Creating living hillside art for a local florist
Mitchell’s Orland Park Florist is a staple to Orland Park, Illinois. You can’t talk to a dozen married couples without at least a few saying Mitchell’s had provided all the arrangements for their wedding. They have a perfect location that you find yourself passing by daily.
Ever since I began my journey getting into building water features, I would see this small hillside along their stairway, and my creative wheels would turn. The space was 10 feet wide and 16 feet long with 5 feet of elevation.
I decided to pop in one day with a couple of Aquascape Inspiration Guides and make my pitch. The next day I returned with a rendering and got the green light.
Little did I know that Mitchell’s Orland Park location was celebrating the 50th anniversary of their 1973 opening. (The company was established back in 1916.) A business with such a historic reputation of providing their art to countless memories for so many, needed my art to be reflective of the standard they set. With that, I set out to design a balanced canvas that was beautiful both inside and outside the liner.
For the pondless waterfall materials we went with six large Aquablox basins, including the pump vault, giving us nearly 200 gallons of water storage. The system was powered by an Aquascape SLD 5000-9000 GPH Adjustable Flow Pond Pump. To ensure this water feature wasn’t limited to just daylight hours, we used nine Aquascape 1-watt LED garden and pond lights.
Whenever I can, I prefer using a single liner for the whole feature, including the basin. For the design and scale, we went with a 10-by-30-foot, 45-mil, fish-safe EPDM liner. To protect the liner, we purchased enough woven microgrid geotextile underlayment to sandwich both the ground side and rock side of the liner. For curb appeal, I wanted an ornamental fountain piece, and the medium stacked-slate sphere perfectly filled that goal.
For stone selection we could’ve gone in many different directions. However, knowing ahead of time that this build would be without an excavator, hand-sized boulders were needed. The obvious choice for me is Wisconsin granite cobble. I love the vibrance of blues and reds they provide and the range of sizes from 4 to 24 feet. We went with 4 total tons, with 1 ½ tons of medium and large flint stone.
Day 1: Clearing and digging a pondless waterfall
The Day 1 objective was to clear all the landscaping and dig out the Aquablox basin. This hillside sits behind a 2-foot-tall cement retaining wall. This whole area was technically above ground level. It didn’t take a long to find out that most of the filler used to build this hillside was chunks of fractured cement mixed with stubborn roots from previous trees that originally occupied this space. After a little more grunt work than expected, our Day 1 objective was still achieved.
Day 2: Aquablox assembly
Going into Day 2, we found out our stone and materials delivery wouldn’t be arriving until the afternoon. So, we took this opportunity to clean out the basin area of a few remaining roots and used an angle grinder plus sledgehammer to cut cement. I over-dug for depth and width to be able to add a sand layer for extra protection. Once our delivery arrived, we hopped right into Aquablox assembly. Next, we layered geotextile fabric, the 45-mil liner and another layer of geotextile fabric. The extra time spent prepping the basin area allowed for easy construction of the Aquablox basin and pump vault with extension.
I then spent the remaining hour of the day cleaning up the area, as there is a lot of vehicle and foot traffic near the location. I also took the time to look over my stone selection. The creative process of finally arranging boulders into waterfalls would begin on Day 3; however, I had already started visualizing my first two waterfalls.
Day 3: Pondless waterfall construction
Day 3 began at dawn. I took to the forest to harvest some moss and find some wood elements to incorporate. I found some gems that really spoke to me, reshaping this design entirely. When I arrived at the job site I chose the largest boulder first. I stood it up as a frame rock of the first waterfall. I wanted that first fall to be dramatic, so we made it a 12-inch drop. The other frame rock tapered, showing me a backside passage for water to travel behind. This kicked off a series of the easiest decisions — each stone tells you what you need next.
After the second waterfall, we were 24 inches up the hill, so I started leveling off the upper pooling area where I intended to place my medium sphere. This led to a major roadblock in the form of a 30-inch-diameter tree stump that forced me to pivot the sphere location. This pivot was a blessing because the final resting spot of the sphere made this feature visible from all angles.
The new design created 2 feet of elevation I had to fill in the center of this canvas. Looking over at the oak tree limbs I found, I saw a V-shaped bend that I turned into a spillway fed by the sphere water. I named this part of the feature “Mossy Falls.” It organically rolled downhill to rejoin the first falls, becoming my favorite part of this entire build. Next, I made a second weir fed by the sphere water to join the main falls as well. Next I completed two more falls, making six total. I delivered water to the sphere and created a mini wetland with a small Aquablox. With the waterfall flowing beautifully, the shift was to the details. I used a massive tree stump as a wingwall and another stump to crown the top before creating several planter beds, which we filled with fall annuals.
The variety of textures I was able to use, led by the wood and moss, really helped me achieve my goal — to give Mitchell’s Orland Park Florist a living art piece reflective of the quality art they provide to their customers.
About the Author
John Underwood is the owner of Underwood Water Gardens LLC. He has four years of pondbuilding experience, but this is his first year operating his own company. He is a U.S. Marine Corps Combat Veteran, a husband and a father of two daughters. He fell in love with building water features and never looked back.