How to Build a Low-Maintenance Water Feature

Construct a simple (one-weekend!) stone and gravel fountain that needs almost no maintenance.

Natural-looking artesian fountain

If you're looking for an eye-catching feature for your patio, deck or even front entry, this natural-looking artesian fountain will do the trick. We designed this fountain around a special stone, one with a 1-in. hole drilled through it. Water from the pump gurgles up through the hole and overflows the stone. To reduce maintenance, we eliminated the collection pond. A gravel-filled reservoir below collects the overflow for recirculation. Since no sunlight can reach the water in the reservoir and support algae growth, the water stays pristine. You'll have algae growing near wet areas, but it only contributes to the natural look.

In this article, we'll show you how to select and drill a boulder that'll mimic a natural artesian well. We'll also show you how to construct a simple under-gravel reservoir using 5-gal. pails. The decorative choices—the top-dressing stones, fountain stone and plants—we leave to your own creative eye and inspiration.

The whole building process is simpler than you might think, and you don't need any special skills or tools. But it's not a completely no-sweat job. You'll have to dig an 8 x 10-ft. hole about 2 ft. deep and dump in gravel. That's the only genuinely heavy work. You can easily have this project up, running and finished in a day once you've gathered the materials.

The fountain we show cost about $1,000 including the pump, rock fill, pond liner and pad, and all of the boulders, including the one that's drilled. But your pond doesn't have to be as large and elaborate as ours. You can design a smaller version that will cost as little as $200. All you need is one water-spouting boulder resting in a small area of decorative stone for a beautiful conversation piece for your garden.

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The planning steps

The water basin is a two-tiered hole: a shallow end where the boulders rest and a deeper end that serves as the reservoir (Figure A). The 5-gallon pails (Photos 5 – 8) create a large reservoir volume, so you don't have to add water often. They also reduce the amount of coarse gravel needed to fill the hole. (We ran this fountain most of the summer and found that we only needed to add water every week or two, depending on the weather.) All of the pails but the one containing the pump are positioned about 5 in. below the surface to leave room for potted, water-loving plants.

We elevated the pump pail so the lid lies just below the surface for easy pump access. We drilled all of the pails with holes sized to keep out the gravel (Photo 5) but let the water seep in. If you build a smaller fountain with fewer 5-gallon pails, monitor the water level more frequently. If the reservoir goes dry, the pump may be ruined.

Begin your search for fountain stone by calling stone suppliers that either custom drill stones or have a selection of predrilled stones (“Stone, Natural ” in the Yellow Pages). Prices will range between $50 for small stones and upwards of $2,000, plus delivery and placement charges, for 1-ton stones with natural basins.

Deciding on the fountain stone is the hard part. Bring several gallons of water with you and pour water over your stone selections to see how it flows. Adjust the stone to alter the flow. Look for a stone that has natural chutes or channels if you're seeking a “stream-like ” flow, or one that has a natural basin if you're after a gurgling-up-from-the-ground look. Pick a stone that's less than 15 in. thick at the fountain hole location; that's the limit for available drill shafts.

Our fountain stone cost $75, and we paid $150 for the boulders that supported and surrounded it. If you don't have a source for drilled stones, buy a stone and drill it yourself. It's easier than you think. (See “Drilling a Stone.”)

Drilling a Stone

Just about any stone is “drillable,” with only a few exceptions (petrified wood being one). You'll need to rent a rotary hammer drill and a 1-in.-diameter masonry bit long enough to drill through the stone you choose.

Drilling your own stone may only take a few minutes, depending on the hardness and thickness of the stone. It's noisy, so wear hearing and eye protection. Don't force the drill; let the weight of the hammer drill do the work. Pull the bit out of the stone every inch or so to clear the dust. If you've picked out a rounded stone, stabilize it before drilling by digging a little crater in the ground to rest it in. The 1-in. bit may slide off the rounded surface when you start drilling. If so, drill a 1/2-in.-deep pilot hole with a 1/2-in. bit.

Rent a rotary hammer drill and a long masonry bit to
drill a hole in the stone.
Pull the bit out of the stone to clear away the dust.
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Select a site and dig the hole

Pick an area that has no more than a few inches of slope over the length and width of the water feature you plan to build.

Roughly assemble your fountain and other decorative large stones and cluster the 5-gallon pails to locate the deep end of the basin (Photo 1). Use a rope to shape a natural-appearing perimeter for the basin and gravel bed. Keep in mind that a larger basin means more digging!

Our excavation is about 4 ft. wide and 8 ft. long. Dig the deeper part of the hole with steep sides and a flat bottom to leave plenty of room for the pails. Use the depth of the pails as a guide to the proper depth (Photo 2).

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Lay in the padding and pond liner

The whole purpose of the pond liner padding is to protect the waterproof liner from punctures, but it won't offer complete protection. Cut off roots flush with the bottom and sides of the hole and dig out sharp stones.

Lay indoor/outdoor or any other old carpeting beneath the padding to further protect the liner (Photo 3), especially where the pails and heavy stones will sit. Then line the entire hole with the liner pad (Photo 3). If you need to cut it to fit the contours better, go ahead. Just do your best to keep folds to a minimum and avoid large voids between the soil and the pad.

Work in your socks when you're installing the pond liner to reduce the chance of damage. Start by unfolding the liner and centering it over the hole. Work the liner well into the transition between the bottom and the sides, folding neat, flat pleats wherever necessary to help it fit (Photo 4). The weight of the fill and water will push the liner into any remaining small voids. Add another layer of carpeting or pond liner scraps under the boulder and pail positions to further guard against punctures (Photo 5).

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Add the pails and fill in the hole

Use either a spade bit or a twist bit to drill 1/2-in. drain holes in all the pails as we show in Photo 5. To make accessing the pump easier, we suggest cutting off the lid-locking lip of the pump-containing pail (Photo 6).

When you start backfilling around the pails, they'll want to shift a bit, so keep a foot on the lids while you shovel a few inches of rock around each base. Be sure to keep the height of the pump pail about 2 in. below grade level (Photo 7). Stop filling at this point. The pea gravel will fill the final 2 in.

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Lay in the top-dressing rock and arrange the fountain and filler stones

Hook up the pump to the water line and rest it on the bottom of the pump pail (Photo 8). Position the larger base rocks at this point, and then pour the pea gravel around them and top off the rest of the feature (Photo 9).

Arrange the fountain stone and other stone supports or features in the shallow end of the hole. Use a flowing garden hose near the hole in the fountain stone and tinker with the stones until the flow pattern approximates the look you're after (Photo 10).

When you're satisfied, tip over the fountain stone to expose the hole, cut the water line to length and clamp on the plastic fittings (Photo 11). Test-fit the fitting end in the fountain hole; you may have to grind or chisel off the plastic barbs on the fitting to make it tight. Coat the fitting with silicone caulk and slip it into the hole. Let it set for an hour and then reset the stone.

Now fill the reservoir by laying a garden hose on the gravel and running water through it until the pump pail is full. Rest the pump at the bottom of the pail and then plug it in for a test run. Readjust the stones as needed to get the ideal water flow.

If you stack boulders and smaller stones to form a more elaborate fountain, use expanding “pond foam” between the stones to stabilize the pieces. Protect the stones from overflowing foam by tucking aluminum foil in the areas you want to keep free of foam (Photo 12). Start with small amounts of foam and try to keep it out of sight by shoving the dispensing tube deep into the crevices.

After the foam sets (about two hours), tear away the foil and cut off any exposed foam with a knife or saw. If water “sticks” to the side of the stone as it runs off and your goal is a mini waterfall, let the stone dry and then apply a bead of silicone to the water side of the stone. The silicone will repel the water and help it “fall.”

Finish the water feature by trimming off the overhanging liner and pad even with the rim of the hole. The liner is best cut with a utility knife and the pad with a scissors. Add whatever other top-dressing or perimeter stones and plants you wish.

If you live in a cold climate, take your pump in for the winter and store it in a pail of water to keep the seals wet. Don't worry about draining the reservoir; freezing won't hurt it a bit.

Buying a Water Pump

A 300-gph (gallons per hour) water pump will give you the type of flow you see in our opening photo. If you'd like a smaller, gurgling flow, buy a 200-gph pump or install a restrictor valve at the pump to allow you adjust the flow.

We selected a low-voltage pump because it's safer and the wiring is easier to install. In fact, you only need to bury the cable an inch or two below grade. For a standard 120-volt pump, however, you'll have to apply for an electrical permit, bury the wire much deeper and install a GFCI protected outlet.

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Additional Information

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