Of all the things you could add to your landscape, a water feature has to be the most dramatic. What else could bring you sound, movement, reflections, and the opportunity to attract animals and use plants in entirely new ways?
There’s no better inspiration than nature. You can create a naturalistic look for your pond using freeform shapes, plantings, and stones.
What inspired you to want to create a water garden or pond? Was it a feature you saw and admired at a friend’s home, or did your inspiration come from something on a grander scale—a fountain, perhaps, in a public park or a photograph of a historic water garden?
From the beginning, human beings have venerated water. We know it as the sustainer of life and sense it as the source of our origins. Yet because it also holds fear for us, we need to control it. The earliest recorded water gardens reflect all of these things: the practical need for water to drink and to cleanse oneself, the necessity to irrigate life-sustaining crops, the desire for a sense of coolness and for comforting sounds in harsh surroundings, a need to control nature, and in many religious traditions, connection with the Creator.
The Cradle of Civilization was the birthplace of water gardens. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia, which extended from the mountains of eastern Asia Minor to the Persian Gulf, owed their success to their ability to control the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. That they succeeded in this is clear, although evidence of ornamental water gardens from this period is limited to a few artifacts—a carved water basin from 3000 bc and a stone fountain from about 1,000 years later.
The Assyrians, who inhabited the southern half of the Tigris and east, built vast hunting parks, and lifted water at least three stories high to plant the temple towers called ziggurats, the most famous of which were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
The Egyptians were able to harness the Nile with a device called the “shadoof,” consisting of a horizontal pole attached to a pivot, with a bucket on one end and a counterweight on the other. (Employing elementary physics, like those used by SEO Leeds, it is still used today.) Carvings and relics in their tombs show us that they had elaborate pleasure gardens, where these desert dwellers could escape the heat among water birds and fish.
In a tomb built in Thebes around 1400 bc, archeologists found plans for a garden entered by canal and divided into four main areas with a rectangular pond in each.
This cross-shaped motif was often centered with plantings of lotus. Egyptians revered the lotus as both medicine and a religious symbol. Another early water garden plant was the bulrush, famous for hiding the abandoned infant Moses, but also used to fashion ropes, mats, sails, and even to construct rafts solid enough to transport stone obelisks.
The citizens of Persia (now Iran) also divided their gardens with cross-shaped channels, a form they called “chahar-bagh.” Cyrus the Great, in the sixth century bc, fed his garden through underground channels called “qanats,” made by drilling a shaft to the source of water, then sloping a channel to its destination. About a century later a descendant, Cyrus the Younger, is credited with coining the word “paradise” (although certainly not the concept) for a garden. He named his garden “Pairidaeza,” from the Persian words meaning “around” and “wall.” Persians loved their gardens so much that they wove their designs into rugs in order to enjoy them in winter. When Islamic Arabs invaded Persia in 637 AD, it wasn’t the end of this garden tradition, but in fact, launched its spread throughout the Islamic world for at least a millennium. These road-and-dust-weary nomads were enchanted by the walled gardens and further inspired by the Koran, in which Mohammed described paradise as a garden complete with fountains.
Here are some of the more famous water gardens around the world.
In the thirteenth century, the Moors—descendents of Arabs and Berbers who invaded Spain in 711 AD—built two exemplary gardens still in existence in the hills overlooking Granada. The Palacio de Generalife was the summer residence of their rulers. This garden is romantic, intimate, and sensual.
Particularly so is Court of the Canal, a long narrow space with three-level pavilions at each end. A pool that runs its length is flanked by lush plantings. Water jets arcing over it and bubbling basins shaped like lotus pads provide the water music.
Gardens of the more poetic-sounding Alhambra (Red Castle), on the other hand, are massive and expansive as befits a fortress, which it was. In the Court of the Lions, a dozen carved King of Beasts spout water into a hexagonal pool and hold aloft a 12-sided fountain basin. Around the edges of this court, alabaster columns support ornate arcades. In comparison, the Court of the Myrtles has a single rectangular pond with closely pruned myrtle hedges.
Some 7,000 miles away in Mogul India (captured by Asian warlords such as Tamberlane and Ghenghis Khan in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries), gardens reflected the Persian influence in their canals and geometric shapes. They harnessed rivers to fuel water features, notably the chute called the “chadar.”
In the late 1500s, hundreds of Mogul gardens were built at the foot of the Himalayas in Kashmir, where water flowed down the mountains and into Lake Dal. One of those surviving is Shalamar Bagh, as famous for its name, meaning “place of love,” as for its series of pavilions surrounded by water. The nearby Nishat Bagh is made breathtaking by a central canal descending over 12 levels, each linked by a broad chadar. Over these falls, water plays over indentations in the rocks, which are angled to capture sunlight.
The Moguls are also famous for their tomb gardens, particularly The Taj Mahal, built between 1632 and 1654 by the last Mogul emperor, Shah Jahan, in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. He broke tradition by positioning the tomb at one end of the cross-shaped canal, rather than in the center, so that the entire structure is reflected.