Pond Construction by a Garden Artist

This picture represents what my work is all about and is  my signature style in creating rock formations  and extreme water features.
This picture represents what my work is all about and is my signature style in creating rock formations and extreme water features.

I am often asked by casual acquaintances “so, what do you do for a living?” I know we may be in for a long conversation! After decades of creating extreme water features I still do not have a streamlined answer. My simple and quick answer is, “I’m a contractor,” which is usually followed by the question, “what kind of contractor?” This question opens up a can of worms that I am never prepared for, as I know this conversation could lead many directions. There are too many hats I wear designing and building extreme water features and when my global travels and client list come into the mix? Ouch! This leads to the final question that kills me “how did you get into that?” At this point I wish I had said I was an accountant.

When I was approached by POND Trade Magazine to write an article, the first thing that came to my mind was what would I write about? What is something unique that other water feature professionals and enthusiasts want to read and benefit from? Most importantly, what can I contribute that has not been often published in the pond and water feature trade? Creating faux and natural rock formations in the water garden is what I have decided.

The history: In the early days leading up to the late 70’s there was a small handful of rock and waterscape companies that built faux rock structures mostly for zoos, theme parks, resort hotels, and aquariums. The pioneer of this specialty art was Julian George. Julian is the original creator of faux rock and is a true artist at a “Picasso” level. Most of the companies that were formed in this trade spun off from Julian George, including myself. I am what they call “a first generation Julian” taught artist. Since the late 70’s many companies, large and small, have blossomed all over the world. The “Julian” method has been lost over the years except for a small group that have stayed true to Julian’s art. Most others have found ways to cut corners and compromise the art for the sake of cost.

You are only as good as the mold you make! Making a good rock mold is imperative and is one of the most important aspects to creating great looking rock formations (see photo A). Mold making is the first thing most rock companies have eliminated over the years. They have eliminated the molds to cut cost and have chosen to form the rock structure with rebar and chicken wire, and a coat of cement “carving” it into rock texture. This method is not true to Julian’s art form. In my opinion, making rock molds is more cost effective and looks much more natural; after all, the goal is to re-create nature while making a good living.

GFRC Casting: GFRC is “glass fiber reinforced concrete.” A “casting” is a thin cement rock panel that is cast from the rock mold. The finished “GFRC casting” (see photo B) is the rock panel that is placed to create a rock formation. Most companies have abandoned this method to save on the overhead of yard space, manufacturing, and trucking cost of large cement cast rock panels.

Mixing natural rock with GFRC panels: The most natural looking man made rock formations are a combination of using natural and GFRC rock panels together. When executed correctly, the viewer will be tricked into thinking all of the rock formation is real.

Streamlined, cost effective, and simple: Over the past thirty years I have developed methods for building rock formations that are streamlined, cost effective, and simple. The exiting aspect to my current method is the fact that the storage yard, trucking, and employees have been eliminated along with a relatively small investment for all the molds, tools, and equipment required for us to create extreme rock formations and water features.

This method is so simple that my wife and I travel the country in a SUV with everything we need to create any size project. Most recently the two of us traveled from our home in Santa Barbara, California to South Carolina, to build a large grotto (see photo prior page). As you can see in the photo, this grotto rivals any rock structure in this art form and the two of us built it from the ground up in less than six weeks.

The teaching: Currently, the trend has shifted for people to pursue information. We have taken notice of this trend. For the past ten years we have traveled the country teaching many other companies our methods. This has been very rewarding to share our knowledge for those that want to learn, while preserving the original art form Julian George created. Teaching willing students has spiraled me into a direction that I never expected but it sure makes sense when I take into consideration that I am able to duplicate myself while spreading this creative information. After all, I can only build so many rock formations and water features myself.

2 Responses to Pond Construction by a Garden Artist

  1. Jim Carvin September 14, 2015 at 2:07 AM #

    My dad, Willis Carvin and another of his friends, Andy Sierra were on a minor league baseball team with Julian George, and the story has it that Julian got his ideas for rock formations from looking out the bus window as they traveled with the ball team. Just a bit of trivia.

  2. Ken Danson March 4, 2019 at 12:26 PM #

    I worked with Julian, Frank and Dave Manwarren, Bob Morris, Don Cole, Danny Peters, Tony Botticella and a host of others from 1977-1987. I started at the, “bone yard”, at the LA Zoo. Learning and working alongside of Julian and all these others was one of the highlights of my work experience.
    Would love to hear from ‘Rock Stars’ of that era!

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