By Rick Anderson
The watergardening business has exploded in North America in the past few years – so much so that it’s easily the fastest-growing segment of the watershaping industry.
This wave of interest in naturalistic watershapes means that hundreds of people new to the craft of pond and stream building are now out there, working on all sorts of residential and even a few commercial projects. Some of these are landscape contractors working with water in a significant way for the very first time. Others are pool contractors who’ve
taken up watergardens as a new sideline. I’ve also heard about pool technicians and gardeners who’ve set aside their t-poles or lawn mowers to get in on the trend.
And it is an easy business to get into, with the result that quality is all over the map. Some of these watergardeners are good and a handful are truly excellent, but others are not so good, and far too many are doing truly horrendous work of the sort that says bad things about the future of the entire marketplace.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s the fact that so many watershapers have jumped in without giving much thought to what’s really involved in the work that it’s easier for those of us who focus on quality to make headway: It means that you can become the market leader by distinguishing yourself for excellence in design, construction and service – which is the subject of this article and a few that will follow.
If you’ve read WaterShapes for a while, you know that this magazine brings much more to the table than how-to information and pretty pictures. At a more profound level, the magazine is about collective ambition: Most of us who contribute to these pages want to see others in the trade not only succeed, but also push their potential to its maximum.
|Studying the way things work in nature and having a sensitivity to the way rocks and plants appear in the natural terrain is crucial to designing and installing ponds and streams that seem to have been there forever.|
Personally, that’s what I want for every watershaper out there. I’m not writing this because I want everyone to rush out and start digging holes for backyard ponds or ditches for streams. Instead, I have the highest hope that those of you who step into the watergarden arena will do so with the idea that the best and only way to do it is to perform at the highest possible level.
I challenge you, in other words, to challenge yourself to create residential watershapes that are second to none. I want you to conceive and install ponds, streams and waterfalls that will be admired by your competitors and loved by your clients. I want you to elevate the art form in your area and strive for greater and greater creativity and beauty. I want you to be so good at what you do that anyone competing with you has to get better and rise to your level just to stay in business.
|To get things right in your projects, you need make your installation crews see things with your eyes – and with your own level of dedication to quality. That’s the best way to ensure that a project such as this vanishing-edge pond makes the impression you want it to make.|
To meet that challenge, you need to understand what’s required. If you don’t have complete command of the facts, you must know where to get the help you need with respect to specific technical issues and, ultimately, understand how to set up and encourage life-sustaining water systems that look clear and clean and are relatively maintenance-free.
Yes, this has already become a highly competitive field, but as I say, it’s not the top-flight designer/builders who worry me. It’s those who do inadequate and mediocre work – those who drive down the public’s perception of natural watershapes by leaving their clients with ugly installations, impossible-to-maintain water and strings of sorry excuses.
You know the drill: One unhappy consumer tells the story to ten or more other consumers in a torrent of ill will that takes years to correct, if it indeed can ever be salvaged. But it’s not hopeless at this point: The “pond craze” is still in its earliest stages, and if we act now, we all may be able to avoid the worst of the growing pains.
THE STARTING POINT
The most important “first fact” I want to talk about is you and your people.
Any great pond design/build company must have a strong leader who knows that the only way to do exceptional work is to be passionate and learn everything there is to know. Never in the history of mankind has anyone left anything behind that’s worth a damn if he or she was only putting in the time – and great natural watershapes are no exception.
If you’re the person who calls the shots in your firm, you must have the commitment and determination to strive for greatness and true artistry, and only you know if that’s inside you or not.
But no one is an island, and around you there must also be a team of dedicated installers. I was once asked if, as an employer, I had to be the most knowledgeable person in my company concerning pond building. The answer is no, not necessarily – but if the owner is not the guy, the achievement of excellence requires that someone on staff needs to be the power behind his or her throne.
|Looking at the big picture is a key success factor in pond and stream design. By placing extra stone outside the actual waterfeature, for example, you help sell the scene. Yes, it takes more time, effort and thought, but this is what you need to do to push yourself to a higher level – and raise the bar not just for yourself but for those around you as well.|
As is true of all watershaping endeavors, pond building is often a trade of subcontractors and/or in-house craftspeople. As a company leader, you need not know everything there is to know about each and every sub-trade you hire, but you do have to be the person on the job with the greatest commitment to quality – a commitment that’s so strong that others will be compelled to become part of that quality. And if you have a business that runs several crews, without question you’ll need to have someone else on site who shares your level of knowledge, commitment, passion and pride.
If you run only one or two crews or do most of the work by yourself with one or two other people, then you’re hands-on knowledge of every aspect of the process will need to be even greater. Whether your operation is large or small, in other words, the key to success is on-site management by a knowledgeable person who understands and is determined to deliver the desired results.
The point here is that, unless you are the sort of person who goes it entirely alone, people are your most important asset. It’s an obvious point, but is nonetheless something that bears mentioning: I’ve seen a thousand or so pond and stream installations at various stages of completion, and I can tell just by looking at the work that the guys in the hole or slinging the boulders are all too often regarded with little more concern than would be accorded a shovel.
Regrettably, what I see too often is unskilled, uncaring labor led by supervisors with only partial knowledge of project parameters – and that’s a huge, overwhelming problem. Your people want and need the right tools, the right training, and the right frame of mind. Most of all, they need true leadership.
As you lead your company into the pond business, you need to ask yourself whether you and your staff are truly ready.
Are you all ready to dig the hole, roll out the liner, attach the skimmer and upper reservoir, fill it all in with rock and gravel, create waterfalls and streams, add plantings and leave the site clean and looking good? Can your team do it in a reasonable amount of time while leaving no leaks or tears in the liner?
Do you all understand the importance of watertight attachments, secure pipes and the small practical issues that can make a huge difference – things as simple as making sure not to lean shovels on the liner? Do you and your people know what’s required in terms of plumbing, pumps, electrical connections and safety?
|While you strive for complete mastery of your art, you sometimes have to take what comes – as was the case in this project, where my client decided after I was gone that what the stream really needed was some lighting fixtures (left). I take satisfaction in the fact that the bollards disappear (right) when you take close-ups!|
Do you and your people understand what is involved in designing and installing a truly naturalistic watershape? Do you know how to avoid a “volcanic” pile of rocks with unnatural-looking water being dumped from a pipe? Do you know enough to avoid the dreaded “necklace” of stones around the pond’s edge? Do you even know what the “dreaded necklace” is?
Looking at it from a more positive perspective, do you and your people have the ability to use stone in a way that is pleasing to the eye? Do you all know where or how to find, price, move, assemble and create with stone? What about aquatic and terrestrial plants? Do you know enough about fish to introduce them safely to that watershape you’re making?
Suffice it to say, preparing to build great ponds means knowing a great many things, each of which is a large topic unto itself that deserves detailed examination and study. For now, however, let’s get technical and set the scene by looking at what I see as the five most critical elements of a quality pond:
[ ] The mechanical skimmer: In a pond, the skimmer housing contains a pump that generates the flow of water. Water is pulled in through the skimmer opening; surface debris is captured in a mesh “catch,” which protects the pump from debris. The development of these skimmers has revolutionized the way we look at and build ponds, allowing us far greater system flexibility and serviceability.
[ ] Biological filters: Biological filters are indispensable in ponds and other natural watershapes that contain plants and fish. These upflow filter reservoirs typically contain several layers of “bio-mats” and lava rock and offer watershapers a convenient means of managing water. They’ve also revolutionized the way in which ponds are serviced and maintained: Particulates are filtered out and colonies of beneficial bacteria develop, performing a range of natural processes that are crucial to maintaining healthy living conditions for plants and fish.
[ ] Bacteria: This the most misunderstood aspect of pond science. I’m not a microbiologist, but I have learned from experience that a healthy bacteria field in a well-balanced pond will deny algae its food source, rid the water of potentially harmful nitrates and lead to better water quality and clarity. Enzymes created by certain bacteria will prevent the formation of unsightly string algae.
|The fact of the matter is that modern pond and stream systems make it possible to create scenes that honestly mirror the real thing. What it takes to achieve this level of excellence is an understanding of what those manmade systems can do – and using them in ways that make our clients happy.|
[ ] Rocks and gravel: If bacteria is the most misunderstood part of pond science, then the issue of rocks and gravel is the most controversial. I am among those in the pond business who argue that rock and gravel should cover the bottoms and sides of all natural waterfeatures. I’ll discuss both sides of the issue in a future article, but for now, suffice to say that I’ve never see a stream or a pond in nature that has a liner showing.
[ ] Plants and fish: To a large extent, the presence of living organisms is what gives watergardens of all kinds their natural charm and enduring beauty. What’s needed is a proper mix of plants and fish stocked in balance with the size of the pond. There’s a great deal to discuss here about the distinctions between designing for koi or goldfish, for example. In addition, pond builders need an understanding of submersibles, floaters, marginals, oxygenators and deep water plants – and we’ll help by providing definitions and plant lists.
By properly applying these five technical essentials, you can build a watergarden of almost any size and keep it flowing with healthy, easily maintained water. What’s missing from this list (and something I’ve written about before in WaterShapes and will come back to again) is a sixth essential – the highly subjective, much misunderstood and hard-to-learn matter of aesthetics.
SET FOR SUCCESS
A step beyond anything you can do on your own to set your company up for success and develop the fundamental skills you need to install great ponds and streams, you always need to consider the consumer’s point of view.
This is doubly difficult in the case of ponds, because they’re new and most homeowners don’t know enough about them to ask the right questions or make well-informed decisions about what they want. (Too often, they only come to these realizations after the fact.)
As pond designers and installers, we can learn a great deal by paying attention to consumer complaints. In fact, it’s often not until clients realize that they don’t like something that we can truly determine what it will take to make them happy.
Consider the following list of common pond-related grievances:
[ ] “My pond is too small.” As highlighted in the accompanying text, consumers often say that if they had it to do over again, they would have asked for a larger body of water. As a guideline, you should build no pond smaller than 11 by 16. My favorite starter size is 12 by 19.
[ ] “My water is green.” Nothing upsets homeowners more than poor water quality, which is why the five technical issues I describe in the main text is so important. These elements all work together to create desirable water conditions for plants, fish and (lest we forget) our clients.
[ ] “I’m tired of cleaning the pump intake.” You should never hear this remark again in your life if you are installing mechanical skimmers in which the pump is housed. With these skimmers, the intake is safe from debris.
[ ] “My filter doesn’t work.” In this case, the customer is actually telling you that the pond needs some sort of up-flow filter and a good bacteria field as well as proper water circulation. Get rid of those in-line filters that are too small, that complicate the plumbing, and that need too much attention.
[ ] “My fish are dead, or dying.” As excited as your clients get when fish are introduced to the system, it’s easy to see why they get so agitated when their new pets die. If you follow the Five Essentials defined in the accompanying article, you will have a healthy, balanced, chemical-free pond – which leads to happy, healthy fish.-- R.A.
Typically, larger ponds are somewhat easier to maintain than smaller ponds, and they also can contain greater numbers of fish and plants. Although you should resist the temptation to oversize ponds to the point where they’re out of scale with their surroundings, most experts say that upsizing a pond whenever possible usually yields the best results – and a happier clientele.
To apply some numbers here, I set a minimum size of 12 by 19 feet for my own ponds. At this size, the system can easily accommodate a nice waterfall of 2-1/2 or 3 feet in height that runs along the 19-foot axis. That span is important because it lets you develop decent berms to flank the falls on both sides – thus alleviating the aesthetic problem of the waterfall looking like a pile of rocks in the middle of the backyard. It also gives you the opportunity to build decent berms behind the falls and stream to lend a welcome sense of depth to the landscape.
If you step back and look at the seven factors we’ve covered here, from mechanical skimmers through to aesthetics and size, they all relate back to what the onlooker actually sees when he or she approaches your work. Great watergardens look great because the designer/installer has balanced the full range of critical elements to create great looking water that effectively mimics nature.
This article has been the first in a series about how I would like you to look at your methods of designing, creating and building ponds and other watershapes. When all watershapers reach for higher levels in how we do the work, we are all better for it. Michelangelo said it best: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that we aim too high and miss it, but we aim too low and reach it.”
And that is what it’s all about.