Finishing Touches on The Oasis

Published on April 27, 2024

Part 2 of 2

Waterfall and grotto
The grotto behind the wetland started to look great by the end of summer 2023.

We shared our plans for the completion of The Oasis in the September/October 2022 issue. This is the rest of the story.

Working together as a family and as a team, we have created what I believe to be an artistic masterpiece. We will never stop growing as artists, but it’s going to take a client with really big financial prowess to get us to push the envelope any harder than we did on this one. Let’s continue our story from where we left off.

A Grotto Epiphany

The grotto and waterfalls at night (left) show off the magical space for the grandkids. During construction, (top, right) wood and multiple types of stone were used to create the organic facade. Color-changing lights (bottom, left) tease you by revealing more behind the falls.

A few years back, I was building a waterfall in the United Kingdom. My friend Mark had built a project at his facility there one year before and incorporated an open, cave-like space behind the main waterfall in his build. One evening after working on our current build, I sat next to his completed project while I grilled meat over the open fire. As I sat appreciating the beauty of what he and his team had done, a spark caused a sudden idea, and a creative flood washed over me.

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We must put a grotto behind our main waterfall at The Oasis! This would be a much bigger version of the coolness I was staring at. Our grotto would be a play-cave and secret hideout — a magical, one-of-a-kind, safe space for my seven grandkids to hang out behind a 6-foot-high waterfall. Fast forward a few years, and we are living that reality.

It was my daughter-in-law Lindsay who spearheaded the artistry of the project. Her artistic abilities and love of nature made her an easy choice for this. She was joined by her sister April, a surprise fly-in from New Hampshire, and several other amazing artists. As a whole, they spent more than 400 hours detailing this magical space, completing nothing short of a total transformation.

So, an 8-foot concrete cube was turned into a fairyland environment for the kids. At night, the grotto glows inside with integrated color-changing lights that can be controlled independently from the rest of the landscape lighting, enabling us to micromanage the mood of the cave to fit the situation.

The team also created a gravity-flow drip system in the ceiling. This gives a very cool dripping-water effect while also enabling all the moss and plants inside to flourish. The walls and ceiling of the vault were manipulated to create textured undulations, flowing curves, nooks, crannies and planting pockets. The team used concrete, mortar, foam, adhesives and anchoring systems to attach slate, boulders, roots, logs, moss and plants to complete the space. It actually looks and feels like the inside of a cave!

Every time I go inside, I find a multitude of small cars, Ninja Turtles and dolls strategically placed about. This is proof that the kids have made it their personal space. It gives me so much joy to see them using their imaginations. We are inspiring a love of nature that outshines their desire to play on their devices and watch TV.

The grotto ended up being one of my favorite things about this project for other reasons, too. First, my vision for this space was inspired by a fellow artist’s creation. I was able to take his idea and put my own artistic twist on it. Once I had a vision, I was able to come home and share a few broad strokes from this vision with the team. In the end, I was able to hand over the creative reins and allow the team to bring their version of my vision to life. Everyone got to scratch their artistic itch, and that’s what we all need as artists.

Another favorite thing about this space is that getting inside is a commitment. The water below the 6-foot falls is 2 feet deep. This means that the only way to get inside the cave is to swim in under the water or to walk through the flowing waterfall. Either way, you are getting 100% soaked! This is a requirement if you are going to experience the inside of the grotto at The Oasis!

The Swimming Space

For the swimming area up top, the goal was to make this area more subtle. It was to feel homey and inviting with less crashing water sound then the lower side of the feature — an overall more casual vibe. We wanted it to draw in people to slide in for a quick dip, with the water deep enough to tread without touching the bottom.

The person in the pink shirt shows the scale as we rocked the pond.

We also wanted to be able to look out the living room window to watch and feed the koi. We wanted to see an abundance of lily blooms to bring out the smiles. There had to be a cozy fire feature to warm you when you got out of the water on a cool evening and a lighting ambiance second to none. I knew the space would generate an emotional response when we got it right!

There were so many parts that had to be just right in order to achieve our goals. We used large, pillar-shaped boulders near the house to frame each side of the pond. This gave us the framework to build a vertical wall between them to get water straight down the side of the house. Using cut flagstone slabs as veneer allowed us to keep the stonework tight to the wall. The result is that from inside, it feels like the water goes under you like you’re standing on a dock.

The interaction stones along the edge of the patio are only 2 ½ inches above water and perfectly flush to the patio edge. This makes a seamless transition from the splash pad to the pond and encourages everyone to kneel or sit at the water’s edge. Japanese koi drift along and encourage further interaction as they beg for attention (and food) while cruising back and forth from the depths.

Fire Boulder & Waterfalls

Fire boulder and lighting
The fire boulder and lighting invite you to stay a while.

The next special item in the pond is the fire boulder. This aspect was inspired by the fire feature I helped to create in Shaquille O’Neal’s pond. Once again, I took some else’s design and put my own twist on it. We drove to Missouri to handpick the perfect fire boulder — a flat-topped, 5,000- pound beast that would become the vision. Fabricated in house, the boulder was cut and drilled to perfection. It is now submerged into the edge of our pond.

On one side, the fire boulder is an integral part of the edge work of the pond, serving as the water’s edge. There is a seamless integration between the interaction stones. The other side the fire boulder is the perfect height to sit on or to use as a footrest. It blends in perfectly while being very functional.

As for the waterfalls, the hand-selected waterfall stones worked out perfectly. The natural crevices of the stones were used to create small ribbons of water and tiny cascades. Holes were drilled into the boulders as needed to create five little waterfalls that gently drop into the 15,000-gallon pond. The narrow space remaining between the boulders and the retaining wall left a small ravine just large enough for topsoil and landscape plants that would cover most of the exposed stone wall behind it.

In the sparse gravel of the cascades, just enough space remained for a few well positioned aquatics, mosses and sedums to soften the area and make it organic. To make room for lilies and maximize swimming space, we would build with big rocks in order to drop quickly into the deep water. A narrow shelf allows us just enough room for lily pots in the summer, and the lilies give us the flowers and foliage we need to soften and shade. The finished pond depth is over 6 feet, and we covered the bottom in crushed black granite to make it look even deeper.

Beyond the Water’s Edge

Outside the water, we continue to expand the vision. We finished up with an irrigation system and an elaborate lighting plan in the landscape. A few large, mature trees were brought in for some instant gratification. One particular specimen from Oregon, a Dwarf Hinoki Cypress, arrived in a 200-gallon container. It was 10 feet tall and wide and was estimated to be 50 years old. We planted it above the grotto falls. We are still working on expanding the landscape with dwarf varieties of maples and evergreens as well as mass-planting ground covers and flowers. It already looks as if the garden has been here forever.

We added a memorial basket for my grandson, Sawyer Mason. It was custom built by my friend Sean. The basket is 4 inches in diameter and is sitting front and center of the pond area on top of the center wall column. My friend Jimmy made us two beautiful copper Japanese-style lanterns for the other two columns, and we are working out the details to finish up those right now.

In my last article, I said this was my final design, and these were my final plans for my personal water feature. However, that’s not entirely true. We continue to grow. We continue to dream. We continue to play. We continue to enjoy!

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