Rooted in ancient design, this water feature is popular again as a way to help contemporary landscapes flow
Of all the water features we use in our gardens, the rill perhaps has the most interesting history. The rill is a man-made garden canal that creates garden ambience through the pleasant sound of moving water. The earliest style of rill was found in ancient Persian gardens, but perhaps the most famous are in the Moorish Alhambra gardens in Granada, Spain. The rill was a popular water feature of Edwardian garden design and often used by Gertrude Jeckyll, one of Englands most famous garden designers.
Today, rills are the perfect choice for any size garden, as they take up little space, are easy to maintain and can be designed to suit your style of garden and your life.
Rill 1: Charles McClure - Professional Site Planning, original photo on Houzz
Looking to the past. In early Persian gardens, slim canals were the main feature of gardens where creating a cooling atmosphere was vital in the hot climate. Today, similar water features are used for the same purpose. The addition of fountains on this contemporary raised rill adds movement as they disturb the reflections on the water.
Level rills. Rills are usually very shallow and narrow, used as either a design feature to lead the eye to another part of the garden or as a functional feature to move water from one part of the garden to another. Rills set into a patio or paved area are ideal in gardens used by small children, where safety is paramount. They are also appreciated by wildlife, because the shallow nature of the rill makes it a perfect drinking trough.
Raised rills. When raised above ground level, rills can become more than just a water feature. In the Renaissance gardens of the Villa d'Este near Rome, rills were set into the center of long stone tables so that wine bottles could be cooled in the cold, flowing water. I have seen a modern version of this in Place Kléber in Strasburg, France, where raised wooden rills were built one summer to allow the residents to cool their wine, beer and feet in the heat of a continental summer.
Rill 2: Becky Harris, original photo on Houzz
Running water. Rills can be designed as still, contemplative waters or streams of movement. The famous serpentine rill in Rousham, England, was built by the early garden designer William Kent in 1738. It snakes through woods at ground level transporting water through the gardens, ending in a large octagonal pool.
A design feature. Rills can be used solely as a design feature, providing a strong architectual line through a garden, patio or yard. They can define areas and create movement in enclosed areas. This small, raised rill with its minimalistic style and strong lines fits so well into this contemporary design. It is a case where simple restraint in design has worked.
Rill 3: Rugo/Raff Ltd. Architects, original photo on Houzz
Planting. Rills are well suited to planting marginal water plants. The shallow depth and level of water make them the perfect home for a range of marginals. Architectual plants look the most effective in the formal structure of the rill, and of these I would recommend:
- Scirpus tabernaemontani ‘Zebrinus’ (Zebra Rush)
- Juncus effusus ‘Unicorn’ (Unicorn Common Rush)
- Iris pseudoacorus ‘Variegata’ (Variegated Yellow Flag)
We can see in the raised formal rill above both architectural plants and water lilies, which not only give foliage and flower interest but also keep the water clear of pond weed such as blanket weed that can easily clog the rill. Narrow rills can be blocked with roots from overplanting or rampant root growth, so regular reducing or dividing any clumps may be required.
Rills without planting. As a contrast, here we see a raised wide rill without any plants at all. The rounded cobbles in the base create interest, while the clear, still water reflects the surrounding garden. The raising and separating of the rill by the use of a surround of cobbles makes a real feature of the rill.
The modern look. A series of rills set at angles can run in steps down a slope with each run linked by small waterfalls. The modern rill here uses metal for the troughs that contrasts perfectly against the lush planting. I love the way a feature has been made of the supporting timbers, creating a sculpture in thier own right.
Rill 5: Five Twenty Two Industries, original photo on Houzz
For the smallest yard. Today even the smallest of gardens or yard can enjoy the sound of running water and the delight of sunlight sparkling off the rill. This contemporary water feature provides wonderful movement of water along a vertical and horizontal rill before falling into a formal pond below.