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Pondless waterfall spawns a birdwatching paradise.

pondless waterfall backyard

This is the perfect place to let the stresses of your day slip away. With the gentle sound of the waterfall and the birds coming in to enjoy the stream, it is a great place to unwind.

In spring 2017, I started 4D Exteriorscapes as a full-time venture. I had 20 years of landscape installation experience ranging from patios to walls, with the last five years devoted to working solely with water features. I was ready to take on the world!

As any new business owner might do, I told everyone I knew about my business, including Becky, the associate dean at the technical college where I teach in the horticulture department.

After I told her I was going to focus my business on water feature installation, she mentioned that she had been saving a special place in her yard for a water feature. I was more than happy to take a look at the site and see what I could do to help her realize her vision.

red wing black bird

A Red Wing Black Bird and a Northern Flicker enjoy the slow moving water on a hot day.

Both Becky and her husband are self-proclaimed bird nerds. They have a large country lot that has a woodland area at the back of the property. There are bird feeders everywhere, each with a certain feed to attract specific species of their feathered friends. The focal point of the yard is the garden area, which is planted with only plant species that are native to Wisconsin. Near the center of this oasis is a seating area where they hold their own happy hour. As both homeowners have stressful jobs, it is a perfect retreat that requires no reservations.

We started discussing the kinds of things might attract more birds to the area. Our plan was to follow the existing outline of the naturalistic area with a wide, slow-moving stream. The system would start with a short fall that would project the sound to help attract birds. While planning the stream, I made sure to think about incorporating slow, shallow areas where birds would feel comfortable landing to grab a drink or use the water to clean themselves before preening their feathers. Finally, the homeowners wanted a new bridge across the stream leading to their relaxation spot.

Because this was not a very large project, I decided to do the excavation by hand. Just as with every job I do, I called *811 to access our local utility location services. I waited the appropriate number of days before I was cleared to work on the site. After the location service was done, I realized that a phone service line went through the area. This turned out to not be that big of a deal, as it was located where the waterfall would start, and I would not be excavating near the line.

Of course, it was a hot August day when I was finally able to start the project. Excavation went smoothly except for one 16-inch diameter boulder that was in the way of the pondless basin. Instead of getting upset by this, I was actually happy. Once the boulder was removed, it opened up the space more quickly than digging in the soil would have done. The other bonus — free rock! Even better was the shape of the rock, which made it perfect for a special waterfall.

bridge backyard before the pondless waterfall

The blank canvas at the start of the project. The bridge to happy hour was on site so that I could properly build the stream underneath.

As I was taught with the Aquascape 20-Step Process Overview, I was able to use the excavated soil to perfectly blend the new waterfall area into the previously smooth yard. To make the stream seem like it had been there forever, I excavated the entire stream into the existing turf. This also created a deeper basin at the end of the pondless system, which helped create an echo chamber of sorts to project the sound.

Because there was not a lot of elevation change on the site, I had to get the most bang for the buck from each of the two waterfalls. The first was located at the head of the stream and served as the perfect spot to use the “free” boulder. It had a fairly flat side, except for a little uptick at a point. By placing this rock in the waterfall with that uptick pointing upward, I created a drier perch spot for a bird to land and enjoy the falls. Within 15 minutes of turning the falls on, a bird did exactly as I had hoped. Even better, the homeowner was there to see it.

When any of us builds a waterfall, we have a vision of what we think or want to happen with the water. What kind of sound it will make? What will it look like crashing into the water below? I have a strong belief that you can always learn something. With that thought in mind, I like to step back and analyze how my ideas turned out on every job. I know that I will never be perfect (I don’t think any of us will), but I do know that I can always try to get better.

What we do with water features is different from most landscaping. If you are asked to build a 10-by-20 paver patio, any professional should be able to do it properly. If we all use the same pavers and the same plan, the outcome will be predictable.

With water features, no two will ever be the same. Two different crews using exactly the same materials will not create the same project. Considering that every client has a different focus for their feature, that gives us as artists an unlimited supply of canvas to work with.

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