You don’t need a big space, a big budget or even big muscles to build a water feature into your landscape. Although large ponds and waterfalls are beautiful, you can achieve much of the same ambience (with much less work) by creating a small fountain.
Fountains are easier to build and maintain and much less expensive than large water features. And you can install them in locations where it would be nearly impossible to create a large pond, such as in a small garden or on a deck or balcony.
Designing your own fountain is probably easier than you think. There are only three functional components: a spout, a reservoir and a pump. The pump is hidden, so the flow rate is the main variable you’ll need to consider when you choose one (see “Pump Basics,” below). On the other hand, the spout, the reservoir and any decorative materials you add provide ample opportunity to exercise your creativity.
The spout can be any object that water will pour from. It can be natural, such as a rock, or man-made, such as a concrete pillar or something more whimsical such as an old watering can. Just about any object can serve as a spout as long as you can feed the water-supply tube through it so the water comes out where you want it to.
The reservoir contains the water supply and the pump. Ponds are the obvious reservoir of choice for large water features – they’re functional, natural and beautiful. For small fountains, a decorative container such as a ceramic pot or wood barrel works well. You can also use a plastic tub or bucket, but you’ll probably want to hide it inside the fountain structure or bury it under the fountain.
You can combine the spout, reservoir and decorative materials to create just about any size, shape and style of fountain you desire. On the following pages you’ll find three common approaches to fountain construction: an above-ground hidden reservoir, a below-ground hidden reservoir and a man-made exposed reservoir. Take a look at these ideas and then keep an eye out for interesting objects you could combine to create your own unique design.
Cedar Planter Fountain
This freestanding fountain combines the benefits of a water feature and a planter to provide the perfect focal point for a deck, a patio or even a large balcony. You could also tuck it into a small garden and surround it with plants.
Building this fountain couldn’t be much easier. All of the parts are dimensional lumber that are simply cut to length. There’s no fancy joinery, and all of the parts are fastened with screws or brad nails.
The cedar-clad frame conceals an inexpensive 2 x 3-ft. utility tub ($10 at most home centers) that acts as the reservoir. The spout is a 12 x 12-in. tile that is attached to a wood frame.
The completed fountain is relatively lightweight, making it easy to dismantle and relocate or transport for off-season storage.
Assemble the 2x4 interior framework with 2-1/2-in. exterior-rated screws. Attach the siding boards to the frame with 2-in. brad nails. Apply exterior finish to all sides of the siding boards before attaching them to the frame.
Secure the tile to the wood frame with silicone adhesive. Create a drip edge by applying a thick bead of silicone along the bottom front edge of the tile. A drip edge prevents the water from creeping back under the tile and helps the water to fall more uniformly.
Not all reservoirs must be hidden. A decorative ceramic pot with no holes in the bottom makes an attractive reservoir for a small fountain with a bamboo or copper spout. Or you can cast your own reservoir and spout from concrete, as we did in this design.
Making the forms is the trickiest part of this project. Any texture or blemish on the inside face of the form walls will be cast in the concrete. If you want the sides of your fountain to be smooth, you must use a smooth material such as melamine for the form walls and carefully smooth any joints with silicone.
Another option when casting your own fountain is to incorporate decorative objects such as shells, stones, tiles or glass into the form. Secure these objects to the side of the form with a very thin layer of silicone. After the concrete has cured and the form is removed, the objects will be flush with the surface of the concrete and you can polish them.
The spout and reservoir are cast separately in this design. A path is created for the water to travel up through the spout by embedding copper tubing in the spout form.
Assemble the melamine form walls with screws. Carefully fill and smooth the joints with a bead of silicone. Slowly fill the forms with concrete, vibrating them periodically to fill all of the voids. Cover the form with plastic and let the concrete cure for before removing the mold.
Hiding the reservoir under your fountain creates the soothing effect of an underground spring — the sight and sound of running water without any visible pool. This type of fountain is often chosen for locations that call for a more subtle water feature that blends with the surrounding landscape.
You can design a hidden-reservoir fountain to fit just about any space. A small bubbling rock display will fit in a space as compact as 2 ft. square; a 5-gallon bucket can serve as the reservoir. Or you can create a larger display and install a large manufactured underground reservoir.
In this case a rock with a predrilled hole is used as the spout. You can purchase drilled rocks at some garden or landscape supply centers. Another option is to bore a hole yourself in any rock you choose. Use a hammer drill or an impact hammer and a masonry bit to bore through the rock. Choose a bit diameter that is slightly larger than the outside diameter of the pump tubing.
Mark the size of the hole for the reservoir, and dig down so that the sides of the reservoir are level with the surrounding ground. Set the reservoir in the hole, and place the pump inside the reservoir. Attach a piece of tubing to the pump that is long enough to run from the pump up through the rock when it is placed in its final position.
Feed the tubing through the rock. Trim the excess tubing so that the end of the tubing is just below the surface of the rock. Cover the reservoir with a variety of rocks and gravel to create a natural appearance.
Small fountains don’t require a raging water flow, so in most cases a submersible pump with a flow rate of 50 to 200 gallons per hour (typically $30 to $60) will do the job. If you’re trying to decide between two pump sizes, choose the one with the higher flow rate. You can always reduce the flow, but you can’t increase it if it’s too anemic. A built-in flow-rate control is convenient feature, but you can also install an in-line valve to adjust the flow.
All outdoor pumps should feature a grounded three-wire power cable and be plugged into a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet. If your fountain is not near a convenient power source, consider a solar-powered pump. Most solar pumps will move enough water for a small fountain. You’ll pay more for a good-quality model, but it will cost less than installing a new outlet near the fountain.
Follow these tips for maintaining your pump:
- Don’t let the reservoir dry out. Maintain a water level that’s deep enough to keep the pump submerged.
- Keep the pump clean. Remove and brush off debris around the pump every week.
- Use the hose diameter recommended by the pump manufacturer.
This project is part of HANDY's Top 5 Collection: Outdoor Projects.
Click here to check out the other four outdoor projects in this collection.