Pond Design | Natural Pond Blends Subtle with Spectacular

water garden design

A variety of different types of water features in one complete water garden design creates interest from multiple viewing points.

When a longtime client moves out of town to a lake community, and the new, roughly landscaped property is already equipped with a pondless waterfall and bubbler, what more could he possibly need?

A pond, of course! This particular client had always had koi ponds on his property, and he said he missed sitting next to it and feeding his fish at the end of every day, a habit he had created for himself over the years to decompress. As an entrepreneur and owner of several landscape and property management businesses, he led a very high-paced, busy lifestyle. After his sons moved off to college, he decided it was time to build a retreat that he could retire to — that is, if he ever decided to retire. The pond that we envisioned for him would become the centerpiece of his backyard entertaining area.

Heads & Tails

statue driveway

Visitors to the property as they pull up the driveway.

As a collector for many years, he had accumulated many bronze and statuary pieces that would need a new home. The most significant piece was a large, bronze mermaid that had been a focal feature at his two previous residences. We decided that rather than creating a basin for her to live and operate from elsewhere on the property, we would instead reconfigure the existing pondless waterfall to accommodate her and the fountain. This required removing the preexisting weathered-limestone bubbling boulder to level out a pad for the fountain. This would not only accommodate the changes in plumbing and add the valves necessary to keep the waterfall flowing at its previous volume, but it would also connect the mermaid’s base and make sure she received enough water volume and pressure to operate the several incorporated spitting features.

We also had to make adjustments to the rock work in the upper portion of the pondless waterfall so that the streams coming from the fountain could be caught in such a way that would minimize splashing on the surrounding concrete patio, the stone steps and bridge leading down to the beach. After a little trial and error, we were able to reduce the splash as much as possible, making the areas around the fountain safe and not slippery. LED lighting was added around the base of the mermaid and through the waterfall to accent her at night, since she is the first thing you see at the end of the driveway, welcoming you as you pull in.

Filling in the Landscape

With the mermaid in place and complete, we were ready to begin discussing the remainder of the landscape. We decided to add plantings to the existing beds and find materials that would complement the design elements already found on the house and in the existing beds. The landscaping already had some existing granite-boulder retaining walls and a Black Hills flagstone patio that served as a midpoint between the steps from the house and the steps of the soon-to-be-added boat dock. This patio would serve as a relaxation point, a place to entertain and the home of the pond that was to be built. It would surely provide a visually stunning feature as you move through the landscape.

  To provide a spot to relax and to work with the existing slope, the round, granite boulder work was removed, and a Black Hills flagstone sitting wall was constructed. This wall would provide a place to rest at the base of the main stairs and create the height needed to set the waterfall in the main pond. It would also level out the upper stream portion to provide a nice, deep, relaxing, meandering stream. Weathered limestone boulders would then blend into the wall to provide the outcropping for the main waterfall going into the pond, mimicking the types of waterfalls found in this part of Nebraska. The weathered limestone waterfalls that would become the starting point of the water feature were built 20 inches above grade to keep the scale and look consistent. We didn’t want it to look as if we had piled up a bunch of rocks along the wall to create an unnatural waterfall. It was important to the client and to me that we created a beautiful, artistic feature, but kept from going overboard. This was a challenge as we continued through the design and installation process.

I had a vision in my head of how all of this should look, but trying to explain my vision to the client initially was a challenge. Since we had worked together for so many years, he trusted my artistic style. But, I still needed to explain and demonstrate how a bare patch of turf was supposed to become the main focal point of the backyard.

Enacting the Vision

pond backyard design

To help the client understand the design vision beyond paint lines on the ground, a sketched overlay was presented to help illustrate. This graceful mermaid is the focal point that greets all how the transformation was intended to look.

We started using the garden hose and marking paint technique, using different colors to indicate the water, stonework and bed lines. Then, I took a photograph of the space, and using pen and marker, I created an image that was very similar to how the final project was to be completed. We started by preparing and building the seating wall, since that was going to be the anchor of the space. We also needed to work our way out while we built everything.

On an almost daily basis, I would meet with the client in the morning for coffee and use more marking paint to indicate what was going where next. Inevitably, the changes started coming, and we ended up doubling the size of the pond to around 20 by 20 feet and 3 feet deep. The upper stream ended up being 30 feet long by roughly 4 feet wide, and the depth of the stream averaged 8 inches.

The stone bubbler that was removed from the pondless waterfall was incorporated into the far side of the pond, creating visual interest as you look out from inside the house, since the waterfalls face away from the house. Drainage coming off the roof needed to be redirected around the space, so much care was taken to ensure the drainage pipe would exit under the new dock planks, thus eliminating erosion on the beach. Sadly, this was not a design consideration of the builder on any of the other homes on the street, as they all were experiencing erosion and runoff issues after the rains.

With only one access point, the construction was completed from the inside area of the property, near the steps and out toward the lawn and the lake.

Upon changing the size of the pond, the filtration systems and pumps were adjusted to the most appropriate sizes. Two Aquascape 2500 Biofalls act as the main filtration system starting off the main set of falls. One AquaSurge 4000-8000 pump would feed the two filters, and a series of valves were installed to balance the flow. The boulder bubbler and a small planted wetland area are fed by an AquaSurge 4000, with valves installed to shut off the wetland feed in the wintertime while continuing to use the boulder bubbler as an aerator and a beautiful ice sculpture once the north winds begin to blow. These pumps are contained in a pump vault with a constructed skimming cove to help reduce the daily maintenance and keep a natural look. A small mag-drive pump was later installed in the vault to supply the spitting fountains with water. An inline irrigation filter was modified with filter material to restrict the flow as little as possible and keep the larger debris from clogging the lines.

Construction took place utilizing Neptune’s Water Gardens’ two-person crew and yours truly. We used a Bobcat MT52 to move materials, excavate soil and place boulders. Having a small crew allowed us to work at a comfortable pace while efficiently dealing with all the daily changes and surprises.

Finishing Touches

lower patio beach

As you descend the steps to reach the lower patio, beach and boat dock, the entire feature draws the eye to the pond and the lake vista beyond.

Since there was already an existing landscape, including irrigation, electrical outlets for the boat dock, pondless waterfall and low-voltage lighting, we had to find these items in the excavation area, reroute them around the excavation and coordinate with electricians to tap into the power. We also had to ensure there were plenty of circuits available for the pumps, the winter aerator for the boat dock and any other electrical needs associated with the landscape. Low-voltage lighting cable was staged throughout the pond area, making future connections to the entire lighting system much simpler. We were able to lay our plumbing along with some of the drainage pipe in the same trenches, saving us time once it came to finishing the drainage system toward the lake.

A simple planting scheme was designed around the pond and stream to soften the edges and provide accents and buffers between the house and the upper stream. The remaining landscape consists of native-type perennial plantings to support the birds and butterflies around the garden. The plantings provide a mix of color and texture through the seasons, and it will not require a tremendous amount of care or water. It also covers the entire ground space, eliminating the need for yearly mulching.

illuminated waterfall aquatic life

The illuminated waterfall and aquatic life come alive at night, creating a different, equally inviting atmosphere.

Overall, it was challenging trying to blend into the existing landscape while also giving the space a character of its own. Staying within a reasonable budget and utilizing our time wisely on-site despite the constant design changes was a challenge in its own right. The client kept telling me to be an artist and build something I would want in my own yard. This did cause the project overall to exceed the original budget, but the client and I agree that the results are subtle, yet spectacular.

The pond and waterfall are very simple, but the details in how we cut boulders into the wall and used other natural elements, such as driftwood from the lake edge just down the way, make the pond feel as if it had always occupied this space, with the patios and house built around it. Sitting by the pond and facing west at sunset provides a beautiful view over the lake, and the LED lighting creates a magical ambiance and experience. As time goes on and the waterlilies and other accent plants mature, this dynamic landscape feature will subtly change and delight over time.

The whimsical bronze, which we added last, provides some fun in an otherwise very natural setting. The addition of the koi was the finishing touch, reuniting our client with his relaxation ritual — feeding his fish in the evening, taking in a deep breath, experiencing the sounds of water and its inhabitants in the surrounding area and gaining a sense of peace and calm in an otherwise chaotic, digital world.

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