By Roger and Melody Sears
The call came in from a current customer, Mike Hartman, the owner of H & H Excavating. A friend of his wanted a 1-acre earth-bottom pond with a big waterfall and a bog filtering system. Mike had told his friend that H & H could dig the pond, but they would need an actual pond builder for the waterfall and bog system.
This would be the biggest project we had ever tackled. My mind began to race with all the logistics involved. Songbird Ponds is small — only my wife and business partner Melody, two helpers at most, and yours truly. I have two pickup trucks, a flatbed trailer and a dump trailer. My only piece of serious equipment is a mini excavator with a 24-inch bucket named Tigger the Digger.
Was I going to drown in my own pond project? Or, had I built the relationships necessary to successfully complete this project to a professional standard? We took a deep breath and dove in.
At the initial meeting, I was shown the proposed plan for the scope and dimensions . It was a simple, 1-acre pond 15 feet deep and a hill created with the soil from the pond with an expected elevation of 18 feet. My part would be to create a bog filtering system on top of the newly built hill and rock in an 80-foot stream and an 18-foot waterfall flowing back into the pond. All the rocks would come from the excavated pond. When I expressed my concern about lacking the necessary equipment for the project, Mike with H & H assured me that he could provide the equipment and the operators when I needed them.
My first trip to the site was a real eye opener and also a heartstopper! The pond excavation was almost completed. There was a massive hill of dirt beside the pond that was about 40 feet tall, with a level area on top only about 20 feet wide. It turned out that the area meant to accept all the extra dirt had been deemed wetlands, and the back side was the neighbor’s property. There was not enough room for one 95-by-95-foot bog.The waterfall grew from about 18 feet to 35 feet in height!
As I began to put together the estimate for this project, I calmed my anxiety by reminding myself that the steps for building this water feature were the same as always — only the scale had changed. Because of that, my first call was to Joel Kammeraad, the owner of Complete Aquatics in Plain City, Ohio, my former employer. Joel and Complete Aquatics have a lot of experience with projects of this size, and I needed his technical support. I explained the project, and Joel excitedly began to calculate that we would need a 95-by-95-foot bog to filter a 1-acre pond. Joel knew where to source the 100-by-100-foot liner and the two 5-Horsepower pumps mounted on sleds with weights to be sunk to the bottom of the pond. These pumps would move 30,000 gallons per hour through a 6-inch line to create an impressive — some would say breathtaking — waterfall!
Two Bog Solution
The total size of the bog could not be changed, so the equipment operators and I put our heads together and came up with a solution. We could build two smaller bogs that would make up one large bog. They were able to add soil to the back side of the larger area for a 95-by-60-foot bog on that plateau, and the other one would be 95 by 35 feet. This plan also included a 200-foot stream to join the large bog with the top of the waterfall — quite a difference from the original proposal.
Would I still be able to get the desired water flow down the waterfall? I would hate to go through all this work for a trickle. A third pump might be needed. On the plus side, we had a huge pile of rocks of all sizes for us to use that were neatly stacked on a pile the size of a house. We would use every one of them!
When looking at the site in front of me, I once again had to remind myself, “This is still a simple waterfall, stream and bog system. I have built these many times, and the process will be the same. It will just take a little longer and some extra manpower.”
My worker, Roy, and I assembled all the matrix units for the bogs. We then moved to install the pumps and aeration systems first before the water got too deep in the pond. Installing the pumps was easy. Roy and I made gravel platforms on the pond bottom, set the pump units and ran the cords and flat hoses with check valves already attached up to the pond edge then attached them to our 6-inch pipe to the bogs.
The aeration system was installed at this time as well. I also built a pipe drain system so I could drain the pipes to the bogs in case the waterfall was shut down. I wanted to be able to keep water in the bogs themselves so the plants would survive. Since we had two bogs, I decided to make smaller settlement chambers with a matrix unit grid across the bottom of each bog. That allowed for water to travel through the units and across the entire bottom before entering the gravel area.
Next, we began the fun part — building the waterfall. I asked Mike for a large excavator and an operator to move the boulders. With Roy in Tigger bringing the boulders to Gage in the large excavator, I stationed myself in the waterfall, and we set each boulder into its permanent home. We had to start with the equipment at the bottom and later move it to the top. The liner had to be kept rolled up and unrolled as we moved along so the equipment wouldn’t be on it. Lots of underlayment was used both under and on top of the liner. Boulders were locked in with each other and back filled with round gravel before finally getting foamed in.
Ask for help when you need it
When we reached the top of the waterfall, it was time to build the bogs. I knew that this portion of the build was going to require more labor than I currently had on payroll. I contacted several landscapers and asked for help for a few days. Thankfully this was in February. Most were not busy and happy to lend a hand or send a helper who wanted some hours.
Merely unfolding and spreading those enormous liners was certainly more than a two-person job. Laying in the underlayment and liner was also a challenge because of the wind, which would pick us up and throw us around! Finally, we brought in the gravel. I was able to use a track loader to actually spread out the gravel once we had enough in to protect the liner. Ultimately, we used 160 tons of gravel in the bogs and another 20 tons building the waterfalls and streams.
The last phase was to build the stream over to the big bog and install our pipe along a narrow neck of hill, under the top of the waterfall and along the stream edge. The stream was a total of about 200 feet long and about 6 to 8 feet wide, with four smaller waterfalls on top of liner overlaps so no sealant was needed.
When we finally turned on the pumps and started the waterfalls, we were very happy with the result. Using a 6-inch line for the pipe was a big help in maintaining healthy water flow even with the additional height of the waterfall and the additional length of the stream. I did choose to add a third pump — an Atlantic Tidalwave A-32 — through a 3-inch line for an additional 10,000 gallons per hour that entered the waterfall about one-third of the way down, at a point where the waterfall widened. We believe the total flow is about 50,000 gallons per hour when all three pumps are running.
I love to pull out my phone and show videos of this feature. Even though I know this is nothing that hasn’t been done before and by better pond builders than I, for Songbird Ponds, this was Niagara Falls!
Making the Dream Work
I want to express my sincerest and heartfelt appreciation to all the people who encouraged, supported and helped us with this build. I also want to thank the people I have had the pleasure to interact with in all my years in this industry. Having attended Aquascape’s Pondemonium, Atlantic’s Contractor Conference and many other industry seminars. I have gotten to know local landscape contractors at build-a-pond events that I have run, and at trade and garden shows. Through these events, I have made lots of contacts and friendships that have spanned decades. Many are casual, but several have been crucial to me and my business. Their help and advice have been invaluable, and I try my best to reciprocate whenever the opportunity arises.
My role at Complete Aquatics as sales and tech support was a great steppingstone to having my own business. The things I learned with and from them prepared me to be one of the best in my area when my wife and I began Songbird Ponds. Also, the support from the owners when I asked to leave to begin this venture was beyond expectations. Their response was, “What can we do to help you?”.
The strongest professional relationship we have is with Sightscapes, our local pond store and product distributor here in York, Pennsylvania. The owner, Kyle Zirkle, has been like a third partner, always able to get what we need. He has our back with new leads and customer support for all our pond customers.
Reciprocal Professional Relationships
The importance of strong, reciprocal professional relationships is of primary importance to a small business, especially when it comes to extending your reach. My initial trepidation about the scale of this project was overcome as I thought through the necessary process and steps. When I knew who I could reach out to for assistance. My friends did not let me down. They provided me with products, technical support, advice, encouragement and even some strong backs and hands. I couldn’t have done it alone, but together it turned out spectacular!