I first met Terry and Wanda when they attended one of Andreatta Waterscapes’ pond tour events several years ago, where they fell in love with our style of building. “It soon became clear by the insightful designs and quality of work that we were viewing water features that were not just irrigation troughs flanked with rocks, but mimics of nature in style and design,” Terry remarked. Wanda added, “When we saw Tonja’s work during the tour, we knew we could trust her design for our project.” Wanda and Terry were doing some remodeling, and when they were ready to design and install their water feature, they called me.
The house is built on a hill, and as you enter the living room, you are instantly drawn to gaze out the big bay window that overlooks the backyard from the second story. As I approached the backyard, two things struck me.
First and foremost – the five to six spectacular, enormous granite boulders scattered across the yard. It’s like being transported into a fairy wonderland with a unique outcropping of rocks not normally found in one’s yard. Immediately I wanted to touch one just to comprehend the sheer enormity of it. The second thing that struck me was the giant hole in the yard flanked with surveyor’s stakes, tape and color-coded construction line, which, as I found out later, was to help visualize and refine the plan.
To provide a quick background on the situation, Terry and Wanda had two fish ponds filled with koi and fantail goldfish in their Miami home. Terry told me it was relaxing and peaceful to have a drink by the pond and watch the koi glide through the water after a tiring day fighting Miami traffic. They called their fish “silent treasures,” providing many peaceful hours of therapeutic entertainment. When they moved to Ashland, their new home’s yard was a blank page – and naturally, a koi pond was in their plans.
They soon realized that because of the increased footprint of the home after the remodel, the overall slope of the property and the large granite boulders, it would be very hard to access the yard again with big equipment. So while trenching and grading for the remodel, they had the contractor dig a 30-foot long, 20-foot wide, 4-foot deep hole for the future koi pond.
Making Lemonade from Lemons
The original concept was to have a koi pond large enough so that if they wanted, they could get into the pond and cool off with their koi during the summer. It also needed to be deep and wide enough to protect the fish from predators. As time went on, a couple of obstacles became clear. First was the sheer amount of leaf and needle debris from being under the beautiful canopy of trees, which would make maintenance a burden. Next was the city code that dictated that a pond of that depth would have to be fenced off. That really wasn’t an option, because Wanda loved the surrounding wildlife, including the deer and turkeys that migrated through the yard. A fence would also be an eyesore in the otherwise unfenced neighborhood. They still wanted a water feature, but without the major pond, it would have to take advantage of the pre-existing hole, require less maintenance, include a seating area and be viewable from the house. Naturally, a pondless waterfall was our answer.
The Design Process
The design process is where it gets harder for me to write, because I have realized that I tend to feel my designs more than I think about them. I can usually jot down a basic concept for the customer, but I always explain that it can and does evolve. When I start working with the land and rock, the design really starts to come together. The idea that the rocks show me how they want to be placed is weird, but it’s true. Sometimes you can just feel it when a rock finds its proper home.
There are a few rules I have developed over the years to help me build more natural-looking water features. My biggest rule is that the water needs to look like it has cut its way through the earth. If the water is higher than or in front of the existing grades, it will probably leak and certainly will not look natural. With that rule in mind, we almost always completely change the grades as we carve a channel for our stream and waterfalls.
Each customer is so unique in what ideas and vision they bring to the project. Terry and Wanda had an idea of the elements they wanted to include, but they were also extremely generous in letting me guide and change the design. The giant granite boulders were the first thing to determine any kind of layout, because they were not going to be moved. Therefore, they ended up dictating the grade and shape of the water course. Terry had suggested that he would like the water to split around one of the granite boulders that was central to the water feature. However, I felt that it would be a distraction to the senses and wanted to focus on just one active water course, making the other side look like a dry stream or abandoned waterfall. It was an agreeable compromise and, in the end they, thought it was a wise choice.
There was also an expressed interest in viewing the water at eye level. The big hole that was previously dug for a pond was perfect for converting half into a disappearing water basin and the other half into an intimate patio at the water’s edge. We sculpted the hole a bit more and added rock work for the integrity of holding back the hill and blending the space seamlessly with the water course. Normally, you can’t plan a sunken patio without facing flooding concerns in the winter, but because the soil on-site was porous, decomposed granite with excellent drainage, this was not an issue.
Anytime I get to work on a hillside, I’m like a kid in a candy store, because there is no better setting for a water feature – especially one as beautiful as this particular one. Of course, hillsides offer their own challenges, like safety, access, staging and transporting supplies. Everything on this job was staged in a lower driveway and then brought in through a side yard and up a steep, winding path that we created after taking out some rickety, poorly-built steps. Everything was brought in piece by piece with a walk-behind Bobcat only 3 feet wide. I managed to get my mini excavator up the path once, which was enough. I wouldn’t traverse it again until I took it off the hill when the job was done. I prefer to build from the bottom up, but sometimes I have to build from the top down, which was the case here as we worked our way out of the yard. After we had finished and left the site, the access points and paths that were made while we were building had become the perfect place to build planting beds and beautiful flagstone walkways and steps.
The Scientific and Creative Minds Combine
Terry is a former marine geologist and has a very scientific, rational mind — unlike my emotional, creative one. He took pictures of the daily progress to document where each pipe and cable was buried in the yard for future reference. He put together a really neat picture board that he displays when their yard is showcased on garden and pond tours. They have access to irrigation water for the summer months and city water for the fall, winter and spring. Terry put in a flow meter to monitor his city water use, and he has reported that he only uses one gallon a day on average during those off-months. The two, 6,600-gph pumps that I installed were wired into switches and a timer in his house, so he can cycle the pumps and run the waterfalls on a high or low-flow setting.
Art in Stone and Water
Terry dubbed me “the Picasso of rock and water,” adding that “her excavator is her brush, and the land her canvas.” While I don’t completely agree, I am very flattered and humbled by these words. They said that it was a pleasure to watch a patch of dirt and weeds transform into an incredibly natural-looking piece of “art in stone and water.” One of Wanda’s longtime friends visiting from North Carolina added, “You know, that looks just like a creek by my house.” They love the soothing sounds through the windows at night, and one thing everyone agrees on for sure is that wine and cheese taste better by the waterfall. Maybe we did create some magic with stone and water after all.