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Hard-Won Wisdom
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Hard-Won Wisdom

In his career as a pond designer and installer, Dave Garton has used his acquaintance with nature to inspire and refine his efforts. Here, in a new occasional series, he shares what he's learned along the way -- and offers guidance in avoiding an array of all-too-common errors.

In his career as a pond designer and installer, Dave Garton has used his acquaintance with nature to inspire and refine his efforts.  Here, in a new occasional series, he shares what he's learned along the way -- and offers guidance in avoiding an array of all-too-common errors.

I retired a while back after working for more than 20 years as a pond designer and installer. The result of that change in life is that I’m busier than ever.

I still hear, for instance, from old clients who want me to come back to modify or expand an existing pond/stream/waterfall system. Those requests, often from people who have become good friends through the years, are hard to resist.

More often, however, I’m being asked to teach. I’m frequently approached by garden clubs who want me to offer guidance to folks inclined to bring water to their back or front yards, and I’ve even given a couple lectures to garden railway groups who want to add realistic water systems to their layouts.

No matter the audience, there’s inevitably part of the presentation where I steer listeners clear of problems I’ve witnessed in the course of consulting with clients who’ve run into “professional” pond installers who’ve made messes of their projects. In this occasional series of articles, I’ll pull back the curtains and shed some light on a sampling of these miscues.


Before I get down to business, however, let me say that I was not without sin when I started installing ponds. Particularly at first, I was caught up in the pond-in-a-day approach and churning out as many jobs as I could during the short building season we have here in the Denver area. I’m not proud of that fact, but I’m happy to say that I nonetheless made a good enough impression on many of these homeowners that I was frequently asked to come in and do additional (and often corrective) work on my early efforts.

What turned me around shortly after I began my career was hiking: After putting together a few ponds in folks’ backyards, I’d get away from my workweek by spending time walking in the Rocky Mountains, generally along watercourses and always with eyes wide open.

What I began to notice was that natural waterways looked nothing at all like the fictions I was crafting for my clients. I saw that nature is far more random, varied and surprising in its designs than I was: Around, through and over rocks, the water in streams and waterfalls moved in ways I wasn’t replicating in my work. Waterfalls, I saw, are seldom simple, central flows and instead cross irregular thresholds as strong flows accompanied by cross-directional flows and spaces where no more than a trickle emerges from a cleft in a broken boulder.

As I made these observations, I applied them in my own work, which became subtler and more persuasive. And the biggest lesson I learned is that the effects I was after took time to achieve. So the old one-day projects ultimately began taking days, and some of the bigger ones stretched on for weeks and even months as I applied the lessons I picked up on my hikes. I was serving a different master now; my clients both appreciated and loved the results, so I never turned back.

For the most part, the articles in this series will address misadventures in assembling naturalistic waterfeatures, but along the way, we’ll touch as well on some common follies in formal ponds. There is, as we shall see, plenty to cover. This time, we’ll delve into one of the most obvious of all problems with naturalistic ponds, then spend time with a second and far more subtle issue of importance to the pondmaking arts.

The Mount Vesuvius Effect

In the course of my watershaping practice, I’ve spent a lot of time on my own projects, but I’ve also spent a fair amount of time consulting with clients about work that’s been done by other pond installers.

For reasons I can’t understand because the approach is so glaringly off target, too many of these paid professionals insist on piling up dirt, covering it with rocks and having water issue from a pipe at the top of the pile. Sometimes that pipe is in plain view, which is accounted for either by intention or, in time, with settlement of the rocks into the uncompacted dirt. Other times, there’s a gravity-defying “spring” placed very close to the top of the structure that issues gobbets of water that flop down to a stream or pond.


These two sets of rocks – the one on the left filled with nice-looking boulders and the one on the right a simple abomination – show what happens when a pond installer deals with relatively flat terrain by piling things up and having water emit from the top of the structure, belching water the same way Mount Vesuvius spews lava. There’s no way either one conveys a naturalistic message; in fact, the displays make people uncomfortable by colliding head on with what they know, consciously or not, about nature and its ways.

The root cause of these issues is frequently a flat backyard in which the installer feels a need to create a dramatic cascade to highlight the composition. Instead, we confront something that is brutally unnatural – the sort of confrontation that makes onlookers uncomfortable with what they’re seeing, even if they can’t put a finger on what’s gone wrong.

Context is a killer here, too: Quite often, this mound of rock and water is backed up by a fence or wall that gives the lie to whatever illusion the installer might be trying to convey.


In flat yards, the naturalistic approach involves digging down, disposing of much of the spoils and working with small but significant elevation transitions across a newly contoured space with either waterfalls or streams (left and middle). The most convincing approaches generally involve finding ways to hide the water source, but if a spring effect is what the client wants or the site demands, the water should not emerge at the top of the rock and instead should be sheltered by it (right).

All I can say is, don’t do that! Don’t automatically take the spoils from excavating a pond and heap them up in one place as the source of a mountain cascade or stream. Ease that dirt into the area around the pond as small berms and be satisfied that in the context of a flat backyard that drama can come from waterfalls that drop a few inches or streams that descend a few inches on their way to a pond sunken into the space

It’s not always important to create visual drama. What’s more valuable to homeowners is a true sense of nature at work, and this can be done much more effectively by the sounds emanating from a series of small cascades rather than from torrents pushed to the top of Mount Vesuvius.

Scale Factors

Another lesson I’ve learned is that scale really matters in pond projects. It’s not simply about the size of a pond system relative to the available space in a backyard: It’s also about the sizing of the various components that make the space work, from rocks to plants.

I often take clients with me to rock yards, both to get a sense of what they like as well as to give them a sense of what’s ahead as individual stones come together in an appealingly naturalistic composition. Going through the process of selecting significant stones gives them some skin in the game, but it also illustrates the fact that pulling everything together will take some time on site.

I’m pretty good at steering these clients in the right direction as we move through the rocks, but sometimes they’ll se a big, dramatic rock and can get pretty insistent about wanting something grand to highlight the 20 by 20 foot space we’ve set aside for the pond. It’s a cool rock, I’ll tell them, but let’s consider these over here before making any decisions.


The project at left presents more than one issue worthy of discussion, but my focus for now is on an error of scale: The pair of big boulders are too large and too lonely to make the composition work – although it might have helped if the pair of them had been half-buried instead of plopped on the surface. At right, the big rocks work in terms of scale not only because the biggest ones have company but also because the grand context calls for massive boulders rather than cobble and pebbles.

I understand the fascination with big boulders and, apparently like my clients, had always considered scale as a secondary, commonsense detail in my projects until I started working with garden railways, where scale is everything. The locomotives and rolling stock replicate the real thing as a matter of inches to feet, and the hardcore pursuers of the perfect layout know just how big things should be to convey a realistic, naturalistic presence.

Before long, what I had been doing instinctively as a student of nature I was now doing deliberately as someone whose eyes had been opened to a defined sense of proportion and how the size of boulders in a project relates to the height of a cascade, the extent of the pond’s water surface and even the depth of the water and the sizes of plants and fish.


For a while, I was something of a specialist with garden railways – an experience that taught me to think about scale in distinct, literal ways. This developing sensitivity gradually permeated all of my projects, as I made certain that rocks and plants I chose were proportionate to the space in ways that would put my clients at ease – even if they didn’t quite understand the effect I was pursuing.

would never advise paying attention to scale as the driver of a design, because my study of nature is filled with memories of outsized boulders that have rolled down into pint-sized streams. But it’s key background information as I stand back and evaluate how a project is coming together – subtle, but significant nonetheless.

True story: I worked with a model railroader who wanted to stock his railway “lake” with actual trout. We set it up with tiny fingerlings and all was well for a while until, trout being trout, they started preying on one another and a trio of dominant ones took over the pond and soon became full-grown trout that now had the relative proportions of blue whales milling around in a puddle.

Scale is important, in other words, but don’t get carried away! Even a background sense of proportion and balance will see you through.

Next time: Strings of pearls and other visual offenses.

Dave Garton, owner of Lawnchair Watershapes in Denver, is an expert pond and stream builder as well as an in-demand business speaker and coach. He may be reached at [email protected].

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