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In recent years, many of his clients have asked southern California pond/stream specialist Steve Sandalis to provide them with watershapes that are relatively modest in size – but that are still long on beauty, value and enjoyment. He explores this trend here, profiling a showcase-home project that demonstrates the creative potential (as well as the challenges) embodied in systems where a little bit less can add up to a whole lot more.
In recent years, many of his clients have asked southern California pond/stream specialist Steve Sandalis to provide them with watershapes that are relatively modest in size – but that are still long on beauty, value and enjoyment.  He explores this trend here, profiling a showcase-home project that demonstrates the creative potential (as well as the challenges) embodied in systems where a little bit less can add up to a whole lot more.
By Steve Sandalis

As the current recession has worked its way through the marketplace, I’ve found that, with increasing consistency, our projects fall neatly into two categories.

On the one hand are the grand-scale projects we do mostly for wealthy people – ambitious designs that see us cover large areas with tons of rock, extensive plantings and complex hydraulic systems.  While these jobs have dropped off somewhat, it’s our observation that people with money can still afford to buy what they want and that this high-end business has never really gone away.  

On the other are more modest designs for people who want some form of water in their lives but are working with limited budgets and, often, with compact available spaces.  In fact, these systems can be minuscule, all very simple, some without any pond component at all and many ensconced in places where we might have footprints of little more than 10 by 20 feet.

I’ve written in the past about some of our large-scale work; this time, let’s take a look at a project of the smaller variety – specifically, a lovely pond and stream we completed for the 2011 Pasadena Showcase House of Design.  We at Mystic Water Gardens (Encino, Calif.) have done a number of focused projects during this persistent economic downturn, but this one stands out as a perfect example of how, when done correctly and in response to the setting, even a small pond/stream composition can make a huge overall difference.


The Pasadena Showcase House of Design is a privately sponsored program run annually by a local Pasadena, Calif., non-profit organization known as the Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts (PSHA).  The volunteer membership consists entirely of women from all walks of life who live in the city, their mission being to celebrate the arts and their area’s prominent role in the history of residential architecture and design.

While the modern city of Pasadena is perhaps best known for the Tournament of Roses Parade and the Rose Bowl, it’s also a place brimming with beautiful homes built mostly in the early and middle years of the last century.  It’s particularly famous as the incubator for Craftsman-style homes, many designed by Greene & Greene and other renowned architects, but it’s also an eclectic place offering examples of beautiful, well-maintained homes of almost every imaginable style – a true laboratory for residential architecture.

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You gain access to the secluded watershapes via a stone path leading down from the upper level.  To the right is a terrace that offers comfortable seating along with the views across the pond and, beyond the stone-lined seasonal stream, to an additional seating area.

To promote this rich local heritage, in every year since 1948, PSHA has chosen a single prominent home and treats it to an artistic makeover showcasing the talents of selected architects, interior designers, landscape architects and designers, fine artists, craftspeople and watershapers.  Once the work is done – all in a frantic 90-day stretch – the houses are opened to the public for a month of daily tours.

Our firm has participated twice – first in 2008, when we built a large system that was a core feature of the program.  We did well enough that the event’s organizers brought us back for this year’s event.  

The 2011 house is actually located just beyond Pasadena’s borders in the adjacent city of La Canada-Flintridge.  It was built in 1927 by Paul Williams, an architect famous for some of Los Angeles’ most iconic structures, including the Shrine Auditorium and the spidery theme restaurant at Los Angeles International Airport.  He also designed more than 2,000 residences, including homes for stars such as Cary Grant, Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Sinatra, among many others.

This one is a 7,500 square foot Tudor Revival mansion situated on four acres dotted with beautiful Live Oaks and Redwoods and featuring winding trails and lavish garden areas.  In all, PSHA pulled in 25 designers to renovate and upgrade almost every detail of the home and its landscape.

When I first saw the property, I walked its length and breadth several times and unltimately found what I considered the perfect spot for our watershape.  It’s down the slope from the house in an area under a canopy of overhanging oaks; it’s also visually isolated from the house by established stands of Hydrangea and other substantial plantings.  

As I saw it, this was the perfect place for a secluded, intimate, small-scale destination within a spectacular, sprawling landscape.


Among its many virtues (and a big part of why I chose this particular spot for the pond and stream) is that the space already had a wet-season stream that cuts through part the property.

My appreciation for small streams of this sort dates to my childhood on Long Island, N.Y.  It’s almost certainly why I ever started in the pond/stream business, as some of my favorite memories from those days involve going into the woods near our house and spending hours playing in a small stream.

I will never forget how I would divert the water flow, build little dams, observe differences in water volume after rain episodes, watch the way the water interacted with rocks and banks – all of which informs the work I do today in both practical and emotional ways.  

When we started on the showcase home in February 2011, southern California had enjoyed some heavy, much-needed rain and the little stream had a fairly robust flow.  As time passed, it gradually declined – and by the time summer rolls around I’m certain it will be dry again.  But it showed me distinctly how the presence of moving water and a few reflective surfaces could elevate this space on a year-round basis.

The Rule of Three

There’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve witnessed with small ponds – and apparently I’m not alone, as the folks at Aquascape, the pond supply giant based in St. Charles, Ill., have noticed much the same thing:  Clients who start off purchasing compact ponds and other downsized watershapes will typically upgrade twice after making the initial purchase.
These upgrades can include increasing the size of the pond, adding a stream or waterfall or working in some form of garden art.  Sometimes clients will want to add deck or seating areas adjacent to the water.

Often, this desire stems from their fascination with fish and the desire to add more of them to the system.  This is why, when we work with them the first time through, we let them know that their ponds have limits and that they’ll have to make the pond bigger and often deeper to accommodate larger fish populations while keeping the water healthy – thereby leaving them with a clear impression of what needs to be done to accommodate any growth in ambition.

The other driving force is just as elemental:  When clients have the experience of owning a watergarden and see how much it adds to their property and their enjoyment of being outside, they simply want more.  In the case of my own pond at home, I’ve rebuilt it three times now, increasing its size and complexity to a point where I finally see it as being just right.

Why these iterations come in threes is a mystery to me, but I’m amazed by how consistently it works out that way and how often our clients will come back for more.  It also makes me conscious of the fact that I have to treat every job with the highest levels of care and artistry:  Who knows where things will lead?

-- S.S.

As I visualized the project, I saw more and more clearly how this was a situation in which a small, simple body of water set within the natural confines of the existing space offered the best opportunities for enjoyment by people moving through the property.  There was just something about the space as it was, with majestic oaks and redwoods creating a cathedral-like canopy overhead, filtering the light and rustling in the breeze.

To be sure, the pond and stream might have featured more prominently in the project had I selected a different location, but I’ve always felt that the positioning of any watershape relative to its surroundings means everything.

I get upset, for instance, when I see ponds sited smack dab in the middle of a yard:  No matter how well formed they might be, they will always look artificial and unconnected to anything else around them.  I also object to the easy solution of tucking ponds into corners, where, often hemmed in on two sides by fences, there’s almost no way to create the impression that the water is there naturally.  

While it’s true that there are no hard, fast rules about pond or stream placement, I would argue that, as designers, we need to seek out places where the water truly belongs, naturally or at least comfortably.  In this case, thankfully, we had a visually secluded area next to a seasonal stream on a gentle slope off to the side of the property – just perfect!


The area in which we were working amounted to a healthy 6,000 square feet in all:  Although the system itself was to be small with a stream running for 30 feet across an eight-foot drop in slope down into an 11-by-15-foot pond, this gave us plenty of elbow room and let us spread things out.

The course we chose cut across an existing walkway, giving us the opportunity to include a small flagstone bridge.  It also allowed us some opportunities to slow down the flow and let the water pool in a couple of key places amid the vertical transitions, gentle cascades and small waterfalls.

Creating a reflective pond surface was an important goal, so we also worked hard to calm the stream’s flow where it reached the pond – all without skimping on the sounds the moving water would generate before reaching this key transition point.  

With some effort, we ended up with a beautiful pond surface that brilliantly reflects the oak canopy – perhaps the most striking visual element of the entire system.  We also produced a stream with a small, delicate flow that fits perfectly within the scope and scale of the setting.

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The far seating area offers views of the seasonal stream in the foreground and of the new stream and its cascades across the way.

We did this knowing that, all too often, small ponds, streams and waterfalls are established with flows that are simply too robust, so much so that they instantly reveal the fact that they are artificial rather than natural.  In these situations, we say that less is almost invariably more:  It really doesn’t take much flow through a well-crafted stream to create a wonderfully soothing effect that makes people want to be near the water.

In technical terms, this system is simplicity itself.  We placed a single large skimmer in the pond opposite where the water enters from the stream.  Up the slope, water emerges from a small spring in the side of the slope as well as through a small, upwelling bog filter.  In both cases, these sources are obscured by rockwork and plants.

We didn’t really consider it at the time, but ours is the second waterfeature on the property.  Up the slope from our site, there’s a swimming pool seemingly fed by a waterfall – and a number of people I spoke with during the showcase had the mistaken impression that these systems were all tied together somehow.  Although that wasn’t the case, people seemed intrigued by the possibility – and at the very least it indicated that we’d done a good job of masking the water source for our system.

We also had to deal with the natural stream, which looks great with water flowing in it but which, although it had some nice rocks along the edges, had been altered through the years by the addition of flat stones and some patches of concrete.  Part of our original plan involved returning this streambed to its natural state, but the organizers decided to set that idea aside.

As it is, our new stream does visually interface with a portion of the existing watercourse:  We set things up in such a way that there appears to be a fork in the streambed near the top of the system that is sometimes wet, sometimes dry.


Small systems such as this can be exceptional in visual terms, but they’re also quite challenging because, by nature, all of the details have elevated importance.  (It’s not that detailing isn’t critical in large systems as well, but in these smaller settings, every element takes on greater visual importance because they are fewer in number, intimate by design and allow for very close viewing.)

Our detailing begins with the rockwork.  In this case, we used an indigenous, earth-toned fieldstone with intricate surface features, placing each piece carefully to give the impression that the exposed stone is part of subsurface structures and also that it has been distributed in the landscape by erosion and natural movement.

This stone placement is, as I’ve mention in previous articles in WaterShapes, an improvisational art form – an activity in which long experience in studying nature plays a huge role for me and everyone on my team.  There’s no easy way to explain the process beyond saying it requires the examining of individual pieces and visualizing how they’ll come together to create natural vertical transitions and ponding areas in the stream.  As important, this exercise guides us in establishing edges and places where stone, water, plants and soil interact along the stream’s banks.

In addition to the rockwork at and around the edges, we also set aside a portion of the verge for planting with Red Fescue, a grass that gently interfaces with the water as at the edge of a meadow.  Having these areas is particularly important with smaller features because they offer visual relief from the rockwork and offer wonderful opportunities to build connections between the pond or stream and the surrounding landscape through use of emergent and terrestrial plants.

As I see it, this blending of plants into the mix of edge treatments is one of the key ways of creating the impression that the system is natural – or at least has been there for a very long time.

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The stream flows parallel to the seasonal watercourse as it approaches the bottom of the slope, passing under an unmarked bridge before flowing into the pond.  The terrace above offers prime views of the pond and reflections off its surface of the tree canopy.

To one side of the pond, we used soil from the excavation to build up a small seating/deck area.  Finished in beautiful flagstone, this spot creates a lovely, rustic area where the homeowners and their guests can sit and observe reflections of the oak canopy on the water’s surface while also enjoying intimate views of the stream.

Wherever we could in the pond and the stream’s pooling areas, we placed a limited variety of emergent bog plants that seemed to draw an unusual amount of interest among visitors to the showcase home.  The point here is that we didn’t overdo it by using too many plants:  Instead, we maintained a visual balance between plants and open areas of quiet water.

As a final point of visual interest, we added a pair of brightly colored Koi to the pond along with a pair of gold-and-white Schaboinkens.


In the usual run of things, 90 days is a quick turnaround time for any project of significance.  But we made it work and, overall, were thrilled not just by the way our pond and stream turned out, but also by how the whole property turned out once everyone’s work was done.  The home’s interior was wonderful, and it was amazing how one team turned an old stable into a terrific new guesthouse.

The home was open to the public through the month of April 2011 and was visited by thousands of people who paid the price of admission.  Many of the designers were on hand throughout the month to answer questions and show off their efforts; I managed to be there for several days and was impressed by the fact that I’d saw as many as 1,000 visitors each time.

It was both exhausting and extremely gratifying to see how many people appreciated our small watershapes – so much so that we anticipate getting some calls about other projects in the weeks and months to come.  I am especially pleased that this project was of such a modest scale that it could be within reach of average homeowners who might want similarly meaningful, beautiful and “intimate” ponds and streams for their own backyards.


Steve Sandalis is founder and president of Mystic Water Gardens, an Encino, Calif.-based design/build firm specializing in custom streams, waterfalls and ponds. Sandalis founded the firm in 2000 after several years of pursuing watergardening as a serious hobby. Since then, he has immersed himself in arts and crafts of watershaping and currently designs and installs highly detailed features for a range of mostly residential customers across the United States. A former model and actor, Sandalis appeared on more than 700 covers of romance novels published by Topaz, a division of Penguin Books, and has appeared in a variety of movies, television programs and commercials. A native of Commack, N.Y., he began working in the construction trades as a child with his father and uncles – all of them contractors in the area.


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