For the calmest garden, just add water

Outdoors Water features are a great way to bring a Zen-like tranquillity to outdoor spaces.

A well-chosen water feature with a subtle, harmonious background sound can infuse the simplest of calm and a spa retreat-like quality.
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There is something unequivocally soothing about it. Who among us doesn't immediately feel calmer when gazing out to sea or being lulled by the sound of a waterfall? So it's not surprising that water features are one of the best ways of bringing a Zen-like tranquillity to outdoor spaces. Even a bare courtyard can be transformed into something of serene beauty with the simplest of fountains.

Water, the most precious of all our natural resources, has been revered throughout the ages for its life-giving properties: from the carefully constructed water channels of Jordan's mysterious, desert-dwelling Nabateans, to the Ancient Greeks who built fountains above streams believed to have magical properties. The ancient Persians influenced garden design with their complex waterways, pools and fountains, and Islamic gardens feature water prominently in their symbol-laden geometric layouts.

Introducing a sense of tranquillity is the essence of water features, says Maria Zakharchenko of Al Hamra Landscape in Dubai. "In order to make a relaxing and tranquil space out of your garden, it's important to artfully combine elements that encourage a tranquil feeling, rather than focusing on the style of garden," she says. The options are many - a fountain, pool, pond, cascade or waterfall - and what will work best for you is entirely a personal choice, Zakharchenko says.

Are you soothed by the sound of cascading water, or will the gently shimmering reflection of a pool help you to relax outdoors? You may even wish to go the whole hog and dive into a pool of cool water to wash away the day. On the other hand, just gazing below the surface at the darting of orange fish can be enough to inspire feelings of calm. Once you've discovered what calms and inspires you, choosing the features to create that mood becomes easier.

"There are several types of water features that can set the tone in terms of tranquillity," says Paul Toscana of Toscana Landscaping, a Dubai-based company that specialises in designing residential gardens. "In bigger gardens you need more movement, so you might create a water feature that runs, like a curtain, down a textured stone exterior wall. At night this can be lit up to create a shimmering effect."

In smaller gardens or even on balconies, a small standalone fountain or mini feature may offer a similar sense of calm. Completely self-contained, the water is continuously circulated by a small built-in electric pump, so all you need is a power point, not plumbing. Floating candles on the surface of a pool - or even a large basin filled with water - can lend a hint of spa-like calm to even the smallest body of water.

Sound also comes into play, says Toscana. "Consider whether you want a gentle tinkle, or if you want sound as part of something larger, like a pool, into which you could incorporate a waterfall or fountain." Zakharchenko agrees: "The sound of running water takes people into a serenity that can't be matched by other features in the garden. It also helps to block out less harmonious sounds from outside the garden."

Different sounds are created by having the water fall in different ways; tiny streams of water directed upwards into a spray sound like rain drops when they fall, while water over round pebbles or a textured surface will make a subtler sound. David Harber's Chalice is a contemporary water feature that doubles as a sundial. Flowing water clings to the mirror-polished outer surface of its 70-cm stainless steel bowl, creating an illusion of movement that is quite entrancing to look at.

For simple features that make a tinkling sound but require no installation or digging, there are the pretty copper "trees" of Water Features 2GO, an internet company that delivers ready-to-use features. It also has a range of stand-alone stone features with water that gently cascades over the surface. To bring an even greater dimension of tranquillity to your garden install an ornamental pond and introduce fish, thus adding the gentle movements of, say, koi carp to the already calming effects of the water.

According to Toscana, the hot summers of the UAE need not preclude introducing a fish pond if its design is correctly approached. "You must remember to dig the pond deeper than you normally would so the fish can swim down to the bottom when the surface of the water gets hot. If you add lilies this will help shield the fish from the sun." Of course, in this desert region it's important to consider the environment. As Vega Rochat of Green Concepts, a Dubai-based landscaping firm, says: "We advise using water with conscience. The era of grand fountains - unless for very big spaces - is pretty much over, and water features should be made of materials that promote gentle visual effects, like trickling over a corrugated stone surface, and softer sounds. Also, they should be placed in sheltered spaces to minimise evaporation."

Placing a water feature in an area that gets plenty of shade is also wise in allowing you to relax away from the glare of the sun. There's a caveat to all of this: unlike other aspects of gardening where a bit of pottering around is almost as relaxing as the finished effect, adding a water feature is a more complex job that's best left to the experts. "The selection and installation of water features requires knowledge of waterproofing and containment, splash factors, electrical engineering, water treatment options and maintenance operations," cautions Zakharchenko. "So it's best to just create a budget and let a professional provide you with the suitable options."