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Of all the visual offenses perpetrated by pond installers, there's one that upsets Dave Garton more than any other. Here, he offers several reasons for why it's something he encounters with such frequency, then discusses ways to avoid having it happen in the first place.
Of all the visual offenses perpetrated by pond installers, there's one that upsets Dave Garton more than any other.  Here, he offers several reasons for why it's something he encounters with such frequency, then discusses ways to avoid having it happen in the first place.
By Dave Garton

Pond installation offers lots of opportunities for straying off the naturalistic path, but to me, there’s no more problematic detour than the unfortunate “string-of-pearls” effect.

When this happens, the edge of a pond looks more like Wilma Flintstone’s rocky necklace than it does like the banks of a natural body of water. And it’s a double shame, because the installer went to all the trouble of sourcing and placing natural material – but ended up with completely unnatural results.

I’ve seen too many of these nightmare ponds through the years. Some are the result of a do-it-yourselfer’s lack of awareness. It also happens with pond-a-day practitioners who rush through stone selection and can’t or simply don’t take the time required to introduce variety to their stone placements.

But truth be told, even deliberate, caring installers can fall into this trap pretty easily: Often it’s due to a lack of supervision and leaving a crew to its own resources on site: For the average crew member, repetition means speed and speed means efficiency – and it can become painfully clear that they’re not as sensitive to the visuals as they might have been with someone looking over their shoulders.

Whatever the case: String of pearls bad.


Patience at Play

As I mentioned in the first article in this Pond Insights series (click here), I have been a student of nature since my earliest endeavors in the pond business. One of my favorite studies has been of the way edges work in the wild – how streams and waterfalls flow into ponds, how these entry points look just below the surface and how the intersections project into the confines of the pond.

What I’ve witnessed on my walks is a form of organized chaos that is, as a result, almost impossible to replicate in the typical backyard – so I don’t knock myself out trying. Instead, what I’ve absorbed are lessons about what not to do, with stringing pearls sitting right at the top of the list.

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Once you’ve identified the string-of-pearls effect, you start seeing it more and more frequently. Sometimes it’s as obvious and clear as it is in these two examples, one on a tiny pond where it’s almost forgivable, the other on a much larger pond where it basically slaps you in the face.   (Photo at left by Mommamoon|; photo at right by Maxim Kostenko|


In my own projects, I start by sorting stones into a range of sizes, then work further to categorize them by surface details – if, for example, one has a nice, flat side or a cleft or some other distinguishing feature I can use to good effect. Starting at the base of the waterfall or a source stream, I work out in both directions making certain to select and begin placing stones of various forms and sizes, occasionally selecting large, flat stones to provide easy access to the water’s edge.

With big stones placed as randomly as I can place them, I start filling in with smaller stones and then even smaller stones, looking for stability as well as a range of profiles and colors as I go. (Stability is important, because even if I can guide humans to the flat rocks with pathways, animals don’t follow the rules and the last thing I want is for clients to call me with reports of deer-caused rockslides.) And I don’t stop above the waterline, spending almost as much time tinkering below the intended surface as I do on the edge and up through the waterfall.

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At left is a case where truly large pearls make up the string – a shame because it’s such a waste of good material. In the project at right, a lot of decent pondmaking went into this system, but it’s clear that not much thought or imagination went into selecting or placing hundreds of rocks of about the same size.  (Photo at left by Kuhar|


Many pond installers proclaim themselves to be great with waterfalls, and I agree that it’s a valuable skill and a hard part of pondcraft. But so many times, it’s with these folks that I run into strings of pearls: The boss or crew chief works and reworks the waterfall for hours while the crew is left on its own with the rest of the edge. That’s another double shame, because a subpar edge will undermine the beauty of a great waterfall every time.

Long story short, high-quality pond-making should be a complete, thorough and largely meditative exercise, a process that unfolds deliberately in response to the available stone and with all the patience that approximating the achievements of Mother Nature requires. So think about Her and shun Wilma, whatever her charms: You’ll be proud – and your clients will be grateful!


Rockyard Magic

As I mentioned in my last feature, I often take clients to rockyards as a means of getting them personally involved in their project. I guide them carefully, of course, and keep them from getting too excited about unreasonable or unworkable options, but at root, I see it as a good team-building exercise.

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Many of my clients really get into the rock-selection process, wandering through the stoneyard with me and marking their favorites with tape. Later, they’ll see their selections waiting for installation on site and know, when it’s in position, that they’ve done something significant toward pulling the project together.


As for my own relationship with rockyards, that’s a different story. It’s not always fun and casual, because I can be demanding when it comes to the selection process and do what I can to teach my suppliers what I need and what I’m looking for from them and their stocks of stone.

Even if your pond operation is small, there’s so much to be gained from developing a rapport with a few local stone suppliers that it’s worth the extra effort required. I can’t count the number of calls I’ve gotten alerting me to the fact that a new shipment will arrive on such-and-such a date, nor am I immune to the good feelings that flow when I arrive and find that the my contact has already set aside specimens that he knows from experience will catch my eye.

It’s even gotten to the point that they’ll let me know about market trends and will let me know if this or that quarry is running out of a certain vein of material and that I should stock up if I can. Of course, an immediate consequence of this is that I have a backyard filled with wonderful rocks waiting for just the right projects to come along – but no matter, because it puts me in a position where I know I have something special in reserve for just the right situation.

While I’m at the stoneyard, I’ll also mark or communicate with staff about certain big stones for which I’d like careful handling to make certain the features that interest me most actually survive the loading and delivery processes. I also select material in a wide variety of sizes to give myself the flexibility I need in pursuing naturalistic results. And I’m lavish with praise when material arrives in good shape, making certain the yard chief knows that I’m happy.

In effect, I enter into alliances with my rock suppliers and do all I can to make them feel as proud and happy about my work as I am. I let them know they’ve played a role in creating something beautiful and that something we just collaborated on will last while looking as though it’s been there forever.

Next time: Making mayhem with liners and more.


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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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