Don’t get me wrong though, I love water features and especially enjoy the interplay between light and water. The mystery you can create, using disappearing falls or negative edge watercourses is always a sight to behold, just like the fountain monuments to the twin towers at ground zero in New York City.
Still, when faced with forced conservation as well as the maintenance and water issues that accompany most water features, there comes a time when an alternative is needed. Recently I employed an old idea in a new setting.
Most fountains work the best when they have plenty of shade, at least 60 percent. The reason for this is that less sun helps clear the water of algae and prevents algae from blooming in the warm summer months when the water temperatures come up.
Sometimes though, an inexperienced designer or contractor will place a large formal European like fountain in the middle of a hot driveway receiving full sun all day. When this happens the bottom bowl of the fountain usually turns algae green and any overspray onto the surrounding hardscape turns an ugly white as a result of the mineral deposits left behind by the evaporating water.
You can keep the water clear in a full sun water feature but it requires daily chlorinating. This takes away the opportunity to use biologics in the water feature and creates the need to replenish the water in the feature on a daily basis. All time consuming maintenance.
To solve this problem, I decided to create a waterless fountain. I approached the client and made clear my plan. They were surprised, and hadn’t heard or seen such an idea as a waterless fountain. However, they were tired of the maintenance issues and the cost of trying to correct what had already been done.
A waterless fountain is created by taking an existing fountain and turning it into a planter.
You do this by removing the water pump and auto fill replacing them with soils and plants, preferentially succulents.
The key to success in this endeavor is three fold. First, drains must be drilled in each cup or overspill on each level of the fountain to ensure root growth and healthy plants. Next, irrigation must be provided for each planting bowl or planter. And finally, the soils must be of good drainage typically a mixture of sandy loam and planting humus to retain moisture.
I have had great success using drip irrigation in the waterless fountains I have made. Usually the fountains will come apart in pieces and you can run quarter inch tubing up through the center of the support columns as you rebuild it and have it emanate out into the bowl planting spaces where it can deliver the needed water to the plants.
If you really want to get fancy, you can also run low voltage 10-2 or 12-2 wire up into the waterless fountain as well to illuminate it at night.
The final touch for the waterless fountain is to pick and choose plants that will compliment the fountain and create interest and color in the planter bowls. What I have learned from trial and error is that flowering plants used in this situation can be too much maintenance and work.
Succulents that have beautiful color in their leaves or structure are better suited for this application. Kalanchoe is a great plant and comes in many varieties such as Propeller Plant or Paddle Plant. Blue colored succulents like Senecio Mandraliscae or Blue Chalk Ice Plant are a perfect choice for the dry fountain and trail downward from the color bowls of the fountain just like real water.
Rosemary and Asparagus Fern are other great plant choices to use for this application and also mimic the movement of water as they hang out over the edges of the fountain and move with breezes during the day. Use small clumping grasses to bring color to the plantings. As always, try to plant small slow growing drought tolerant plants in your fountain for ease of care and enjoyment.