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From The Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens


July 22, 2019

Rills: Thrills, Spills, and Chills

The dictionary defines a rill as a narrow, shallow incision into the topsoil (from the Dutch ril meaning running stream). These rills usually form naturally as erosion by a stream or a place with high water runoff such as a cliff or hill. When rills are placed in a context of a garden, however, they are almost always put there intentionally. Historically, rills developed in Persian and in Spanish gardens with a heavy Moorish influence such as Al-andalus and the Court of the Lions at the Alhambra.

These rills initially served a functional purpose bringing water from an outside source closer to a home. These artificial streams, lined with stones or tiles to reduce water loss, were a common way to control the water source, making it flow in whatever direction or magnitude that was needed. Rills also derive from the Islamic tradition of the paradise garden—a rectangular space often divided into quadrants by two intersecting water channels.

Like so many other garden features, rills, variously known as runnels, eventually took on more of a decorative function than a utilitarian one by incorporating water into the garden with or without the addition of a fountain. More London, a recent urban development adjacent to the River Thames, features a shallow rill that runs through a pedestrian esplanade, thereby tying the space together. Think of all the many other ways that water may appear in a garden: in pools, ponds, fountains, and birdbaths. 

The Studio, Old Westbury, New York. New York. July 2002. Julie C. Wellington, photographer.

Hyland/Wente Garden, Millerton, New York. June 2006. John Hyland, photographer.

Images from The Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens

Article by Brittany Spencer-King, Smithsonian Gardens Intern, February 2013.




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