Reflections on dyed water and dead water.

Dyed water at the Barbican in London

On my computer, I have a small file labelled ‘dyed water’. I take these photos because each time I see dyed water, it makes me pause to raise my eyebrows. So I was interested to read a blog by a British colleague strongly advocating black dye, based on her personal experience. Black dye appears to be the choice of those people who want sharp reflections, blue dye appears to be the choice for those who believe water looks best when it is blue – albeit synthetic blue.

Every experienced gardener knows that water can be problematic although it is highly desirable in a garden. Lucky are those with natural springs which do not dry out but are strong enough to feed a small lake with a constant supply of fresh water. A flowing stream or river can also be a huge asset though brings a raft of issues with variable flows and flooding. Failing these, you end up having static water. This can be set up as a small ecosystem which is relatively self-sustaining with plants and aquatic life but there will be times of the year when algae grow and the water is likely to be green some of the time. I note that most of my blue dyed water photos are ponds with plant life. Clearly the two are not incompatible so it must have been the colour of the water that worried the gardeners in charge based on a curious perception that all bodies of clean water are blue.

The black water reflecting pool at Veddw in Wales would not work in our climate. Mosquitoes!

Bury Court with black water in 2014 on the left and in 2017 when the owner had stopped dying it and most of the colour had gone. I failed to ask how deep the pool was which would affect the reflective qualities but there was little difference to pick except a slightly more natural look in 2017.

Or you have what Mark calls dead water.

I have always raised my eyebrows at expensive water features that require a full filtration system to keep them pristine clean. If you are going to all that trouble and expense, you might as well have a swimming pool in my view. Mark describes it as the corporate building look. Or, apparently, you dye your water to hide the natural colour and any debris. This is never going to work in our climate where we have to have either moving water, treated water or ecosystem ponds with fish. Any still water simply offers a breeding ground for mosquitoes to make summer wretched.

Is the term ‘dead water’ an exaggeration? Not according to Mark who speaks with passion on this topic. “You might as well have a bare area of tramped earth that you spray regularly with Paraquat,” he declared to me over our afternoon cup of tea. “Environmentally, a dyed water pond with nothing living within it is the same.” He was thinking of feature black ponds that exist for the purpose of reflections only, where any interruption by living plants or pond life will disturb the clarity of those reflections.

I have only ever seen one incidence of dyed water in a New Zealand garden where there was a natural pond full of life with artificially blue water which I really did not think added anything to the scene.

Reflections in our swimming pool. We are rarely dead calm here so they have a shimmer.

We have a swimming pool so we have 65000 litres of treated water (though we swapped to a salt filter some years ago). Because I have a particular dislike for the bright blue pools that may have been California’s gift to the world, we decided to make our pool black. In the event, the plasterer was too mean to add sufficient black colouring to the mix, though I did not realise that was the issue until long after he had gone. We ended up with a pool that is on the dark side of mid grey. Visually it is interesting. We get reflections in it and we get considerable colour variation in the water – many hues of blue through to grey as it reflects the sky. All natural colours.

Dyed water at Tintinhull in Somerset

Whether blue dye or black dye is used is a matter of aesthetics. The issue of colouring outdoor water with a chemical mix is the same. I had a look at the supplier’s website and they are a little sparse on technical detail so I couldn’t work out whether it is simply the dark water that stops plants being able to photosynthesize or whether there is an algicide added. Were I to contemplate dying any bodies of water here, I would be wanting to know that detail rather than just accepting generalised assurances of safety.  I admit I did not do an exhaustive analysis of their entire site but the technical sheets were not helpful.

To Mark, it represents dead water because the purpose is to create a mirror effect and the solid colour of the water appears inert. To me, it seems like a statement of man or womankind’s dominance over nature. It says, “You got the colour wrong, Nature. But I am going to fix that.” It is that philosophical divide between those who see gardening as controlling nature and those who see gardening as working with nature. We prefer the softer-edged focus of a cooperative relationship. I am pretty sure it should be possible to create a reflective water feature without having to dye the water but it comes down to matters like the depth of the water, the materials and colour used for the construction, the location and maintenance.

Perhaps the final comment on reflecting pools belongs to the garden we visited where the owners  had gone to huge expense to install a long reflecting pool with a full filtration system (the sound of the filter humming away was distracting) – only to then install a lavish fountain in it thereby disturbing the surface of the water and breaking up the reflection. There seemed to be something lost in the implementation of an idea.

This water was green, very green, at Butterfly Springs in China. Would it have looked better dyed an unnatural blue?



14 thoughts on “Reflections on dyed water and dead water.

  1. Anne Wareham

    Thanks for the reference, Abbie. The idea that we might aspire to control nature entertains me – as if! I think most of our UK visitors think ‘far too little control’. But it’s true – at 6 inches deep clear water would just give us the sight of a wrinkly liner and any other depth was beyond our resources, so the dye delights me. And fortunately we aren’t troubled by mosquitoes.

  2. tonytomeo

    Hmm. . . I can see why people dye the water. It makes sense. However, I have also seen dyed water in FOUNTAINS! It looks ridiculous! By ‘dyed’, I do not mean blue or black, I mean bright PINK or GREEN, and I have even seen ORANGE! It is pretty hideous!

      1. tonytomeo

        My colleague down south and I joke about it sometimes. The medians of the boulevards of Inglewood are outfitted with really cheesy Home Depot type fountains . . . just out in the medians, as if someone might want to stop by for a Zen moment out with all that fast traffic speeding by. Another road in San Jose has one of those trough like fountains that is below grade out in the median. I had driven by it for years without knowing it was there. I only noticed it once because I happened to drive by in the delivery truck that is high enough to look down into it. It all gives me a new appreciation for Zayante Creek that flows through my garden without any maintenance or expense.

      2. tonytomeo

        Unfortunately, it is the norm. My colleague is exceptional in his education and experience, as well as his talent. Most in the industry are only there because they flunked out of something else.

      3. tonytomeo

        Oh yes, especially when, as an educated and very experienced horticulturist, no landscape company want anything to do with me. I make their work more difficult.

  3. Tim Dutton

    On a recent visit to Cross Hills Garden in Kimbolton we were very surprised to see that the water in the ponds there was a deep and very unnatural-looking blue. At first I thought it must be caused by the colour of the pond concrete, but it was quickly apparent it was dyed water when we inspected the water coming down the waterfall and the concrete above water level looked normal It looked unnatural and I don’t believe it enhanced the ponds at all as it made them seem out of kilter with the rest of what is a very lovely naturalistic garden.

    We get good reflections of the surrounding garden and blue sky from our natural pond on a still day when the ducks haven’t visited for a few days: if they are in residence the water tends to go a rather muddy brown and the look of the pond isn’t so good. Such is life. At the moment the unseasonal dry spell (5 weeks now with only 5 mms rain) and hotter than normal weather means the pond is evaporating and getting steadily shallower and smaller, something we normally experience in late February. All inflows stopped 2-3 weeks ago. If only we had a natural spring. One of the small streams through our garden has stopped flowing this week too and the bigger one is just a trickle. It is a concern so early in the summer.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Oh dear. I was hoping that the local garden I saw with synthetic blue water was a one-off. But maybe it is just the start of a trend here? Personally, I hope not.

Comments are closed.