What are your early memories of having fun in the water? Playing in the creek in your hometown park; fishing in the farm pond at a family reunion; swimming at a lake during a family vacation? For me, I grew up alongside a river and near gravel quarries in northern Illinois. I can’t even remember a swimming pool in our town until around age 10. My point is that there are many options and opportunities available to us to help our clients and prospects create unique and memorable water- and nature-related experiences for their families and friends. In today’s fast-paced, “processed” and “chemical” world, there is a strong desire and demand for activities that bring family and friends together; create long-lasting, quality memories; and offer relaxation and a focus on nature. Fortunately for those of us in the pond industry, this desire provides additional business and artistic opportunities. I’m talking about the resurgence of the “old swimming hole,” but in an enhanced state. Remember good, clean fun? It’s back…
Stop to Smell the Roses (or Lotus)
My plunge into the “living water” industry started in August of 1989. At this time my clients were searching for viable ways to develop their personal space as a respite for renewal after a challenging day or week at work or at home raising children. There was a growing awareness that life was moving “fast and furious,” and there existed a need to restore oneself, relax and reconnect with family and friends. Fortunately for our industry, recreating a bit of nature for our clients—one that is reminiscent of enjoyable times and experiences they grew up with—fulfilled that need! Today, people are continuously pushed to incorporate technology and instant gratification as a way to expedite and simplify our work and our family lives. There is a growing population that is trying to slow down, smell the roses and look for natural and alternative ideas that help ground and restore them.
Opportunity Is Knocking
For years or even decades in some cases, water feature builders have enjoyed the opportunities and intense gratification of building beautiful water gardens, koi ponds, streams and waterfalls. These creations have been the perfect segue to the next level: naturally filtered swimming ponds and pools (NSPs). In Europe, naturally filtered swimming ponds and pools have been around for decades—actually, centuries, if you look back to the Roman times.
The concepts incorporated in naturally filtered ponds and pools are not new. Reinvented techniques, along with the new technology of today, have updated and perhaps educated people, offering better understanding of principles involved. Harbingers of our industry have created new business opportunities for naturally filtered swimming ponds without having to reinvent the wheel. But, before plunging in, be warned and educated regarding the life-critical safety issues that you must incorporate when participating in this aspect of the water feature industry.
Enhancing “The Pond”
For the last 10 to 12 years, I have noticed a trend with my clients to further develop the concept of an ornamental water garden into something that is much more expansive, more interactive and easier to maintain. I have always been a believer in and promoter of interaction with the water, so it was a logical transition to provide easy, inviting and safe access to the water…or at least to the water’s edge. Voilà…a beach!
As my clientele expanded to those with multiple residences, the properties became spacious and oftentimes wonderfully remote, allowing the ponds to increase in size. With larger ponds—from one-quarter acre to several acres—opportunities such as islands, peninsulas, expansive aquatic gardens, boardwalks, piers, fishing, boating, slides, jumping rocks, scuba diving and floating rafts became possible. Let the fun, the toys and the relaxation begin!
As with traditional swimming pools, it is nice to have at least 18 to 24 inches of water depth along the pond edge. Accomplishing that in a “pond” environment is also very beneficial, due to the fact that it not only increases the useable area of the pond but also dramatically increases the water volume. To provide a “hard edge” at the shoreline, we typically incorporate formations of weathered stone or use a dark-colored, engineered retaining wall block. The advantage of using concrete interlocking retaining wall block is that it allows the lawn to run all the way to the water’s edge, yet provides a substantial, unseen structure underneath. This “lawn-to-the-edge” finish is quite attractive and yet allows support all the way to the pond edge.
Not every family will be interested in having a swimming pond over a swimming pool, because not everyone is going to be comfortable with water that is not absolutely crystal clear and completely free of algae. Having said that, there are ways to not only biologically, but also mechanically filter the pond water…the costs do increase as the water clarity demands increase. This is not to infer that swimming ponds are not clear. Swimming ponds are a “living” body of water with creatures and fine particles of free-floating algae, whereas traditional swimming pools are sterile of life. Together with my associate and good friend, Anthony Archer-Wills, we have designed and constructed swim ponds in excess of 12 feet deep, and the clarity is so good that one can see all the way to the bottom of the ponds.
One of the key elements to having a successful and clear pond is to establish a strong ecosystem that is able to thrive on and manage the nutrient load within the pond. As most pond builders know, algae can be an annoyance in the spring, but it is a normal occurrence.
The worst thing a pond owner can do to a properly constructed pond is to use an algaecide to treat or “kill” a temporary algae situation. Since the algaecide does not remove the nutrients from the water, it becomes only a temporary visual solution, possibly upsetting the pond’s biological balance.
When planning for a low-maintenance, naturally filtered swimming pond, there are many examples, both young and quite ancient, to look back on for ideas and techniques. One of the most commonly used techniques Anthony and I incorporate is a “down-flow” gravel filter that is heavily planted with various aquatic plants, such as Iris, Arrow Arum, Blue Pickerel Rush, Common Rush and a few others. When considering the best aquatic plants for any particular climate and unique conditions that a project might have, I reach out to Kelly Billings of Maryland Aquatics for advice, recommendations and plant material. We prefer to minimize the number of varieties used in any one water feature, and plant in large masses for visual effect. If too many varieties are used it can appear visually confusing and “weedy.”
Typically the filter pond, or filtration portion of the swimming pond, will have a minimum of 50 percent of the surface area of the swimming portion of the pond. Based on the climate and “load” of the swimming pond, the filtration pond is structured to be at least 3 feet deep, with gravels of various sizes placed in layers on top of a perforated manifold, set on the filter pond floor. Usually the gravel in the center area of the filter pond is kept approximately 18 inches below the normal water level so as to allow for lilies (and hardy and tropical aquatics where possible) to be included in the planting and provide wonderful displays of color.
For a swimming pond to function and filter properly (both biologically and mechanically), water should be circulated in such a manner so as to minimize “dead” zones in the swim and filter area. The suction manifold on the bottom of the filter area should not only be sized properly but also laid out in such a manner so as to pull equally through the gravel media.
Since many of our swimming ponds, even those with streams and waterfalls, do not have extreme elevation changes, we are able to incorporate fractional horsepower pumps into the circulation system. As I mentioned earlier, be aware that there are different safety concerns with water features that are designed to be swim ponds, as opposed to aquatic water gardens. I will not be detailing those differences in this article, except to say that external pumps should be used and these pumps must be properly grounded. The pumps I most often use and recommend are the EasyPro line of EXP and EXT series. Both of these styles of pump have proven designs and relatively low operating costs and are easy to service.
An exciting offering for our clients that actually adds value to their larger and deeper ponds is wet or dry fire hydrants, which can be installed to provide a critical water supply for fighting fires. We call these ponds “Fire Ponds.” A one-quarter-acre pond (10,000 square feet) could potentially store 150,000 to 200,000 gallons of water.
Most of the ponds that we have designed and/or constructed in the last 10 years automatically have this feature designed in them. The expense for this option is miniscule when installed during the construction phase. The additional cost for the required equipment is typically less than $1,000, not including the plumbing from the pond bottom to the hydrant location. An added benefit is that most insurance companies will provide homeowners reduced rates for having a hydrant on the property, offsetting some of the construction costs.
Offering your clients new and exciting ideas to contemplate often increases not only their enthusiasm, but also their participation and backing of the project. Fire pits, fire rocks, Japanese garden themes, pizza ovens, outdoor kitchens, stonewalls, weeping walls, grottos, butterfly gardens, bird sanctuaries, night lighting and solar heating panels are just a few examples. Be creative, be brave and always reach out to associates for assistance in areas in which you are not an expert! Remember: this is about the clients and providing them with the best finished product!
Last but not least, every naturally filtered swimming pond and any additional offerings suggested must be compatible not only with your design and the location of the pond, but also the passions and desires of the client. This requires you get to know the inherent nature of the area and the inherent nature of the client. I have found both to be very rewarding!