Outside Room

The Wonders of Water Encouraging good Ch’i in the garden

The sound and movement of water evokes a tranquil, contemplative ambience which adds a vital dimension to gardens, courtyards and patios. Nicola Stocken investigates water’s importance in encouraging good Ch’i in the garden

Trickling, gurgling, cascading, splashing or murmuring, water features are beautiful in any season, a constant play of rippling reflections, of light and shade set against a background of luxuriant plants or mysterious stones.

Water has the power to soothe and relax jangled nerves, nurturing the human psyche in ways beyond conventional understanding. It is also a key element in attaining good feng shui in a garden because water symbolises prosperity and attracts ch’i, the invisible life energy force whose flowing, unimpeded passage is essential to creating a harmonious, healthy and happy environment. The more natural the water feature and its setting, the more ch’i it attracts, creating an enriching, self-perpetuating upward spiral.


The use of water to energise a garden is one of the most readily available, powerful feng shui tools. When used correctly in conjunction with the pa kua – an arrangement of Eight Trigrams – feng shui practitioners can analyse whether, in a given space, each energy is flowing freely, in balance one with another. The Trigrams symbolise natural forces such as fire, water, heaven, earth, mountain, lake, wind and thunder.

Splashing wall water spout stirs the surface of this serene pond.
Splashing wall water spout stirs the surface of this serene pond.

A Natural Balance

A balance of nature, encompassing wildlife, organic horticultural methods and natural materials, is also at the heart of a thriving garden, so it is not surprising to learn that feng shui is complementary to good garden practice. By definition, a remarkable garden is born of natural, harmonised, balanced surroundings, a nurturing haven where there is a mixture of yin and yang, of light and shade, hard and soft landscaping, rough and smooth surfaces, ostentatious and discreet colours, bees and pollen, greenfly and ladybirds, snails and thrushes…life and death.

An unremarkable garden can be immeasurably improved by applying feng shui principles, charting the flow of ch’i and then enhancing it where necessary through the balancing of the Five Elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water), and the correct positioning of plants, ornaments, walls, furnishings and water. Paths meander, rocks (along with other garden elements) are used symbolically, permanent specimen plants are chosen and located in order to achieve the appropriate feng shui form for the garden. A good design echoes nature and is beautiful, light in tone with contrasts of strength and gentleness. Rocks provide yang accents, as they do in zen gardens.

Water in the garden, especially moving water, is essential to good feng shui practice yet, despite its obvious benefits, since Capability Brown it seems to have eluded the abilities of generations of keen gardeners. ‘It is often one of the most important but also one of the most ill-used elements in a garden,’ points out Professor David Stevens, award-winning garden designer and television presenter. ‘Water inspires and for that very reason many water features tend to be built on the spur of the moment, with little regard for the rest of the garden.’

From a feng shui point of view the accurate location of the water is essential. Traditionally the water feature should be located in front of the house, but since Western gardens tend to be more extensive at the rear of the house this is where water features are most often created, and this can create a problem.

The Aquatic Life Of A Garden

Nowadays, with the increasing availability of aquatic garden products and specialist advice, opportunities for amateurs successfully to install gushing wall spouts, exuberant spray fountains or ponds teeming with life, have opened up a whole new world of flora and fauna. Nonetheless, horror stories abound of murky, slime-encrusted pools which encourage sha ch’i, or, worst of all, ponds that leak.  Ideal sites offer both sunshine and shade while avoiding tree roots and overhanging tree branches with their falling leaves.Some shade is important to keep water cool – algae thrive in warm water, forming a horrible green growth on the surface where once magical reflections or a bubbling fountain played.

Going In The Right Direction

Direction, according to Compass School Feng Shui, is vital to success. By using the Water Dragon formula, as outlined in Lillian Too’s book Water Feng Shui For Wealth, you can calculate where a water feature should be placed and, most importantly, the direction in which it drains. This will also impinge on whether you choose a feature which is a wall-mounted spout, a flowing stream, a mysterious dark pool or water staircase, formal or informal, large or small. Designs can vary in size from a bubbling pitcher or small mill stone set in pebbles with pumped water bubbling from its centre, to a long cascade tumbling down over stone steps or ancient boulders. Beware, though, because water which rushes too frenetically can disperse, rather than accumulate, ch’i.

Stone buddha presides over a water cascade edged with bamboo.
Stone buddha presides over a water cascade edged with bamboo.

Other factors affecting the planning stage include the juxtaposition of plants and wildlife. Unprotected aquatic edging plants, for example, will be eaten by fish which, in turn, make an easy snack for predatory birds or the neighbour’s cat. Another consideration is the amount of time available for ongoing maintenance.

People with little spare time should choose a low maintenance feature such as a water spout with a wall-mounted receptacle below for catching and recirculating the water, bubbling geysers in piles of cobblestones, or a small pond which is essentially architectural in style with few if any plants to upkeep. Feng shui experts advise that ponds are best curved rather than straight or square, with as large a surface area as practical to provide a healthy habitat for wildlife. Streams should meander and have the final point of drainage carefully calculated.

Where there is water its surface ripples, puckers or swirls, creating movement to stimulate ch’i. Light is inevitably reflected off any wet surface and the more the water moves, the more light it reflects, alleviating even the darkest yin nooks. Over-active ch’i is calmed by still water in an ancient stone trough or pebble-lined pool, sluggish ch’i is energised by the bright colours of terracotta tiles or water containers and lethargic ch’i is invigorated by the sounds of pumped water splashing or dripping.

Pump Preparation

Behind any pumped water lies much preparation, a pump, water reservoir, electricity supply and possibly a filtration system. It costs a minimum of £130 for a qualified electrician to fit a waterproof, outdoor electrical socket as near to the water feature as possible, so as to minimise the potential for damaging electric cable. It is best to plug the pump into the socket – so that it can be disconnected for cleaning – and put the pump’s switch conveniently in the home. Always buy a good quality pump. It will cost between £50 and £400 according to its size and capacity. Pump and reservoir (for storing and recycling water) are often placed in a hole beside or beneath the water feature. The key to successful water features lies in installing the pump correctly, reading its service manual and regularly cleaning the filter.

Choosing With Care

Plants for water gardens fall into four categories. First there are water lilies (Nymphaea) which, apart from looking beautiful, reduce the surface area of the pond, provide shade and inhibit the growth of algae. They do not thrive if planted too close to tall edging plants or a waterfall.
Oxygenising plants form another group and include water violet (Hottonia palustris) and parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum). These are the ‘workers of the pond’, which provide food for fish and release oxygen, supplying a vital natural balance. Such plants tend to have lots of tiny leaves on a single stem and can grow both above and below the water, creeping out over the pond’s surround.

Mill stone among pebbles and surrounded by tranquil plantings of ajuga, heuchera, gunnera and hosta.
Mill stone among pebbles and surrounded by tranquil plantings of ajuga, heuchera, gunnera and hosta.

Then there are moisture-loving plants or bog plants such as brightly coloured primulas (Primulaceae), hostas (Funkiaceae), and astilbe (Saxifragaceae) which thrive in a boggy area beside a pond, but do not like their roots in water. Marginal plants, on the other hand, do like their roots in water and grow best on the fringe of the pond, but need to be planted in baskets or placed on a shelf to contain any loose earth.

Marginal plants include such vividly coloured flowersas jewel-like irises (Iridaceae), elegant lilies (Liliaceae), glowing marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) and flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus) which will attract a wealth of wildlife.

Using water to the best advantage in your garden needs thoughtful planning. However, a combination 
of sound feng shui principles and environmentally friendly gardening can create a positive, energising garden in which there is a strong flow of ch’i arising from balance and harmony.

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