Create a backyard sanctuary with water fountains

Although water fountains bring beauty and tranquility to landscapes, Jim Wilder believes they serve a greater purpose.

Like the world-famous 18th century Trevi Fountain in Rome, or the spectacular Magic Fountain of Montjuïc constructed to dazzle visitors to the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, water fountains - even humble varieties in modest backyards - provide “a very social place, a place for people to congregate,” Wilder said. “Like the fountains in Europe.”

Wilder recently retired after a career of more than 30 years designing and installing water features throughout the North Bay. In addition to running his Santa Rosa-based business, Living Water Creations, Wilder also taught community education classes for do-it-yourselfers through Santa Rosa Junior College.

Water fountains, he said, don't have to be elaborate to bring people together.

They can serve as a focal point in landscapes, withstanding the changing seasons, and bringing instant appeal to outside spaces. With countless styles to choose from, there's an ideal option for every yard.

Even those with just a small patio or balcony can find a water fountain perfect for their outdoor space. Designs can complement home and garden styles, from modern and rustic to English or Tuscan.

Besides looking good, water fountains can attract birds and bees, add a calming ambiance and help mitigate bothersome sounds from passing vehicles or noisy neighbors.

Wilder suggests adding a water fountain with “a nice, pleasing sound you can talk over, and not have to shout.”

Whether tastes lean toward classic Italian tiered fountains or sleek, contemporary designs, there's a dizzying selection at garden stores within Sonoma County.

Do-it-yourselfers can put together their own fountains, and landscape designers can create custom water fountains fitting for grand estates or modest homes with postage stamp-sized backyards.

No matter a home's style or size, water fountains can help transform outdoor spaces into places of respite - even for a quick break from weeding or other outdoor chores.

“They can make their yards be their vacation spot,” said Randy Rufenacht, who owns Absolute Home & Garden in Sebastopol with his wife, Lynda. With styles named Monte Carlo, Murano, Parisienne and Provence, it's easy to imagine a faraway destination without leaving home.

The Rufenachts have about 200 water fountains on display at their longtime Gravenstein Highway South garden center. They specialize in American-made, concrete (cast stone) water fountains and garden statuary. Selections can be customized in a variety of finishes, from pewter to bronze patinas.

Sounds that soothe

“The sound of water is so soothing and calming,” said Lynda Rufenacht.

“Something about the sound of water is so comforting and relaxing.”

The couple suggest listening to running fountains before buying, or at least recognizing that different styles can provide different sounds.

Buying a fountain to create a calming mood with a gentle trickle can be different than selecting one with a more vigorous flow for a noise blocker.

When John and Vicki Kryzanowski were planning their new home in the east Sonoma countryside, they knew they wanted a water feature not only to be aesthetically pleasing, but also pleasant sounding.

They turned to Paul Rozanski of Rozanski Design, a Sonoma-based landscape design and construction firm.

Beyond the Kryzanowskis' backyard swimming pool, chaise lounges and lawn, a stone wall runs about 25 feet long, set against a background of olive trees and neighboring vineyards.

Rozanski installed a custom trough-style water fountain that's flush to the wall. Three copper spouts send water streaming into the 10-foot long, powder-coated steel fixture.

Streamlined designs

Lights positioned within the structure illuminate the flowing water. “At night it's even more impressive,” John Kryzanowski said.

“The water shimmers and moves in the light's reflection. It's a very dramatic effect.”

The Rufenachts have noticed a trend toward more contemporary water fountains that, like the Kryzanowskis, have more streamlined features than those with multiple tiers, scalloped bowls and fancy detailing.

Modern styles and rustic basalt water fountains are the biggest sellers at Absolute, yet shoppers gravitate to a wide variety of styles.

Selections include freestanding, wall-mounted and spheres, along with vase and urn fountains; various styles produce sounds ranging from trickling to nearly gushing. Louise Leff, owner of landscape design and construction firm Leff Landscape Associates, Inc. in Petaluma, said buyers should consider scale before adding a water fountain to their yard.

“The thing that's most important is to get the right scale,” she said. “Scale is really super important.”

Leff has shared her award-winning landscape design talents on HGTV shows “Curb Appeal” and “Landscape Smart.”

In one episode, she places a small wall-mount water fountain on the wall of a garage, along a home's side entrance.

She frames the fountain with a French trompe l'oeil (“fool the eye”) trellising technique, and completes the project with plants, flowers and vines, transforming the space into a soothing, interesting garden.

Had the small fountain simply been placed alone on the wall, “It would look ridiculous,” Leff said. “It's a small fountain on a big wall, but what makes it work is the trellis around it.”

Serenity in Sonoma

Mark and Sandy Curtis of Sonoma considered scale when they added a water fountain to their modest-sized backyard. They wanted something natural-looking for their patio, where they enjoy alfresco dining and visiting with family and friends around a firepit.

Mark Curtis, a carpenter, created a bubbling water fountain from a column-shaped, 4-foot high stone with a pre-cut hole the couple found at Sonoma Materials, a landscaping supply business.

It's peaceful and serene,” Sandy Curtis said. The custom-made water fountain adds to the welcoming ambiance of the couple's backyard, often used as an extension of their home. It's an attractive addition, without overwhelming the landscape.

For those new to the do-it-yourself movement, garden centers like Absolute carry easy-to-assemble kits with materials like bamboo that can be added to any pot for an instant water fountain.

The Rufenachts suggest potential buyers consider their space and reason for adding a water fountain to their landscape. The loudest fountains are those dropping water from a distance; one featured at Absolute has 16 water drops cascading down and creating a sound barrier. Others can bubble, babble, cascade and flow, with varying pitches.

Listen before buying, the Rufenachts suggest, and also stake out a proposed area to determine if the height and width are right for the landscape. Again, scale is a consideration.

It's all personal taste, of course, but considering an investment can range from about $100 to several thousand dollars for a water fountain, it's best to plan before buying, the Rufenachts said.

Buyers also should consider where they can access power in their yards for the water pumps (recirculating pumps are most commonly used) and whether they plan to light the feature for nighttime appeal.

Shoppers easily can be charmed by fountains featuring cherubs, Buddhas, mermaids, tikis, gargoyles, lion's heads and birds, for example. Randy Rufenacht estimates there are a few thousand options available in the U.S. “It just runs the gamut,” he said.

Maintenance tips

Beyond the purchase price, water fountains are low cost, typically generating about $5 per month in power consumption. During the winter, fountains can be drained and covered to prevent possible cracking from freezing temperatures.

Randy Rufenacht advises running fountains overnight when temperatures drop to the low 30s, and also suggests placing a tennis ball into fountain bowls. “The ball contracts, so it won't freeze,” he said.

Cleaning out leaves and debris is important to prevent water pumps from clogging. Those with fountains should keep a hose on hand to prevent fountains from running dry and damaging pumps.

Choosing a fountain from the many options may be the hardest part of the whole process. Even a waterless option has value.

A two-tiered fountain on display at Cottage Gardens of Petaluma has found a second purpose. It features succulents, offering texture and greenery instead of shimmering water, an eye-catching alternative.

At Villa Terrazza Patio & Home in Sonoma, an American Fyre Designs firefall offers fire and water features in one.

The style has a sheath of water cascading from the back, with flames in the front, perfect for a space that can't accommodate a separate firepit and water fountain or for the budget-conscious shopper who appreciates two-for-one styling.

Whatever the choice, water fountains offer longtime pleasure and soothing sounds along garden pathways, in entryways and as focal points in front- and backyard spaces.

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