Every year, it seems, I’m asked to teach more and more classes on how to build streams, waterfalls and ponds that look natural.
I enjoy conducting these sessions for local supply houses, landscape architecture firms, community colleges and other organizations and find it flattering that they value what I know. My motivation for sharing, however, is less about ego gratification than it is about my awareness that there’s no way a single company can build all of the naturalistic watershapes consumers want these days.
To me, it’s a matter of collective as well as personal interest that these watershapes be built to function well and look great. In Colorado in particular, I also see a need for work that appears completely and distinctly natural, simply because most clients here are accustomed to seeing remarkable beauty in the countless alpine settings that grace this beautiful state.
Indeed, it’s a fact of professional life here that the work must mimic nature closely or it just won’t fly. That can be very good for business, of course, but only if more than a few professionals hereabouts are up to the challenge.
Available projects range from those that use thousands of tons of boulders to those that use just a few. Some involve top-flight landscape architecture firms and high-end commercial and residential projects, while many others are installed by small firms working for middle-class customers. What they all have in common is the need to “sell” a naturalistic effect.
In teaching my craft to everyone from avid hobbyists to long-time professionals, I’ve always found a need to shape the information I offer to the level of expertise in the room. But no matter who’s in the chairs, at the heart of it, the challenge with naturalistic waterfeatures boils down to identical sets of factors.
We all do three main things – that is, we contain, circulate and clean the water. That oversimplifies things a bit, but my reasoning is pretty clear: By focusing on these three basic issues, I avoid getting wrapped up in the thousands of details that spin off every decision we make in designing and installing ponds, waterfalls and streams.
|I’ve always been fascinated by the way water flows in nature and do all I can in my own work to pay homage to Colorado’s small freshets, the traceries of its ice melts and the surprising ways water emerges in its rocky environs. If my own efforts are to stand up to comparison with the originals, I know I must pay attention to the finest of details, as I hope I’ve done here.|
Moreover, everything I teach, on every level and in every way, begins with the careful observation of nature. This is a common theme among pond/stream specialists and has often been discussed in the pages of this magazine: If you want to make the work look natural, you have to know what how things look in nature – it’s as simple as that.
Here in Colorado, we have wonderful natural features to use as inspiration and plenty of source material to look at, but I’d like to suggest that just “looking” isn’t sufficient and that we all need to learn how to observe nature effectively – that is, in ways that truly influence and benefit our work.
In my case, I look at the way nature does things, then match up those impressions against installed work I’ve seen, both my own and that of others. What I find so often is that the man-made watershapes are vexed by basic errors that disrupt the natural impression, and I use these as lessons to help me avoid committing those telltale visual errors in the future.
|The naturalistic impressions made by these settings are consistent throughout: You won’t find odd bits of liner or concrete poking out at the edges, and with the exception of the occasional pathway lighting fixture, there’s nothing to reveal the artificiality of these environments by way of exposed plumbing, conduits, J-boxes or cables.|
I always find surprises. In recent years, for example, we’ve had periods of protracted drought during which some of my favorite streams and waterfalls have run dry. That was disappointing at first, but I soon recognized that, even dry, most of these natural settings were still stunningly beautiful. As a result, I’ve begun incorporating wet/dry elements in my designs in the form of rock formations that appear as though water runs through them only some of the time.
I’ve also found tremendous inspiration in observing the intricacies of snow melts. It’s fascinating to notice how tiny rivulets of water create veins of subtly interactive flow that gather gradually into larger trickles, then streams, then cascades. These observations have influenced a range of my designs, leading me to take great care in dispersing water over intricate rock formations and to recognize a common problem in the presence of too much water at the heads of man-made systems.
The sorts of design elements that gain significance and nuance in my observational forays are all about the finer details. When I teach about ponds and streams, however, I’ve codified my approach and focus on common mistakes that completely distort a natural appearance.
|I’ve always thought that the waterline is where the look of a pond is made or broken, but I have to say that what happens beneath the water’s surface is also key to making a natural impression. Again, these watershapes are the product of my study of nature: I’ve applied relationships I’ve observed in the wild to various details below the surface with these banks, pools and streambeds.|
I begin with the observation that even in quality projects, installers often overlook a simple visual detail that blows the whole “natural” effect. Some key invitations to such flaws include:
[ ] Visible plumbing and electrical components: This is an easily avoided miscue, but it is nonetheless quite common to see beautiful work compromised by obvious human intrusions. When you think about it, it’s almost comical to go to all the trouble of creating a natural-seeming body of water while failing to take the time to conceal the plumbing and electrical connections. The solution is simple: Hide the pipes and wires!
[ ] Visible liners: Liners are wonderful in that they enable us to create beautiful watershapes that hold water, plants and stone, but we must recognize that nature doesn’t use them. It should therefore go without saying that the edges of the liner and the portions of the liner that end up being under the water or behind rock formations in cascades should never be visible. Unfortunately, however, they often are.
[ ] Visible concrete: Although relatively few pond/stream specialists have figured out how to use concrete effectively, the majority of concrete-based ponds and streams I’ve seen locally are visually and functionally deficient. For years, in fact, much of my work involved refurbishing these watershapes, which almost always crack as a result of inadequate engineering in the face of local freeze/thaw conditions.
At the Waterline
We often hear that the edges of ponds are critical. In my work, I take that basic concept a step further and consider the edge design in terms of the waterline itself and what happens just above and below as well as right at the water’s surface: This is where, in my estimation, good pond design begins.
In recent years, I’ve taken to using a laser level in placing stones in reference to waterlines. This enables me to see exactly where the water will touch the stone and where it won’t. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I now hang everything having to do with edges on that thin red line.
This greatly facilitates a number of subtle effects, such as creating very small areas where water will snake back into the edge in tiny nooks and crannies in the stone or move into spaces between pieces of stone. It also lets me see exactly where planting pockets line up relative to the waterline and, most important, enables me to take maximum advantage of extremely small changes in elevation – the key to working on small, flat lots where there might be only two or three inches of natural rise across a feature.
The irony is that by being completely aware of the waterline, we’re able to create work that fluidly moves above and below it. In that sense, by minding the water level, I’m able to weave transitions from wet to dry areas so that it all feels like an integrated waterscape rather than a collection of separate environments.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, being able to see concrete at the edge of a pond or behind a rock structure in a waterfall completely destroys any sort of natural impression. As with a liner, if you use concrete, you must be sure it’s totally hidden from view.
[ ] Obvious stone patterns: This is a big one – and not quite so obvious as the three points just above: One of the things we often hear in pond- and stream-construction seminars is that you should put round stones on the bottom of the pond or stream and larger, craggier, more ornamental pieces on the edges and in vertical transitions – and that we should also disperse them into the surrounding landscape.
Nature, however, does not do things that way: In fact, large “specimen” stones come to rest smack in the middle of streams and ponds, and rounded river rocks are distributed throughout dry areas. As a rule, it’s a mistake to organize rock placements based on their orientation to the waterline in any sort of obvious way.
Also, I often see jobs where too many types of stones have been used in an attempt to create “natural variety.” This is true despite the fact that, most of the time in nature, you find similar stone types present in localized areas. As a result, I limit the types or “species” of stones I use to a small assortment. Most types have tremendously subtle variations within their own family, a fact I use in creating a sense of “random patterning” in my work.
By limiting the number of stone types in a pond or stream to just one or two, you’re better able manage visual transitions between wet and dry areas and flat water and vertical transitions. It’s also easier to manage transitions to architectural features such as flagstone decks and control the overall impression of nature radiated by the watershape itself.
[ ] A lack of underwater views: Related to the point just above, there are many projects in which I see convincing work at or above the waterline – but that’s where it stops. To me, it’s just as critical to give the viewer something to look at under the water.: As seen in nature, it’s much better in our projects to devise beautiful, intriguing underwater spectacles that draw the eye. By composing these views beneath the surface, we reward the visitor for coming close to the water – a key part of the experience of enjoying the water to the fullest.
[ ] Excess volume at the source: As mentioned briefly above, nature shows us that water gathers as it descends. One of the most common mistakes I see is streams that have a vigorous flow right at the source – a defect that makes it very hard to “sell” a natural appearance. Instead, what I try to do in my projects is mask the source.
In some cases, I do so by creating multiple headwater points, often making them very small, perhaps no more than a trickle. In doing so, I give the impression that water is finding its way into the view in the same way a small stream evolves from snow melt. My aim here is to offer more points of visual interest to the viewer at the same time I’m obscuring the water’s source.
By contrast, when there’s a big flow at the top of a waterfeature, it draws the eye right to the point of emergence and almost always tells the observer, whether they fully recognize it or not, that the stream is artificial. (For more on this subject, see the sidebar at right.)
[ ] Obvious repetition: One trap it is all too easy to fall into is the use of repeated patterns, structures and design elements of all kinds. The most obvious example is the string-of-pearls effect found all too often at waterlines – a defect so obvious that it shouts the fact the stream or pond is artificial.
It’s also a problem in subtler ways, as with too-regular spacing of drops in waterfall structures or the use of the same approach in arranging structural rocks, weirs and specimen stones. Not even plantings are immune here: Far too frequently, I see planting pockets or shelves that are all at the same depth and of the same size while appearing at obviously regular intervals.
Nature provides something of a paradox here because there are recognizable patterns in natural streams and waterfalls. But the point is that those repetitions occur randomly. To mimic those effects, you have to mix things up from place to place and avoid recognizable patterns while also avoiding overt variations that stand out too much. This can involve tricky and subtle balances – skills that can only be learned by observing nature.
|Gravel plays a substantial role in my watershaping. It is a completely natural by-product of the freeze/thaw conditions, melting snowpack and relentless erosive power of wind and water that shape Colorado’s mountains and streams, and I tend to use it generously in my efforts to mimic local landscapes and watershapes.|
[ ] Gravity-defying details: It’s another obvious error, but again a common one – that is, placing water above where it should be relative to the force of gravity. Water is always the lowest element in the landscape because it is, after all, a liquid. Too often, however, I see piles of rocks stacked up in the corner of a yard with water flowing, lava-like, out over the top of the highest rock.
This just doesn’t ever happen in nature. Instead, water flows between and through the low points in rock structures and should never, under any circumstances, be the highest element in a given view. Optimally, there should be rock and plant material that rises above and behind the water source, and at each vertical transition there should be stone and plant elements that are higher than the flow of water.
Violating physics in this particular way is, I think, a sure-fire way to let everyone know the work is not natural in any way, shape or form.
Most of the considerations listed above could be article-length topics all their own, so please accept them for the introductions they are. Please recognize as well that solid performance in these key areas will go unappreciated if you don’t also keep an eye on one more area of concern that is all too often overlooked – that is, the client.
As I see it, part of the problem these days is the emergence of the same sort of mass-market approach that infects everything from swimming pools to houses these days – a one-size-fits-all approach that is influencing ponds, waterfalls and streams as well. A number of suppliers have made great strides in convincing people that ponds and streams are a wonderful addition to backyards; unfortunately, however, those same voices are telling consumers and installers that these watershapes can be planned and installed quickly using a few common elements, project after project after project.
|Although I derive great satisfaction from creating purely natural environments, there are times when touches of whimsy work wonderfully well in highlighting a setting or revealing the owners’ aspirations. The key for me is that the pending appearance of sculptures or other works of art never inclines me to compromise when it comes to my own aspirations and dedication to the delicate tasks at hand.|
There are all sorts of drawbacks to that mass-scale approach, chief among them being the fact that it leads us away from truly embracing the wants, needs and personalities of our clients.
To me, there are no shortcuts in that respect: Whenever I start a job, I spend time sitting in the space, usually in a lawn chair, with the client beside me observing the area, the distant views and the way the light moves through the space. Most important, I listen to what the client says as we sit in the actual setting.
To create truly natural-looking ponds and streams, I’m a firm believer that you need to give yourself enough room to maneuver. That’s why I always over-excavate the site, often to more than double the size of the finished body of water.
Clients are often shocked when they see just how big the hole can be for a pond that’s supposedly only a couple dozen feet across or a stream that’s only five feet wide. I always explain that the space I create below grade is utterly essential to making the watershape blend with its surroundings.
I start with my liners reaching five to ten feet beyond the water’s edge. This gives me the freedom to vary the edges and the rock and plant arrangements so that I avoid the sorts of telltale patterns I describe in the accompanying text.
I do so because, when I look at water in nature, I almost always see evidence of how it has moved and worn away the hardest of stone materials. To sell the natural character of my ponds, waterfalls and streams, I want to show evidence of just that presence of water well beyond the water’s edge.
The best example I can think of in nature is the Grand Canyon – an extreme case to be sure, but a virtual laboratory for how evidence of water’s past creates the current view.
On an infinitely smaller scale, we’re doing the same thing in man-made ponds, waterfalls and streams. To show the work of water beyond its defined edges, you really need to give yourself room to compose dry surrounding areas as well as those being touched by water.
This process of slowly absorbing the clients’ ideas and observing both the opportunities and limitations of the space inevitably pushes the work in meaningful directions. This is how I learn, for example, if the client wants to create a backyard showplace, in which case major transitions should be visible from primary viewing areas. Conversely, perhaps the client wants something understated, a hideaway destination to which observers are drawn by the sound of moving water or by a partial view of a pond, waterfall or stream.
If the client places a high value on being close to the water’s edge, I’ll begin thinking about large, flat areas of stone or turf and ways viewers can comfortably move right to the water’s edge. And if the client wants to swim or wade in the water, I’m led to a whole different set of design considerations.
My point is, you can have all the fundamentals of stream, waterfall and pond design and installation down to a science, but you’ll be heading nowhere fast without the direction the client provides – and only rarely will you hit the mark.
David Garton is president and founder of Lawn Chair Productions, a Lakewood, Colo.-based design/construction firm specializing in naturalistic streams and ponds. Garton started the firm 15 years ago after a period in which he ran a variety of small companies, including a well-known Denver delicatessen. In addition to his watershaping activities, he also works as a public speaker focusing on customer service as well as pond and stream construction. He earned a bachelors degree in business from the University of Illinois in 1974 and has a fourth degree rank in Aikido, a form of martial arts he credits with influencing his professional and business philosophies.