Swimming Pools Meet Ecosystem Ponds

Published on June 30, 2021

When we arrived on the scene (top left), the 20-by-40, ordinary gunite pool was used for only four to five months a year. After removing and discarding the existing pool, we started constructing the recreation pond.

By Tom Dieck and Dylan Arlotta, TRD Designs and Aquascapes East

With every new advancement in the pond world, it’s hard to believe that merely 50 years ago the best chance most homeowners had at realizing their water-garden dreams was finding an adventurous mason willing to attempt the feat of creating a small concrete pool in their front yard, then crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.

Although concrete is still used in pond construction, the costs and labor-intensive process have made it less desirable for many homeowners and installers. Development of new materials such as flexible EPDM liner has opened the door for water feature artists across the country to explore new solutions for bringing nature closer to home. Times change, and our perceptions of what was possible often fall by the wayside.

Concrete holes in the ground have given way to rubber-lined ponds that are artistically hidden with rock boulders and river gravel. With the incorporation of aquatic plantings, fish and underwater lighting achieving the natural oasis our grandparents couldn’t even dream of is now easier than ever. Witnessing the results of these advancements leads to the inevitable question — what’s next? How can we as water feature artists or nature-loving homeowners bring ourselves closer to the natural elements that we all value? For those of us adventurous enough to be ahead of the curve, the answer might just be a recreation pond.

Looking down from the top of the main waterfall gives you a great perspective of the scale of this project.

A recreation pond is best defined as a constructed ecosystem that caters to all forms of aquatic and semi-aquatic life, with a focus on the creatures we hold most dear — humans!

Think of a recreation pond as a hybrid between a swimming pool and an ecosystem-based water garden. Swimming pools need no explanation, as they have become more or less ubiquitous in our modern lives. Ecosystem-based ponds, on the other hand, are human-made water gardens that achieve clean, crystal-clear waters by utilizing the natural processes of nature. Combining the classic swimming pool with the ecosystem pond can result in a stunning backyard oasis that holds much more allure than all but the most extravagant poolscape.

No set of written words can explain how refreshing it feels on a midsummer’s day to trade in the stress of work and a hot, sweaty T-shirt for the sanctity of a swimsuit and a plunge into the backyard swimming pool. Maybe it’s just a quick dip to cool off or a float on a raft with a cocktail in hand. Either way, while you are in that pool, you’re probably thinking, “It doesn’t get much better than this!”

If it were still your grandparents’ time, you’d be right — but times have changed! Recreation ponds have the potential to put a whole new spin on this age-old summer ritual. Although your grandparents may have had the luxury of a private backyard swimming pool, many others were no strangers to cooling off in the local stream or pond as a way to beat the summer heat and spend some quality time with the family. A recreation pond is a way to recapture this connection to nature without having to leave the solace of your own backyard.

Recreation pond construction can take many forms, but most features follow a few simple rules and processes. Similar to an ecosystem pond, a hole is excavated by digging into the earth to create shelves of varying depths until the desired depth is achieved in the central area of the pond — usually 6 to 10 feet. After applying a thin layer of sand to the shelves and geotextile underliner to all the exposed surfaces, a single piece of EPDM rubber liner is installed into the entire excavated area. Placing large boulders along all the vertical transitions and applying gravel to all the horizontal shelves that were created during excavation will completely hide the rubber liner and leave a very natural appearance.

By incorporating bridges, stone steppers and a large built in fire pit there is plenty of places to relax and enjoy nature.

Keys to Circulation

The secret to ecosystem success is literally in the gravel. The gravel applied to these shelves provides a ton of surface area for natural bacteria to colonize. Once established, these invisible powerhouses will be busy filtering the pond on a microscopic level.

To help efficiently filter the water without the use of unsightly pool-style filtration, some tricks of the trade may be incorporated, including wetland filtration. Wetland filters are essentially separate bodies of water that appear shallow and lushly planted with a variety of aquatic plants. Water is slowly pumped 3 to 5 feet to the bottom of these pools and up through layers of gravel before passing through a layer of plant roots and returning to the main pond. By circulating the water of the recreation pond through a constructed wetland, any floating sediment is captured and converted into beautiful foliage.

Keep in mind that when a body of water is deeper than 3 or 4 feet, it becomes necessary to mix the water from the lower depths with that of the shallower depths to achieve a water quality that is uniform. By digging a large trench across the bottom of the deepest area of the pond during excavation, we provide a means to make this mixing easy. By installing a layer of Aquablox, or durable plastic blocks meant to hold tremendous weight loads while maintaining an open space, in the very bottom of the pond, we create a space for pumped water. These blocks are then covered with a mosaic of bluestone pieces with 4-to-6-inch gaps between the stones. Placing a thin layer of 2-to-3-inch gravel in these gaps will cover the Aquablox while still allowing the water to escape through the gaps. This results in convection-style circulation that mixes the water within the pond and never allows sediment to settle in the deep section.

Also consider setting up regeneration zones, or pockets of shallow aquatic plantings set alongside the main swimming area. Made popular by European-style swimming ponds, these plantings not only help to soften and naturalize the pond edge but also provide added natural filtration.

Bells & Whistles

Recreating nature and utilizing natural biological processes to achieve a visually attractive, low maintenance work of art is a key feature of any recreation pond. Understanding how to cater these installations to the wild side within us is the key to creating an interactive feature that blows swimming pools out of the water! Here are a few of the bells and whistles our team likes to incorporate into our designs.

From above (top right), you can clearly see to the bottom of the 8-foot-deep swimming pond. We terraced the hillside with native boulders found on site, allowing us to construct a waterfall that appears to come out of the hillside naturally.

Large, flat, natural boulders that overhang the water’s surface can provide a great spot to jump the rocks, go all in and show off that cannonball you’ve been perfecting.

Ever hear of a swim tunnel? They’re not just for kids anymore. The feeling of swimming through a tunnel underwater is the ultimate in backyard adventure. Using sturdy, large-diameter culvert pipe, we create a tunnel that is completely disguised by rock work. Swim into the hidden entrance and surface again in a completely different part of the pond.

Or, if you prefer wading over splashing, add a beach area. These shallow transitions are a great place for kids to play, bringing the sandy beach experience right into the backyard.

Consider adding underwater furniture — what a concept! Sun decks, love seats and floating tables are just a few of the cool pieces that can be incorporated into the design to cater to human use without detracting from the natural appearance of the feature. After all, we are social creatures. When we hang out in the pool, it’s no different. Creating mini sub-surface patio areas on the shelves of the recreation pond that use the same materials as those surrounding the feature can provide natural spots for people to gather while in the water.

Finally, install underwater lighting to experience snorkeling in your recreation pond. Rediscover all the subsurface nooks and crannies as beams of light interact with water lily plantings and the glimmering koi that emerge from the darkness and cross through these beams of subtle light.

A Pool for All Seasons

Swimming pools are sanctuary spaces, without a doubt; however, they do need regular maintenance to keep them looking clean and regular treatments of chemical additives to keep them clear. However, the biggest downside to most poolscaped backyards is their limited use. Swimming pools in most parts of the country can only be used for a few months out of the year. Outside this brief summer window, the pool just sits there. Maybe it’s covered, or maybe it’s just gathering leaves and debris until next season. Most poolscapes act as an eyesore or a not-so-subtle reminder of work to come for most of the year.

From above (top right), you can clearly see to the bottom of the 8-foot-deep swimming pond. We terraced the hillside with native boulders found on site, allowing us to construct a waterfall that appears to come out of the hillside naturally.

Recreation ponds are a stunning sight in every season, 365 days a year. They provide a connection with nature and a focal point for any backyard oasis. Swimming pools only live up to their potential while you are swimming in them, while recreation ponds can be enjoyed from outside the water year-round.

As staycations become more popular and our desire to be connected with nature increases, recreation ponds are providing many of us with the solutions we have been searching for. With all the benefits that a recreation pond can add to your lifestyle, and knowing that the installation costs are similar to those of constructing a conventional swimming pool, one can only wonder what the backyard landscape in America may look like in the next 50 years!

Aqua UV

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