by Tom Dieck, TRD Designs & Dylan Arlotta, Aquascapes East
The water garden industry (and landscaping in general) can be a feast-or-famine scenario. Due to uncooperative weather throughout the winters in the Northeast, we are often forced to cram a whole calendar year’s worth of installations into a span of just eight months or so. No matter how prepared we try to be, the reality is that we are often forced to juggle a few projects at one time.
I operate as part of a greater team that includes two distinct, full-service firms. TRD Designs covers landscape design and installation, while Aquascapes East specializes in installing and maintaining custom-built water features. Despite clearly drawn lines of responsibility, the two companies often have to share workloads to help keep projects running smoothly. This means that our team must fully understand a wide range of capabilities — everything from the proper installation of sod and specimen trees to the creation of a custom ecosystem pond or fountainscape, sometimes for the same project and client.
Sometimes masonry work is involved, so enter yet another crew with a different set of special skills. From pools to patios and from fire pits to full outdoor kitchens, our top-notch masonry crew is literally the cement that holds some of our designs together. The collective team of TRD Designs and Aquascapes East has developed a strength of pulling together large projects in multiple phases while working together hand in hand. When working on large, integrated projects, each team member needs to be able to interpret the site plan and anticipate the needs of the other craftsmen on the jobsite in order to make sure that each phase carries smoothly into the one that follows. This type of collaborative approach makes each member a jack of all trades, while they still serve as masters of their own installation specialty.
When the Aquascapes East team was called to the Becker home in Katonah, New York, the task was pretty straightforward. This family was looking for a natural pond for keeping fish. Simple, right? But wait, it turned out that they also wanted a new patio large enough for small gatherings, along with a full landscaping overhaul. So, we summoned the landscape architects and formulated a plan.
The Becker residence sits on a corner in a suburban neighborhood with road frontage on two sides. The backyard has a lateral shape with a ton of room from side to side, but not very much depth from the house to the rear property line. As is the case in most of suburbia, the back property line is shared with the house from the next road over, so their view through the large windows in their family room and kitchen was often dictated by what their neighbors were up to that day. This lateral yard, although spacious, sloped from left to right and slightly away from the rear of the house.
The key to this project was to create a tranquil private space that made the family feel nestled into the neighborhood instead of exposed to every passerby. So, the focus became creating a backyard space that centered on the family room and invited the Beckers outside into their own private retreat. The new view from inside the house would concentrate on an ecosystem pond with wetland filtration and a sizable bluestone patio that would come right up to the water feature. Due to the limited access from the driveway, the water feature would have to be constructed first, with the adjoining patio installed afterward as the crews worked their way back toward the driveway.
As luck would have it, this was one of those times when multiple projects were going on at the same time, and the regular Aquascapes East crew was already busy working on the completion of a different water feature. The masonry crew was ready to roll, but they needed the water feature crew to finish before their patio project could move forward.
Time Waits for No Man
(And in this case, no crew.) The decision was made to use this as an opportunity to expand the skills of the masonry crew and heavily involve them in the construction of the water feature. This was a no-brainer, because the design called for the patio edge to overhang the new ecosystem pond. This small feat may sound simple, but it required precise techniques and plenty of forethought. Leaving the water feature crew to complete their other project, I joined the masonry team for what would become a hands-on, weeklong class in ecosystem pond construction.
We started by bringing in large boulders for a natural set of retaining terraces that would be set downhill from the proposed patio location. These terraces would help to level out the site and provide comfortable passage from one outdoor space to the next. A natural stone stairway was tucked into the terraces to allow practical access to the storage shed on the lower lawn. Once the ideal spot for the pond was painted out, the 24-by-32-foot patio area could be pre-excavated so that all the soil could be used to create additional elevation behind the pond. At this point, the masons were still comfy and cozy inside their wheelhouse — stone walls and patio prep. So, no big deal!
That’s when I told them we wanted the bluestone patio to overhang the pond at least 12 inches in some spots to provide the fish with some safe retreats and allow the family a few places to sit and dangle their feet in the water.
They thought I was joking. I assured them I was not. They claimed that 4-foot-wide stones or larger would be needed to provide enough weight so that they would not move if someone stood on the edge. Furthermore, they would have to be cemented down. We agreed that safety was the most important thing, so we started to figure out the exact heights the patio would need to be in relation to the pond to provide just the right pitch away from the water. We also had to make sure that any dirt and debris that might gather on the patio wouldn’t get carried into the fish-filled pond with every rainstorm.
Jumping in, Head First
After about a day of patio and site prep, the head mason, Carlos, approached me to have a very serious discussion. Putting on his serious face, he told me to make sure that each rock placed under the bluestone edge was a perfect fit. Once they were in place, they had to be rock solid to avoid any movement that would cause damage to his patio.
I assured him that I had already figured out a way to guarantee that he would get exactly what he was asking for. This is when I broke the news to him and the rest of the masonry crew that starting the next day, they would be building their very first water feature. By providing these guys with a little bit of guidance and positive thinking, not only would they have the perfect edge prepared to accept the cantilevered bluestone patio, but they would also find out that they already had all the skills it takes to build amazing water features.
We started our adventure with the installation of an upflow wetland filter. This simple concept for filtration can be used in almost any ecosystem pond, providing a simple, long-lasting, all-natural way of keeping the water clean. Although the wetland will only appear as a small body of water that is less than a foot deep, most of its magic is hidden below. This false-bottom system provides lots of surface area for beneficial bacteria to colonize.
After the wetland had been constructed, we set to work on excavating the pond itself: a basic 12-by-16-foot pond with shelves at varying heights and a maximum depth of 3 feet. The front of all the shelved areas was covered in smoothed river gravel and contained by natural rock boulders. I explained to the crew that just because rocks are underwater does not mean that they do not have to appear completely natural. We took our time, and I explained the reasoning behind the choices we were making. Before long, I could feel that they were starting to get it.
We incorporated a few extra bells and whistles, including a full LED underwater lighting package and a built-in fish cave. As they were using their mason-trained minds to disguise the entrance to the fish cave, they started to joke with each other about the fish swimming in and out of their home, which was hidden in the shelving. My Spanish comprehension is far from flawless, but after much discussion, I gathered that they had decided to alter their design slightly. They were convinced that the fish were going to get so fat and happy in their new home that before long, there would not be enough room for two fish to pass by each other at the entrance.
This was their first pond build, and they were already thinking like fish! This was hilarious! Needless to say, they were off and running at a breakneck pace. Each subsequent rock that went into the pond had its placement scrutinized and criticized with intensity. The discovery of each perfect placement was celebrated with giddy laughter and cheering. After the pond was rocked in, we began work on the waterfalls.
Building a waterfall for the first time can be a daunting task. Anyone can pile up rocks and hold them together with a can or two of waterfall foam. Building natural waterfalls that don’t leak is a different game altogether. I witnessed the team working hard to abandon all the formality of constructed masonry in lieu of following the laws of nature and gravity to create truly natural waterfalls.
With the wetland and waterfalls complete, the moment of truth had arrived. It was time to build the patio and hang those monster-sized stones over the water’s edge. For the sake of storytelling, I wish the process were more dramatic, but it truly went off without a hitch, almost as if this was something they did on a daily basis. Once the regular bluestone patio was finished, we traced a sweeping, curved line along the stone’s edge overhanging the pond. The stones were cut along this line, and the patio was complete. We love how this organic line is in complete contrast with the straight lines of the regular bluestone, blending the formal and informal.
As I pressed the power button on the remote for the waterfall pump, not only did the water start to rise in the wetland and crest over the first rocky drop, but every mason also seemed equally controlled. They dropped their tools and whipped out their phones, snapping photos and narrating their own selfie videos. I’m not sure who was prouder at that point — they or I.
At this point, we were reminded that our greatest strengths lie within our successes as a team. As the landscaping truck pulled up, the crew emptied out, and in minutes, the TRD Designs crew seemed to have filled every nook and cranny with some type of greenery.
Arborvitaes surround the patio and create the much-anticipated privacy this family was looking for. Perennials like hydrangeas and fountain grasses serve as natural anchors and textural contrast for all the hard and cold stonework. As plants go into the pond, waterfall, wetland and surrounding landscape, I can’t help but reflect that even after installing hundreds of features, I am always pleasantly surprised at how a couple of plants really do make all the difference. Riparian plantings along the water’s edge work to blend the spaces in and out of the water into one cohesive, natural space. Not being able to tell where the water stops and the land begins is what makes it all feel natural.
I can’t help but think about how our team seems to work just the same way. As I watch a newly hired member of the landscape crew planting a patch of annuals, I realize that the value of my success depends on the efforts of even the greenest member of our team. Just like the nature we try to mimic, no single organism holds more importance than our collective success as an ecosystem.