing different pieces and experimenting with their placement, lighting is another easily adjusted enrichment of the garden space. It is always a good idea to leave a bit of extra wire tucked away and zip-tied or taped up when installing a fixture to allow for adjustment of lights.

Thematic Considerations

A fellow pond builder has a customer who retired from the Navy. He decorates his pond with small replicas of submarines and other naval vessels. A musician might want to incorporate a “piano fountain” in their feature. The familiar St. Francis statue is often a common addition around ponds—and very fitting for people of faith. Chihuly Glass, glass sculpture or colored glass globes are another embellishment we have seen many of our clients add to the margins of their features. Pottery and ceramic sculpture of all types are also fitting additions for adding a whimsical touch to the garden—especially when they are of special meaning to the customer.

Keep Your Pond Inhabitants Safe!

Keep in mind when adding pieces in and around the water feature that they need to be of a material that would not be subject to deterioration in moist environments. And when placed in the water, they should pose no danger to the fish in the pond through any weathering process.

One example: We received a frantic call from a customer whose fish were dying. It turned out that a string of paper lanterns had been blown into the pond. The toxins in the dyes that dissolved into the water were responsible for the loss of several very large koi!

Whimsical themes in and about the water garden may not be for everyone, but they bring delight to me —and many of my customers as well. Certainly, my tastes in water garden decoration are not common to all builders or customers, so experiment with adding a piece here or there. If you don’t like it, you can always move or remove it easily, experimenting until the scene you craft is pleasing to you and your customer!

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