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199902SR0By Stephanie Rose

Take a quick look at the area surrounding almost any pool, spa or waterfeature and you’re sure to see living proof that plants and man-made bodies of water go hand in hand.  No matter what form the greenery takes – grass, hedges, trees, shrubs, flowers, even cacti – the fact is that plant life is seen virtually everywhere decorative or recreational water is found.

For all of this close physical proximity, however, landscape designers and the installers of pools, spas, fountains and other watershapes have generally tended to operate in

completely separate worlds.

As a landscape designer who finds some of my most challenging and exciting projects in conjunction with custom pools and spas, I’m one who firmly believes that there needs to be far more interaction between these two companion trades.  There’s a lot to be gained in both directions – and defining those benefits and some of the practicalities involved is what this column is all about.


As the installer of pools, spas, fountains, waterfalls and the like, you may feel that plant- ing decisions are best left to a landscape architect or designer – and nearly all of these professionals would clearly second that motion.  

That’s a good thing in many (if not most) cases.  It has long been my belief, however, that basic knowledge about planting and the range of considerations that go with it can help improve a hardscape installer’s results, just as my working knowledge of swimming pools and waterfeatures has helped mine.  

(From here on, I’ll use the term “watershaper” in referring to those who design and install water-containing projects, which I’ll generally call “watershapes.”  It’ll make my editor happy; it will also save me having to use lots of words I think this new term encompasses quite well.)

Understanding the aesthetic and technical issues of landscaping sets a watershaper in a unique position within the industry and in the client’s eyes.  Attention to planting increases your value to your clients both as consultant and designer by helping you avoid mistakes in the field (thereby saving time and money).  Even more important, this knowledge positions you to work effectively with and build goodwill between trades that can really help each other produce outstanding results for customers.

This approach, I believe, leads not only to more referrals but, ultimately, to better designs and installations.

That’s why I signed on to write this column.  I see “Natural Companions” as a way to define basic planting considerations and offer suggestions that will help watershapers design and build projects that work together with landscapes, accommodate basic landscape requirements and generally take into account landscape features the customer wants.  

My desire in all of this is a simple one:  I want everyone who reads this magazine to start thinking about landscaping – really thinking about landscaping – from the very first stages of any given project.

Here’s an example:  I’ve seen situations where customers know they want a particular sort of planting in their yard, but they don’t tell the watershaper about it “because that’s a landscaper’s job.”  Likewise, the watershaper lets it slide because he or she isn’t accustomed to giving landscaping more than superficial thought in the design phase.  But if the desired plant- ing is large – a mature weeping willow, say – and the space allotted in the design is small, the hardscape may not physically or visually accommodate the presence of the tree.

Trying to shoehorn a big tree into inadequate space can lead to a variety of problems, ranging from too many leaves on and in the water for the circulation system to handle, to structural damage resulting from the tree’s root system.  Whatever the resulting difficulties, they could’ve easily been avoided had the designer asked the owner about plantings up front.


As a landscape designer, I constantly come across backyards in which the watershapes are complete – and it is only now that homeowners start to talk about what kind of plants they want around their pool, spa or pond.  

Perhaps the installer thought to plumb some irrigation lines, but that’s about it.  And sometimes that is enough, and the landscaping can be fit into and around the existing installation and everything will work out well enough.  Other times, however, there are legitimate planting issues that should’ve been considered but were not.

This is when trouble starts: Home-owners get angry and go after the watershaper, asking why plantings weren’t taken into consideration.  At that point, the lamest possible excuse is that “nobody ever mentioned it” during the planning phase or, nearly as bad, that “the architect never told me.”

My point is, nobody comes out ahead when things get missed.  And I’ve found that, where the customer is concerned, pleading ignorance doesn’t really cut it as an excuse.  Odds are, no one gets referrals from customers who find themselves in the middle of frustrating rounds of finger pointing – or digging out thousands of dollars’ worth of dead plants from their backyard.

And if I may be allowed a second basic point, it doesn’t take much to add a few questions to the design/planning stage to avoid this kind of trouble completely.  Ask these questions, and your customers will be happy, the project will benefit from fuller integration of landscape and watershape – and everyone walks away a winner.

There are several factors to consider, but the checklist I propose below is a good start.  When planning a project, make sure you know:

[ ]  the style and types of desired plants

[ ]  the size of the desired plants (mature or young?)

[ ]  the irrigation needs in all plant- ing zones

[ ]  the drainage requirements for the plants

[ ]  the planting function (shade, ground cover, wind protection?)

[ ]  the basic climate requirements for the planting

[ ]  the toxicity of the plants and the effect of that factor on your design

[ ]  the water’s depth (for a pond or other “living” system).

Another important thing to do at this stage is check local building codes:  In some cases, these may lead a fountain or pond to be considered by inspectors as being the same as a swimming pool, in which case you’ll run into all sorts of rules defining setbacks and decking or safety requirements.

There are other points to be covered, of course, depending on the individual requirements of the customer, the site and the overall budget.  But if you keep this basic checklist in mind, you’re giving yourself and your customer an opportunity to integrate landscape and watershape in a practical and even creative way.


An awareness of how this process of integration works is truly an advantage in today’s marketplace.  Where once there were pools, there are now designs and installations that weave together several waterfeatures and landscape elements – and you gain immeasurably by working with this trend rather than against it.

Ponds, for instance, are gaining in popularity.  If your customer wants one – and wants it set up in such a way that a defined “edge” is obliterated by mature plants for a truly “natural” look – what would you do?  Although you may not ultimately be responsible for putting in the plantings, knowing something about their characteristics may help you in designing the pond itself.

For one thing, most ponds require as much direct sunlight as possible.  This may influence where you place the pond in the yard.  For another, many water plants will die if the water dips below a certain temperature.  Knowing this, you may want to suggest installing a heater and incorporating it into your bid and plans.

Or maybe your customers want lilies, the most popular of all water plants.  You should know going in that lilies prefer still water and require direct sunlight – factors that influence placement and push you toward a design that keeps the water quiet.  This bit of information enables you to point out that vigorously moving water isn’t a lily’s best friend and maybe they’ll opt for a waterfall and forget about the lilies – or vice versa.

Either way, you’ve brought these issues to their attention long before you have lilies dying in a shaded pond with lots of active waterfeatures.

Consider again that weeping willow, or some other large plant.  In this case, you need to leave room for large plant -ing containers.  If there’s only room for a one-gallon plant or smaller and the soil is shallow, this conflicts with the needs of the large plants; besides, there are few one-gallon plants destined to attain “large plant status.”  By the same token, if only ground cover will be planted, six inches of soil is probably sufficient over a space of almost any size.

Another key benefit to developing this basic understanding of plantings is knowing with some certainty where your expertise ends and the landscape specialist’s begins.  Knowing when to defer is a sign of a true professional.

Remember, we’re dealing with nature here, and nature doesn’t obey principles of hydraulics, structural engineering or electricity.  Plants tend instead to have minds of their own and can’t always be shaped the way other materials can.  One plant that grows well in one spot may grow differently in other spots in the same yard, and it takes years of experience to be able to “predict” their behavior and know their idiosyncrasies.  This is where the expertise of a landscape architect or designer comes into play.


As I mentioned above, I want to use this column to help bridge gaps between the watershaping and landscaping trades.  As a landscape designer, I want to share the tools of my trade and help people who work primarily in steel and concrete to understand planting plans and be of more service to clients as a result.

This is a two-way street (or garden path, if you prefer):  I’ll offer what I know in every issue of WaterShapes, and I want your feedback, comments and questions in return.  I’d love to talk to you about existing projects and discuss what was done right as well as what could have been done better.  Once we all open these pathways of communication, I believe we’ll soon find that we truly are natural companions!

Please feel free to address your comments and questions to me via email.  I look forward to hearing from you soon!


Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine.  She may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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