Water Effects in Landscape

Date Published: 
August, 1906
Original Author: 
George L. Tilton
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 20th Annual Convention

I think it will be conceded by everyone, who takes the trouble to think about the matter, that water effects greatly enhance the beauty of landscapes. Whether the body of water be large like the ocean, great lakes and broad rivers, or small like our ponds and rivulets, the charm of the mobile element reflecting the fleecy clouds and the masses of trees and shrubs helps to form a picture appreciated by all and to say that it often adds one-hundred-fold to the beauty of the scene would not be an exaggeration.
After having settled affirmatively the desirability of a waterscape, the next question arising will be as to whether there is a place suitable, or water available for such an improvement. If it is impossible or impracticable of achievement nothing more need be said. If it is; however, within bounds, physically or financially, I will endeavor to give a few hints as to procedure. It should be understood, at first, that a sufficient supply of water at all times to prevent stagnation and consequent ill smells, must be obtained. We will suppose that we are among the fortunate ones and have in our cemetery some low place, some small valley or depression through which already a small stream trickles, or to which water can be diverted. Then such a problem is comparatively simple and all we have to do is to take advantage of our good luck.

Of course no two cases are alike, but generally by damning the outlet, or deepening, a sufficient expanse can be secured. First we must decide on the head or elevation it is possible or desirable to obtain. After determining that point, we can by leveling from the height of the proposed dam or outlet, find where the shore line will be. That, if not already irregular enough by the undulations of the surrounding grounds, must be made so by grading; for our little lake must be full of coves and projections large and small, as nature is full of irregularities and naturalness is what we must strive for. The best effects will be secured if our lakelet is a trifle less in breadth than length. Soil from the excavation can be used for building elevations of various shapes and sizes. The hanks should be concave next to the water, a convex surface being unsuited as a margin for either a shore line or a drive. The concavity should gradually change into a convex shape at the highest part of the grade. These curves should leave the shore in graceful sweeps from the edge, now receding gently, then rising more abruptly to higher points, always bearing in mind that the action of the elements has a softening effect on the angles of elevations and that we, to be natural, must grade accordingly.

In this arrangement thought should be given to the various points of view which are to be finally established, as the whole lake should not be in sight from anyone point. If convenient, rocks and stones of various colors and sizes can be added for picturesqueness; and if tastefully distributed will contribute to the artistic effect.

Islands are some times desirable. If properly placed they add variety and accentuate the character of the scenery. Generally speaking they should be situated near the shore and at the points, where they seem like prolongations; not in the bays, where they only serve to clog, nor in the center where the depth is supposed to be greatest. Two places where islands may be used to good advantage are at the inlet and outlet. If the stream which supplies the body of water is not attractive it can be concealed by an island placed in front of it, or a like condition existing at the outlet could be treated in the same way.
Broadly speaking the character of the landscape around a lake such as we have described should conform to, or harmonize with, its surroundings. If the land is broken and stony a picturesque, wilder treatment would be preferable. If the surrounding scenery is milder and gentler the ground should take on and emphasize those characteristics. The shores should have sweeping curving outlines, the banks rise in easier swelling contours and the foliage is around full habit. The last condition is more in keeping with the quality of beauty of a placid, mirror-like lake and will be oftener exemplified in the work of the improver than the other. Of course the artist can attempt modifications of the two types to good advantage, if done judiciously.

Having arranged the outline we can now proceed to clothe with foliage the margins of the lake. This, done at the proper season and gaining full beauty at maturity, must depend for artistic success upon the ability and good taste of the designer. A few broad rules are all that can be given in a paper of this size and scope. As previously stated the borders of the newly erected sheet of water should harmonize with and develop the quality of the surrounding scenery. If of the beautiful type, the trees should be of a majestic, full habit, and the masses of planting not so abrupt and with softer outlines; back on the higher land could be oaks, maples, ashes or lindens; nearer the margin the water loving plants, like willows, the smaller red-branched dogwoods and button bushes out of which may grow an occasional elm. There may be vines and shrubs covering the naked trunks, furnishing the shadings for the picture and confining the eye to the desired views. All the native trees and shrubs from the country around are acceptable. Alders, elders, spiraeas, hazels, thorns, sumachs, dogwoods with their red winter stems, and red-berried shrubs like the barberry, highbush cranberry and Indian currant may be used and are very effective.

The planting, as said before, should not be in spots, as it were, but in irregular masses with the proper graceful connection between the groups, all varying in height and extent, in the most natural manner.

The picturesque treatment differs from the last in that it is wilder. The plants are in places, crowding each other; climbing vines wind about the stems and interlace the boughs of the trees, which are themselves of a more violent, rugged nature. Larch and fir trees would be at home in this environment. Moss-covered rocks, with ferns and shade-loving plants, could be used here and both can be blended by the artist in the most delightful manner.

By studying the outlook from every point of view before commencing to plant, a mental picture should be made, afterwards transferred to a drawing. This should provide openings to command the best glimpses of the water, generally across the widest portions.

Having finished our creation, more or less to our satisfaction, all that can be done afterward is to admire and wait for time to mature and mellow. We may be sure, at any rate, that no matter how indifferent our effort may have been, it will be an improvement and with the lapse of the seasons, grow in beauty, if not meddled with too much; while if we have studied nature and the best art closely, we will have a picture restful, entrancing, always changing and satisfying, from every point of view, either spiritual or material. Swans and other water fowl on a placid sheet of water, as described, give a bit of life to the scene and undoubtedly add much to its attractiveness.

Water effects in the shape of rivulets or brooks; are other forms it maybe convenient to develop, either as inlets or outlets to the broader expanse, or taken by themselves. The landscape, in this case, as in the other, should conform to its environment. If the ground is very uneven the stream will partake of the same character and the channel be steep and tortuous, with pools in places, then rapids and finally little falls or cascades. It would be manifestly improper to have the banks of such a brook smooth and even, with the green grass sloping gently to its edge and the whole surrounding tame and conventional. That would do for the level-winding, calm streamlet, but not for the strenuous one. That kind means action; the other repose and harmony must govern.

Work can some times be done to improve such a stream as described. By removing rocks or stones a better appearance can be given and when practicable small pools can be established by little dams or obstructions and falls made where none existed. The whole should be covered by a rather thick tangle of trees, shrubs, vines, ferns and all plants that would naturally choose such a habitation, with now and then an opening to let in the sunlight and provide variety.

In conclusion I wish to reiterate that the dominant quality, the keynote, of any successful achievement in the line we have been discussing must be naturalness. Study some fine piece of scenery, either natural or artificial, in your neighborhood. Note the simplicity of the whole arrangement, no formality, no straight lines, no staring contrasts, no eveness, but perfect harmony, the trees of different sizes, massed together, one group now running into another, now separate, of different heights, the whole shaded and softened by undergrowth, with the green sward for ground work, remembering that “natural groups are full of openings and hollows, of trees advancing before, or retiring behind each other, all productive of intricacy, of variety of deep shadows and brilliant light."

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 20th Annual Convention
Held at Detroit, MI
August 21, 22 and 23, 1906