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Finding the Garden Path
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Finding the Garden Path



This past January, I had the pleasure of traveling to Tucson, Ariz., to attend the annual conference of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. The focus of this year’s conference was the use of water in landscape design, and the program appropriately featured an interesting mix of experts on swimming pools, fountains and water gardening.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect when I signed on. I’d only been to one landscape event before, and much of that trade and the people in it have been mostly unfamiliar to me. As it turned out, however, this conference was truly an eye-opening experience. I’ll even go so far as to say that this event now represents a significant turning point in my watershaping career.

Along with my Genesis 3 partners, Skip Phillips and Dave Tisherman, I was asked by conference organizers to give a presentation on swimming pool design and construction; we were happy to oblige. What we found was a gathering of landscape designers who were extremely interested in learning everything they could about how to design and build pools. Even those with some experience were interested in any information that would enable them to incorporate pools more effectively into their work.


I was impressed by the passion of those attending the conference and the richness of their ideas. I could only admire their willingness to expand their horizons.

What was so fascinating to me was the artistic and creative approaches these designers apply to the work they do – a very different sensibility than you find most of the time in the swimming pool trades. These are professionals who work hard to use nature as a guiding design inspiration and they are, for lack of a better term, decidedly “artistic” in the way they go about it. I liked what I heard and saw!

I was also a little surprised so many people from outside what I consider to be the mainstream of the swimming pool industry – especially people with such a different sensibility – would take so great an interest in expanding their understanding of pools. As I thought about it, however, it occurred to me that I shouldn’t be surprised at all, because I’ve known for some time that the landscaping trades are both education-oriented and inherently creative.

I came away from the conference thinking that, as a designer and builder of custom concrete swimming pools, I, too, should look outside the confines of my world and develop my knowledge of landscape design and other parts of that world that are relevant to my work. As I sat and watched some of the presentations, it became clear to me that a natural place to begin is with ponds and water gardens.

As I sell my services to potential clients, I refer to myself as “an artist who works with water.” In that sense, it’s natural from the clients’ point of view to assume that I would know about ponds as well as pools.

And through the past few years that has been exactly the case: In ever-increasing numbers, my customers are asking for ponds and natural streams as part of a whole package. They’ve seen Japanese gardens and other beautifully designed garden spaces that include water, and they’re looking for that same beauty and tranquility in their own lives.

As I talked to people in Tucson and sat in on the seminars, it occurred to me that there is an entire field of valuable ideas waiting for those of us in the “pool industry” who are willing to take the journey beyond the concrete holes we build into a realm of pure, clear, multi-dimensional watershaping. (In a very real sense, this kind of conceptual expansion is what WaterShapes is really all about.)

And now that I’ve begun to study water gardening in earnest, I’ve found that it fits neatly among paths of inquiry I’ve already explored, specifically feng shui and the concept of integration in exterior design. It’s all interrelated, and this landscape-side sensibility about adhering to nature is something that is already resonating with many of my clients.


There’s a tremendous opportunity to harmonize within designs that use truly natural bodies of water. It’s an approach to integration that landscape professionals seem to take in stride and understand as being essential to their approaches.

I don’t think the same thing can be said of people who, like me, are coming at modern watershaping from the swimming-pool side of the equation. That’s not to be negative about an industry that’s been so much a part of my life, but rather to point out the fact that we have a real opportunity to grow and develop in what we do for a living.

The more I immerse myself in this new sensibility, the more liberating I find it – and the more I find that some of my preconceived notions about design and construction of bodies of water are being challenged.

On an extremely practical level, for example, ponds have forced me think of vinyl liners in an entirely different way. Coming from the pool industry, I’ve long been accustomed to thinking of liners as a less expensive, less durable and much less flexible (in design terms) alternative to concrete construction.

I’ll admit it: I’ve indulged in the opinion that “baggies” were inferior and that concrete is the only way to go. But now I’ve come to understand that the liners used in ponds and streams are entirely different from those used in pools. They’re a heavier, more durable material that is meant to last indefinitely.

I’d also never considered the fact that in ponds you place gravel and soil on top of the liner and hide it from view completely. Nor had I stopped to think that when you develop a “living” system in a liner, that liner really does need to be seen as permanent.

Thinking about ponds has challenged me as well to think about water treatment and filtration in new ways. I’m even learning to accept certain types of algae and bacteria as beneficial and desirable. And I look at water plants and the needs of fish in a whole new way, too.

Perhaps most significant of all, my study of the art of pond design has already led me to understand the importance of observing, appreciating and, yes, understanding nature to the fullest extent possible.


One of the things heavily emphasized in the APLD program in Tucson was the importance of getting out and observing nature at first hand.

Landscape designers have always used the world around us as a grand sort of classroom or design laboratory. They look to nature for examples of the ways that rocks, plants and water co-exist naturally. And many of the things they see around them in nature serve to inspire and broaden their creativity at the design table.

I think I’ve always understood this on some level – and it’s certainly something I’ve read about many times in past issues of WaterShapes – but I’ve never thought of it in such direct terms. For many years now, one of my favorite things to do has been to go on hikes in North Carolina on trails along numerous streams and rivers – many so hidden that I’m convinced I am the first person ever to do so. I’ve taken pictures and made sketches, but mostly I’ve just noticed how nature so often does surprising things – things you’d never think to apply in a design intended to mimic nature.

I once took photos of a set of boulders that were distributed in a sort of linear pattern, almost as though some drunken mason had put them there. In a natural design I did sometime later, I used that pattern of rockwork in a waterfall. Once construction was done but before any plantings had been added, I was sure this quasi-organized pile of rocks just wouldn’t make the impression I wanted to make. But sure enough, when the whole thing was finished, the effect was both striking and distinctly natural.

The lesson taught by the art and practice of landscape design is, I think, that we can trust nature as a source of inspiration – and that it’s a tremendously creative resource. In landscapes we see an appreciation for subtle effects and thoughtful earthen structures. We see the importance of the placement of rocks and plant materials and the careful use of earthen structures and elevations as opposed to hardscape structures. We see a willingness and desire to conceal the hand of man in the work and the courage to create areas that are meant to be as plainly “natural” as possible.

It’s a fun way of looking at the world – and a relatively new perspective for me.

I think I’ve instinctively been going in this direction for years. On a project a few years ago, for instance, I was building a concrete pond in conjunction with a landscape architect the homeowners had employed. In my typical pool-builder style, I wanted to conceal the bond beam with piles of rocks and some large waterfeatures.

The landscape architect had a different idea and asked me to contour the top of the bond beam so he could bring turf and landscaping right to the water’s edge, quite capably concealing the concrete structure below. It looked great, but at that time, I would have never thought to treat an edge that way.

His approach was informed by a desire to make the work look natural; mine was biased by my skill in manipulating hardscapes to create edge treatments.


Clearly, there are a great many things that pool designers and builders can pick up from landscape professionals, and vice versa. Regrettably, I think both trades have spent too much time working in isolation from one another without a full appreciation of what each other has to offer.

For my part, I know that I am now going to take ponds, streams and the whole realm of water gardening far more seriously than I did before my experience in Tucson. I’m also going to look more closely at rock material, plantings and water in natural settings while I retool my thinking on filtration and learn as much as I can about the technology of ponds and the artistic sensibility that goes into their design.

Bower 1-FinalIt’s very clear to me now that many people from the landscaping side of the watershaping industry are going through much the same set of transformations when it comes to pools.

Rather than view this as some sort of adversary relationship in which two trades are competing over the same turf, I view it as an exciting new opportunity to forge strategic business alliances. In fact, I’ve already begun seeking out local landscape architects and designers I can bring into various projects to help me meet my clients’ demand for natural tranquility in their backyards and homes.

In practical terms, I see three main benefits to this path of inquiry and discovery: First, expanding my range to encompass ponds and streams gives me the chance to be artistic and to create something beautiful for my clients. Second, there’s more freedom in ponds, both because they aren’t as heavily regulated as pools and because the range of available rock and plant materials is absolutely huge.

Third – and this is the most intriguing part – executing natural bodies of water requires its own particular type of perfection. It’s a perfection that relies not on hitting close tolerances in engineering and construction terms, but in refining the way you compose using a natural assortment of stones, plants and water.

Only now am I learning to view the world in a way that so many of our colleagues in the landscaping trades do. I feel as though I’ve taken the helicopter up another hundred feet to see a broader picture and calculate the impact of my designs in a greater and more significant context.

We all talk a lot about education, but where these discussions gain true meaning is when you venture into a new world of ideas and find things that are both exciting and useful. For people accustomed to building swimming pools, water gardening presents a wonderful learning opportunity. We already possess many of the needed skills, but we need to learn to look at things in an entirely different, natural and artistic way.

I’m sure the same point cuts the other way, because the enthusiasm I encountered in Tucson on the part of landscape designers wanting to expand their work to include engineered hardscape structures that contained water was nothing short of phenomenal. I applaud that brand of open-mindedness, and I welcome you to the discussion.

Your presence has already made my work more interesting and exciting.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].

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