It’s simple, right? Dig a hole and fill it with water. But beyond that, I’ve found that there are very few things installers can agree upon when it comes to pond construction.
Dinner of Champions
It was October 2017 when I found myself eating dinner next to Lora Lee Gelles at the beautiful Bear Creek Mountain Resort in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. The resort was hosting the 2017 Your Pond Farm Trade Show, and many of the pond industry’s best and brightest were in attendance — award-winning installers and koi experts alike. Many of the industry’s leading manufacturers featured awesome displays of the latest products and services.
So, when the publisher of POND Trade magazine looked over at me and asked for my thoughts on writing an article, I kind of laughed at myself and thought, “Why me?” Looking around the table at the faces of some of the best of the best, I thought, “How could I possibly explain how to construct a pond half as well as they could? I’m still learning things from them.”
Specifically, I was still learning what it takes to get to the next level and discovering ways to expand continuing education. What could I offer on this subject that would be useful to others? Perhaps my unusual way of calculating stone could prove useful, or maybe I could outline the basics of hydrostatic pressure on raised ponds, which many installers often overlook.
The fact was that there were already plenty of books, videos and articles on the subject, and many of the methods vary. Seated around me that night were some of the actual faces and names in those videos and articles, each with slightly different approaches to their installations. The point is, not everyone has the same “how-to” approach, but that does not always determine the quality of the project. There are many possible variables and methods to meet a customer’s needs, but not all apply or work equally for everyone. Although “how to” is obviously important, it is not the key to building great ponds and water features. To do that, one must not only know the physical “how” part, but more importantly, they should also understand the foundation on which great ponds are built — the mental aspect of why we build. What separates the best from the rest?
My passion for ponds did not set in until later in life. Though I started working in the industry at an early age, all my energy went toward my love for art. That is when I learned the importance of “why I do” versus “how or what I do.” I started sketching and drawing at age seven. At age 11, I discovered painting. By age 17, I was taking college courses and selling my work in shows up and down the East Coast. At 19, I signed with my first art dealer, a small but successful gallery out of New York City. Europe was soon to become within focus as I signed with a dealer out of southern France after a two-month backpacking trip just a few years later. During that time, I was doing four shows a month and had sold more than 100 paintings. I was living the dream.
When I started, I painted because I loved it. The art was good, and good art speaks to a person — it’s not just about the colors or the size of the canvas. I can teach anyone how to paint, but I can’t simply teach how to create art. Once I began to paint for other reasons — like money or recognition — the quality of art suffered. I could paint for days, but without the “why” aspect, I could not produce art. Once it became about what I produced, it was no longer art. The name on the brush did not matter, and soon the signature at the bottom did not resemble art.
With pond-supply manufacturers offering the latest and greatest in new products and technology, and with the thousands of videos, books and articles readily available, almost anyone can at the very least stumble their way into a functioning pond. Entire systems are sold in kits to remove much of the thinking process. Thus, I believe it’s not just about how to build a pond or even what products we use. Let’s face it — there are many companies that make great pond and water-feature products.
Moreover, some methods will vary simply due to the need to meet specific requirements and restrictions dictated by the customer or a particular region. For example, in my area, we are surrounded by beaches, wetlands, lakes and rivers. This provides a natural habitat for predatory animals that are naturally designed for hunting fish. On many installs, it is necessary to build caves below the water surface to provide safe areas for the koi. This means we must rock our ponds. In contrast, many other areas of the country do not have the same requirement — instead, they have other challenging issues to overcome.
In the days and weeks following the trade show, I struggled with how to write this article. I personally get tips, insight and inspiration from many people who were at the table that night. How might one of them approach it? I even considered calling a few of these guys and asking for their thoughts. Or, perhaps I could interview them, asking a series of the same old debatable questions?
Then it hit me! I realized what all those pond powerhouses had in common that made them widely recognized for being so good. The best may use a multitude of various styles, methods and an array of products, but they all have one thing in common: a true love and passion for the work they do. It’s not just a job; it’s an art. It says something about them. A great pond is not determined by how much money was made, or how large the feature is. It starts with an understanding of why it’s being built in the first place. When you believe in what you do, it adds value to life. When it becomes less about stone and size and more about something personal, you leave a part of yourself in the build, and it becomes art.
The customer never sees everything underneath the final product — the pumps, the liner and everything else. In the end, it’s the art and beauty of the install. Our customers and our competitors only see the end result. We all want to see that “wow” from our clients and colleagues alike, and the best achieve the “wow” by starting with a foundation of “why.”
Personally, I have much to learn and improve on when it comes to pond construction. I am, however, in love with my work, and that passion drives me to deliver my best on every install. Although I have more than 27 years of experience in the field, I am not afraid to make mistakes or ask for advice. I try to remind myself of the famous quote by Michelangelo he made in his 80s: “I am only just learning the ABCs of my profession.” The best in our industry approach life and work with that same humility. They share their years of wisdom with each other. There is a genuine, shared passion for what they do. If you want to learn how to build ponds, you must first ask yourself why you are building one in the first place. In the end, the true lasting value will not be found in the money spent, what kind of pump was used or how many koi are in the pond. The long-term return comes from positive lifestyle changes and the joy found in the work we do. It all starts with the foundation of why.