Residential PPN Spring 2008 Newsletter
Water Gardens: Alive with Sound and Motion
by David B. Duensing, ASLA
Making a water feature an important aspect in a landscape or garden is something that has been done in other countries for centuries. But here in the U.S., widespread use of water in our landscapes and gardens has taken hold only relatively recently.


Residence, Greenwich, CT Photos courtesy David B. Duensing & Associates, Inc.

This 50,000 gallon, pristine water garden/Koi pond is a key element of the entry courtyard. A stone bridge appears to ‘float’ on the water’s surface, providing the primary access to the front door and allowing the homeowner and visitors to view the abundant aquatic life. Water clarity is remarkably clear, with a custom filtration and sterilization system designed and installed by David B. Duensing & Associates.

For centuries, water has been the element that has attracted both humans and wildlife for the purpose of survival. However, during the last several years, there has been a strong and steady demand to create more inviting and personal environments at home, work and public gathering areas. Nowadays, water is being used to enhance views, create personal paradises, and add value to property.


TYL Ranch, Silverthorne, CO Photo courtesy David B. Duensing & Associates, Inc.

Tall waterfalls, cascading streams and trout ponds surround this mountainside home at an elevation of 9,800’ and provide additional interest and beauty to the pristine setting. Two natural mountain streams feed the water features. David B. Duensing & Associates designed and built the waterfalls and stonework, and designed and directed construction of the streams and trout ponds.

Some of the most remarkable elements that water brings to a landscape are sound, motion, and wonderful reflective qualities. In addition, water has a calming and soothing side effect that provides important health benefits. Many landscapes and gardens are quite beautiful with their colorful flower variety and tasteful hardscapes, but all these are typically static—they usually do not move or make any sounds. This is not to imply that this is bad, but if you desire to take your project to a higher and more complete level, adding water sounds and motion are key elements to consider.

A great way to experience these qualities is to stroll through a Japanese or botanic garden where paths meander through the grounds. Oftentimes you will hear a stream or waterfall before it becomes visible. Notice too, that when it is finally in view it is not typically entirely revealed at any one time. There is a lot to be said about creating a destination, as well as a bit of mystery. Professional garden designers often use water sounds to mask noise from surrounding highway traffic and other distractions. Water allows the designer to create a more desirable environment. The intent is not necessarily to create a louder sound to overpower other noise; instead, it is to generate a variety of water tones for the human subconscious to pick up and actually focus upon.

The aspects of sound that we work to create fall into three categories: volume, pitch, and directional control.

Volume – The loudness of the sound we wish to create is important to understand, as is the effect it will have in the area around the water feature. If the surrounding area is large and/or open, there may be more need to generate greater volume. On the other hand, if the water feature will be indoors or near one or two walls, the sound will be reflected off the hard surfaces. This can create too much sound, making the space less useful and enjoyable for conversation or relaxation.

Pitch – This aspect of sound is not commonly understood or controlled by waterfall builders, but is crucial, regardless of the size of the waterfall. Generally, waterfall pitches range from low, medium, to high. Designers should understand which pitches will be most useful in each specific application, and how to effectively generate them. Higher-pitch waterfall sounds help tune out car and airplane noise, whereas low-pitch sounds help make the waterfall feel more forceful and make an overall impact. However, be cautious because too much low-pitch sound also tends to mute the human voice.

Another aspect to consider is that, any time you create a steady and continuous pitch, the human subconscious will tend to disregard it and attempt to focus on other sounds. Therefore, it is important to create a ‘melody’ of sounds that are ever-changing through a variety of different pitches.

Directional control -- The third aspect of waterfall sound control is the ability to project sounds to various locations (within reason). Projecting sound towards a deck, patio, walk, open window, etc. is possible but not typically understood or managed well. Much of sound directional control is affected by how the rock formations are constructed, and oriented to the key viewing or enjoyment areas.

An additional and wonderful aspect of water features that is too often ignored is the reflective qualities of a pool of water. Many people desire to light a pond at night (which is a nice effect) but sometimes the biggest bang comes from lighting what is behind the pond and enjoying the reflections on the waters’ surface.

A nice trick to add motion to your landscape is to work with shadows resulting from a waterfall. Focus landscape lighting onto the pond surface, which then will bounce off onto the surrounding landscape. The waterfall creates disturbances, often in the form of ripples on the surface, causing any reflected light to have motion. The result is a beautiful movement effect on the landscape. Using this technique will in a very subtle way, make your landscape stand out more because the human eye is drawn to motion.

David B. Duensing, ASLA, is President of David B. Duensing & Associates, Inc. in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. He can be reached at
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Jennifer Horn, ASLA, Co-Chair
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