I received an email a few weeks ago from Blake Mullins, the consulting producer of a reality television show called “Home Free” on Fox. Its second season, which is hosted by professional contractor Mike Holmes and former NFL player Tim Tebow, began airing in June.
Blake took a particular interest in one of the contractors, Tommy Hill of Serenity Falls Watergardens & Landscaping, and invited me to journey down to the set in Dallas, Georgia, to meet Tommy and shoot some photos. He didn’t have to ask me twice — I was on a plane bound for Georgia a few days later!
Fox had originally sent Blake to the Atlanta Home Show in January to scout out landscapers for the show. But as fate would have it, it was a little early in the Atlanta landscaping season, so Tommy’s eye-catching display was one of the only garden-based exhibits at the show. Naturally, Blake’s interest quickly turned to ponds and water features. A long conversation led to an exchange of business cards and an exciting proposal to appear on a Fox show.
“I didn’t believe it at all,” Tommy admitted.
The scope of work was expanded a bit during contract negotiations, and Fox soon agreed to terms with Tommy to create a total of five water features for the show’s upcoming season.
“The Pond Guy of the South”
Unlike many high-profile network television contracts, Tommy’s did not include a hefty payday. Instead, Fox offered to compensate him with a host of marketing benefits, including showcasing his company’s logo on television, the Fox website and the show’s Facebook page. He was also given access to the professional video footage and photos from the show’s photographers, in addition to the rights to use the show’s logo on his truck. Fox also notified its local news affiliates that “The Pond Guy of the South” would appear on the show, which resulted in a boost of publicity in Snellvile and the metro-Atlanta area.
With everything in place, Tommy shared his ideas with the production team, which began matching products from Aqua Bella Designs and Blue Thumb with the different styles of houses selected for the show. As it turned out, the show’s Hollywood taste didn’t always jive with Tommy’s pro-bono budget, so Tommy had to rely on his creativity and expertise to keep the project feasible. At the end of the day, he estimates he donated between $45,000 and $50,000 of labor and materials to complete all five water features for the series.
Tommy is no stranger to doing business this way. Every year, he donates a free water feature for a worthwhile cause. Past recipients include the Snellville Veterans Memorial and Amy Copeland, a Georgia woman who lost her limbs in a zip lining accident. His charity work has appeared in national news outlets, including “Good Morning America.”
“I believe in marketing,” Tommy said. “You’ve got to think outside the box. By doing little stuff, I’m giving back to something I believe in.”
A Wish Come True
Although he didn’t realize it at first, Tommy would meet yet another recipient of one of his free water features during the filming of the show. All it would require was intercepting Tim Tebow.
Through the Make-A-Wish foundation, Justin, a terminally ill youth, got to meet his hero, co-host Tebow, on set while “Home Free” was in production. But in the end it was Tommy — and his ride — who actually stole the young man’s heart.
Justin first approached Tommy for an autograph after taking a liking to “The Pond Guy” painted on the side of his monster truck. Sensing the young man’s enthusiasm, Tommy knowingly asked him if he had ever driven a truck before. A few miles riding shotgun with Justin behind the wheel in an open field was all it took to spawn a new friendship.
Afterward, Tommy offered to build Justin’s family a pondless waterfall at their home. Some joyful tears and a few weeks later, the waterfall — not meeting Tebow — is practically all Justin raves about.
Nine Days, Five Features
Not every moment on set was a walk in the park. Tommy and his crew — two and, at times, three people — underwent a nine-day marathon that included a daily, four-hour round-trip commute in order to build all the features. They built a beautiful structure with two single basalt column features as an added luxury to the contestants’ living quarters. For the first house, they installed a triple basalt column feature. A second house featured a custom-made, two-tiered fire rock with water streaming from underneath, and Aqua Bella Design bubbling urns graced the yard of a third house.
The masterpiece, however, was saved for the show’s dream house. Tommy’s team arrived expecting to build a 15-foot pondless waterfall, but when the gazebo contractor backed out, the project instantly expanded to a 50-foot pondless work of art. Tommy stayed on-site for the duration of its construction, which totaled 44 hours of work over just three days. Luckily, he had enough liner on hand!
What he didn’t have, however, was the comfort of a normal course of business. Instead of going through the typical bidding process for a job, Tommy was subject to the rules of a reality television show, with a strict time frame and little regard for material and labor availability. Furthermore, he had to work simultaneously with all the other contractors who were solely focused on their own jobs. The show’s support staff was helpful in fulfilling his needs, but there was an unavoidable “hurry-up-and-wait” mentality as the show went on.
Always a Soldier
Tommy considers his work on the show a learning experience that brought him back to his days in the armed forces.
“I was able to test my time management,” Tommy said. “But I also was able to see the weaknesses in my guys. I could see how far and how hard I could push them … like a soldier pushes his troops.”
When pressed about whether or not he would go through the process again, he did not hesitate in saying yes, especially considering the fact that a deserving homeowner would be the recipient of his work. Although he was not paid for the construction of his work, he said it was still rewarding to know that his manufacturers and distributors believed in him enough to support him on such an unusual project.
“I have to give 100 percent thanks — and I could not have done it without them — to Pond Builder,” he continued. “If it were not for those guys, I don’t think this would’ve been possible.”
Monrovia provided all plants and shrubs, and Stovall & Company contributed rocks, gravel and mulch.
Tommy stressed that although water features are not a necessity for a home in the way that electrical and plumbing work are essential, it’s still a special bonus.
“That was the key,” he said. “Doing this show is not only going to benefit me. It’s going to benefit everybody out there in the water garden industry. People will say, ‘Hey! I saw this on Home Free — can you get me something like this?’”
The production of season two has wrapped up, and although mum’s the word on which contestant won the dream home, Blake still raves about Tommy’s contributions to the show.
“When we look at this, we see Tommy in here at all hours of the night, cranking away with his amazing commitment to get this thing done,” Blake said. “Tommy, being the military guy he is, when he starts something, he’s going all the way until it’s done.”
Tommy Hill began doing water features more than 18 years ago. He started a full landscape company and soon changed the company to strictly water features. He found that creating beautiful water features was all he wanted to do. His company has been involved with some prestige builds in North America, such as the International Flower and Garden build at EPCOT Center, and has built water features for Richard Petty, the Omaha Nebraska Zoo, Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Pike Nurseries in Georgia and many more. Tommy has won many awards for his water features.
Tommy has been a Certified Aquascape Contractor (CAC) and a Certified Installer of Pond Builder, a line of water feature system. He has written articles for pond and koi magazines and has been featured numerous times on television and radio. With years of experience building more than 1,000 water features, he knows how to bring serenity to people’s lives and property by building water features for others as if they were his own. www.serenityfallswatergardens.com