Pond Construction | Laurel Highlands Legend Gets Boulder Taste of Tuscany

Published on February 27, 2016

pond boulders
LED light fixtures were strategically placed to provide maximum illumination, while remaining out of sight for daytime viewing.

Every city has that one restaurant — the local, family-owned joint with home cooking that everybody talks about. You always take your mom there for Mother’s Day, and it’s the go-to place for out-of-town guests seeking a nice, sit-down meal. Even classy high school guys have been known to take their dates there before the Homecoming dance.

Just outside Greensburg, Pennsylvania, is a little town called Crabtree. With a population of about 300, it’s easy to miss. But nestled within the city limits is one of the surrounding area’s most-loved Italian restaurants — Rizzo’s Malabar Inn. Rizzo’s has been owned and operated by the DeFabo family since 1935, when it opened as a quaint bar on the bottom floor of their home. Four generations later, the establishment has grown into an institution, with a 450-seat restaurant and a neighboring banquet hall that holds an additional 250 people. In case you’re not keeping track, their capacity is double the population of the entire town!

I, like seemingly everyone else in the region, have loved this place for quite some time. So it was an honor when they approached me about a pond construction and design project for their soon-to-open outdoor event space. Another contractor had already begun work on the lush landscape beds, a paver walkway, large boulder garden walls and an arbor for wedding ceremonies. All that was missing was a one-of-a-kind water feature, and I was happy to oblige.

“We Make Sauce, Not Water Features!”

The DeFabo family did not offer a specific vision for the water feature, but their priorities were clear — they wanted it to look great in pictures, stand out at night and be easy to maintain. I believe their bottom line was, “We make sauce, not water features!”

Based on this feedback, I began planning the key elements of the feature:

  • Scale: The space was huge, and thus unfit for a small water feature. For picture-taking purposes, the overall height and width needed to be large enough to serve as a backdrop for large wedding parties.
  • Lighting: We would need plenty of lighting, because most parties — at least the good ones — tend to go strong into the evening hours.
  • Pondless: With low maintenance a top priority for the DeFabos, standing water and fish could not be a part of the plan.
  • Style: The event space was meant to impress at first sight, so no basic design would cut it.

Soon the vision started to form in my head. I saw multiple waterfalls, mossy boulders and logs, and a backdrop of trees. For some extra flair, I decided to add several Aquascape Spillway Bowls to the design, while still adhering to the Italian-Tuscan theme.

Aqua Ultraviolet
 Before starting construction, I needed design approval. I tell a lot of my clients that my artistry comes to life with water and rock, not pencil and paper. So when a client like the DeFabos needs help visualizing my design, I turn to the Flipboard smartphone app. Flipboard allows me to quickly and easily create digital magazines and then share them via text or email. In this case, I created a personalized “Rizzo’s Restaurant Design” magazine with pictures of previous work comparable to this particular design. I also included photos of the Aquascape Spillway Bowls and pictures of some colleagues’ projects that incorporated similar design elements (with proper attribution, of course). They loved the concept and the way it was presented, so it was time to get started.

“Mound” Breaking

We constructed a dirt mound to serve as our canvas. The site had no natural elevation change, so we needed to build the mound in a way that would give us necessary height for a backdrop of waterfalls, while still blending in consistently with the natural scale of the property. Too short would be underwhelming, and too tall would look ridiculously unnatural. The final dimensions of the mound were approximately 6 feet tall by 40 feet long by 20 feet wide.

pond boulders
Testing the water flow is crucial before adding the finishing touches.

In front of the mound, we constructed an underground reservoir capable of holding about a thousand gallons of water. We lined it with underlayment, followed by a 45 mil EPDM pond liner and second layer of underlayment. Thirty-two large AquaBlox tanks were used, along with three pump vaults with extensions. The pit was backfilled with loose dirt, which was then compacted to keep the AquaBlox in place. We placed boulders along the outer edge in a staggered line to achieve an aesthetically appealing contour. Most of the two-inch flexible Schedule 40 PVC plumbing ran along the back of the mound, except for a single length that ran along the AquaBlox to a spillway bowl at the base of the feature.

The clients had previously acquired a large quantity of beautiful Pennsylvania limestone boulders and had them piled in an adjacent parking lot. Although the close proximity to the work site was convenient, it still posed an additional challenge. Many of the boulders were large, weighing well over a ton. The other contractor on-site, who was in charge of the non-water feature components of the construction, allowed us to use a large excavator to load the boulders onto a dump truck, drive them across the open lawn, and then dump them onto the ground. It took about 10 trips, so extreme care had to be taken in order to minimize damage to the lawn.

View more pictures of this beautiful pond build from Tim Wood and crew!

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Working with the limestone boulders took some time getting used to, as they were much harder and heavier than the weathered mountain sandstone we usually use. Although the limestone did not break easily, when it did break, it tended to break off in sharp pieces.

Building a Slice of Italy for Crabtree

As we all know, there is no way to know exactly how a water feature will look until it’s completely finished. This was a large installation with multiple focal points, so I often found myself stepping back and monitoring our progress from multiple vantage points to make sure we were adhering to the overall design. We replaced boulders, manipulated dirt behind the liner and made several other changes along the way as needed.

We constructed a 1,000-gallon reservoir using AquaBlox.

One major problem was realized quickly, but it was actually easy to overcome with a little creativity. All the boulders looked too clean. Aside from some dirt and mud, there was nothing else on them. After the dirt washed away, the boulders didn’t jive with the old Italian-Tuscan theme we were going for. The solution was simple — moss. Luckily, the property was close to a low-lying flood plain. The stream banks were littered with trees, both alive and dead, which provided the perfect habitat for moss. I made several trips with a wheelbarrow to gather moss and interesting-looking logs. We used waterfall foam to adhere the moss to the boulders, which instantly gave them an aged look. I also added logs at a higher density than I usually would, adding an older feel. The result was really quite amazing. The feature had a perfect balance of beautiful, crisp character elements in the boulders and mature, organic elements that gave the space an “enchanted ruins” appearance.

Note how we backfilled loose dirt on top of the AquaBlox to achieve a nice contour with the boulders.

The installation of the spillway bowls was saved for last, so we could place them in several different spots for a dry fit before setting them in place permanently. A total of four bowls were installed —“ two with a spouted style and two with an overflowing style. The first overflowing bowl was placed at the bottom of the feature to provide an interactive element, allowing someone to easily step onto a large boulder and dip a finger into the dancing water. We paired a spillway bowl and the other overflowing bowl together on the far side of the mound to add depth to the overall design and draw spectators further into the experience. These bowls create the illusion that water is spilling onto the ground due to their placement several feet away from the waterfalls; in reality, an underground pipe carries the water back into the main 1,000-gallon reservoir.

The final spillway bowl was paired with a hollow log I found on a farm outside Greensburg about a year ago, and together they became my favorite component of the installation. The farm owner was a client of ours and allowed us to remove it, so I rolled the log next to the spillway bowl, and it was love at first sight! We placed the pair on the near side of the mound for enjoyment from all angles.

Prepping the Main Course

pond boulders
A close-up of the main waterfall and upper waterfall with 3-foot drop.

To finish off the project, we planted 6-foot-tall hemlock trees on the back of the mound to serve as a backdrop. Shrubs were planted around the feature as well, with perennials to be added come spring. Two dozen, three-watt LED lights were used in and around the water. Each spillway bowl had a one-watt LED light plumbed into the bottom interior. A total of five pumps were used: three variable-speed, 4,000-8,000 gph pumps and two variable-speed, 2,000-4,000 gph pumps. The variable-speed pumps provide the option of decreasing or increasing the flow rates, depending on the size and type of party being held.

The DeFabos love their water feature and believe it will help lure clientele to their new outdoor event area when it officially opens in the spring of this year. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed working on this project, and I believe it will help us sell significantly more water features like it for many years to come.

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