Warmer weather is luring us outside, and the backyard is a perfect (and pocketbook-friendly) place to entertain. Whether you have a tiny patio or a vast, verdant paradise, a water feature can be a creative and efficient way to infuse life — literally and figuratively — into any outdoor occasion.
Tucker Bantom, manager of Perino's Garden Center (3100 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie, 834-7888; www.perinos.com), recommends fountains as the quickest, most cost-efficient way to incorporate water into the landscape, particularly for customers with small yards. "Many people, like those in the Quarter, are working in a limited area," Bantom says. "Fountains come in a variety of sizes, you can move them around, and nowadays they're made to appeal to all different kinds of tastes." Even people who live in apartments or condos can put colorful ceramic bowl fountains in their balconies or courtyards. These fountains start at around $150 and escalate in price depending on the size and glaze of the bowl.
Water features also appeal to people with a variety of budgets, as they can cost as little as $100 or as much as several thousand dollars, depending on the project. "A very small, three-foot water garden with a pump and some plants should cost less than $150," says Rich Sacher, co-owner of American Aquatic Gardens (621 Elysian Fields Ave., 944-0410; www.americanaquaticgardens.com). If customers buy the materials and install the ponds themselves, costs are even lower. "The materials are inexpensive — the liner is one dollar per square foot, and it lasts 20 years. You can buy a little pump for $30 to circulate water," Sacher says.
While pond installation might seem like an option reserved exclusively for serious landscape designers, it's a task that is nearly as easy as purchasing a fountain. "Ponds can be pretty simple. You just dig a hole the shape and size you want, roll out a flexible rubber liner and fill it with water," Sacher says. Prefabricated boxes built from treated lumber or fiberglass make installation of above-ground ponds equally achievable for do-it-yourselfers.
However, some water features, like the mystery or "disappearing" fountains, are more elaborate. The fountain's buried reservoir is covered with gravel and a screen and sits beneath a sculpture or pot. A strong trend among Bantom's and Sacher's customers, mystery fountains provide all the aesthetic punch of a water feature while being ideal for families concerned about having open water in the yard where children play, Sacher says.
Once the pond has been filled, good filtration is essential. Smaller ponds may need only a mechanical filter system, like a decorative one that funnels water and keeps it moving, say Bantom, but a larger pond needs a whole aquatic plant ecosystem. Sacher and Bantom agree that the optimal amount of sunlight is key. Too much sun leads to a proliferation of "bad" algae, and too little limits the growth and success of beneficial plants, so it's best to select a spot where the pond will receive five to six hours of direct sunlight a day. These also are the ideal conditions for more decorative plants, like water lilies and water hawthorn.
Maintenance for ponds and fountains is relatively easy. Fountains require only continuous running with an occasional flush of fresh water, and mild New Orleans winters make freezing a rare problem. For ponds, Sacher recommends fertilizing the soil once a month to stimulate the plants' growth and adding water for about 15 minutes a week if the water level is getting low. He suggests households with water-loving canines consider building a smaller pond in a separate corner of the yard and training the dog to wallow there. "So long as they have somewhere sanctioned for play, most dogs are happy," Sacher says.
Backyard ponds are also eco-friendly ways to jazz up the landscape. No harsh chemicals are used in the water, so fountains regularly attract feathered bathers, and ponds form the foundation for thriving ecosystems of plants, frogs, toads and insects. "Where your pond is, you don't have to worry about fertilizing or mowing your lawn," Sacher says. "It's really more thrifty and environmentally friendly than grass." Mosquitoes don't stand a chance against the appetites of ponds' resident dragonflies, and the constant flow of fountain water prohibits them from landing and laying eggs. Ultimately, this infusion of flora and fauna into a manicured backyard setting is one of the biggest benefits of a water feature.
"Without the sound and presence of water, it's just a landscape," Sacher says. "That trickling is what brings your landscape to life."