In 1876, when city leaders decided to embellish Court Square, they ordered a huge cast-iron fountain from an iron-works company in New York. Several months later, it was delivered by train, and Hebe, still pouring water from her pitcher 131 years later, has become an iconic image for Memphis.
These days, homeowners wanting to add a fish pond or fountain — better known as "water features" — have considerably more options, and they are right here in town.
Home Depot, Lowe's, and other retailers offer a surprising assortment of pond kits, in all shapes and sizes. Homeowners on a budget can choose a simple 25-gallon round plastic basin sunk into the ground with a pump to recirculate the water ($69). A step up would be the 60-gallon model, with a crescent-shaped basin and a variety of nozzles to create different spray effects ($89). Or they might choose the top-of-the-line 65-gallon version, with a 15-inch stone (actually plastic) waterfall at one end. Complete with pump, filter, tubing, and variable flow control, that one costs $149.
These, and many others, are in-the-ground installations. Area retailers also offer plenty of above-ground fountains. Choices range from a model that resembles stalks of bamboo with water dribbling into a basin ($39) to a three-tiered Victorian-style fountain for $229. The "Blaze" offered by the Perfect Home company is quite unusual — hexagonal "copper" columns clustered together, with a citronella flame spurting from the top, creating "a spectacular fire and water effect" and "the perfect centerpiece in any outdoor setting." Standing 38 inches tall, it's $129.
Other designs included wall-mounted lions' heads with water gushing from their mouths, a boy standing over a drinking fountain, a wishing well, and even an almost life-sized statue of St. Francis holding a bird bath.
And there's no reason to stop there. Retailers also offer plenty of things to enhance your new pool or fountain, ranging from kitschy pink flamingos ($55) to graceful sculptures of leaping dolphins — everything crafted out of "durastone" or fiberglass, for long life and low maintenance.
Most of these projects require little more than a shovel, a sturdy back, and enough common sense to connect the various pieces of tubing that link the recirculating pump to the basin. There's just one hitch: Most instructions say, "Just add water and plug into a 110-volt outlet." Few houses have electrical outlets outside, so a qualified electrician will be needed to provide the power for just about any do-it-yourself water feature.
And even those homeowners with lifelong subscriptions to Popular Mechanics won't have the skills needed for truly impressive water features. Want a running stream or cascading waterfall in your backyard? That's when it's time to call in the experts.
"Most of these we call starter kits," says Plato Touliatos, owner of Trees by Touliatos, a full-service nursery and landscaping firm in Whitehaven. The do-it-yourself models "are an easy way to introduce people to ponds, but after they have them for a year or two, they usually want to step up."
Touliatos points out that plastic fountains can fade or crack with age, so his company uses real materials, such as limestone or granite. What's more, that next step up usually involves the addition of living creatures — not reproductions — to the pond.
"Some ponds or fountains just have chlorinated water, no fish, so you just have a water feature," says Touliatos. "But we have a tendency to go to the other extreme, where they are all natural and all biological. Not only are they easier to maintain, but there is less reliance on chemicals to keep the pond and water clean."
Touliatos explains that minnows and snails act like natural filters in a pond, eating dead leaves and other residue that collects on the bottom. There's another advantage as well.
"What you are doing is creating a biosphere," he says, "and it's a good way to show the kids fish eggs, then baby fish, and they can see the whole process of life right there in their own backyard."
Minnows, goldfish, and koi are the most typical residents of a backyard pool. "All these fish have been developed by the Japanese, who have been into ponds centuries longer than we have," says Touliatos. "We discourage people from using game fish — crappie, bream, or bass — because they have such high demand for oxygen. But the other fish have been especially bred to show a great amount of color and tolerate poor water quality."
Fish play another role as well. "Minnows go into shallow areas and eat mosquito eggs and larvae," says Touliatos. "So when you have a pond with fish, you usually reduce your mosquito population, which is just the opposite of what you might expect with a pool of water in your yard."
A pool or fountain can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 and more. "It's like a swimming pool," says Touliatos. "You can spend as much or as little as you choose." One thing he stresses is placing the water feature close to the house or patio — not tucked away in some corner of the yard.
"When you are sitting on your patio, the pool then becomes part of that space," he says. "And it's the most expensive landscaping you can do, so you want it to be highly visible."