The Vital Basics of Rock Watershaping

It’s All About the Rock!

There is an art to rock watershaping, and each individual brings to a project what he puts into it. Without a discerning eye for nature and a talent for this artistry, many man-made structures don’t achieve the balance and appearance of nature. I am a strong believer in studying not only the masters of watershaping, but also the natural landscape. After spending time in the Smoky Mountains several years ago, my initial love for the flow of water and the geological processes of slowly developing landscapes increased profoundly.

Total Immersion

Beautiful, weathered limestone was used for this pond-free feature. Only six large stones make up the fall and stream.

Beautiful, weathered limestone was used for this pond-free feature. Only six large stones make up the fall and stream. (Click Image to Expand)

There is nothing like being in that landscape. No picture can give you the richness, smells and sounds of each angle of the landscape. Every niche holds something interesting: a small pool teeming with fry, a rock face sprouting plant life, the divot in a small rock from water erosion … it is amazing! I have spent hours listening to the different sounds of falling water, from trickles to splashes to the roar of a fall spilling over a sheer rock cliff that nearly vibrates in my chest. The Smokies inspired me to continue studying waterfalls, ponds and streams along with the foliage in order to mimic nature. I approach every project with the desire to do just that: build something that looks like Mother Nature herself put it there.

So where do I start? Personally, I have an instant vision for every property I walk onto.

 Unfortunately, I cannot always do what I want because I will not be the one living on that land. Therefore, my first concern is that of the clients’ needs and what aesthetically appeals to them. Sometimes their expectations and what will actually work are completely different. Getting to know the client is key to understanding what you will need in order to satisfy both of you. The clients’ landscapes must fit their lifestyles, fit their budgets and be aesthetically appealing to them, but also must adhere to your professional standards. You may also need to learn a bit of tactful persuasion and be armed with a plethora of information in order to guide the client in the right direction. Whether you are an old pro at handling boulders or are new or searching for new ideas, it is important to adhere to two basics: choice and placement.

These two things are key to creating a landscape with visual and natural appeal.

Choosing the Right Rock for the Right Place

"Glacial Erratic" granite rocks make up this two-stone waterfall. Years of moving ice give these rocks a naturally weathered appearance. This was supposed to be a retaining wall for an upper and lower patio.

“Glacial Erratic” granite rocks make up this two stone waterfall. Years of moving ice give these rocks a naturally weathered appearance. This was supposed to be a retaining wall for an upper and lower patio. (Click Image to Expand)

In choosing rocks, the pond builder should hand-select rocks at a local site. Staying true to the geology of the area is very important. In creating water features, whether it is a koi pond or waterfall, look for weathered or smooth stone that has been touched by water in the past.

Choose one type of rock and stick to it. Mixing different types of stone can create a chaotic, man-made look when you are striving to imitate nature. If the feature you are trying to mimic is from a different region, choose rocks from that region. However, there are some things you just cannot borrow from, like a lush, woodsy stream of smooth pebbles plopped down in the desert.

Size Matters

Bigger is better! Scale is important in the design, but you will need a solid foundation of large boulders to tie your landscape to the ground. Mixing sizes will allow for flow and filling, keeping in mind the overall look you want to achieve. In addition, rocks should be chosen for the area in which they will be placed. Use bleached-out rocks for sunny places and mossy ones for shady places. Again, studying geological features, including streams and rock falls, gives you a great advantage in both choosing and placing the stone. Look at the boulders from every angle and determine where it might sit, how it will face, what the purpose of that boulder will be. At the job site, I often change my mind when reevaluating the boulders as I group them in preparation for placement.

Placement: The Best Rock for the Job?

I spend a great deal of time placing rock. A lot of time. My goal is to convey a formation that appears as if it has been in place forever, so each and every large boulder I choose has a purpose. I begin with grouping rocks as they are unloaded, keeping in mind the purpose I chose it for, and this is usually based on where the rock came from in the first place. Which face is weathered? Which side will give the most visual appeal? Each and every large-scale boulder needs to be assessed at the quarry, on the job site and again during placement. Every angle should give a viewer the opportunity to see, hear and feel every nuance you create: those niches in nature.

The “less is more” and “simple elegance” approaches were utilized in this serene, Japanese-inspired garden.

The “less is more” and “simple elegance” approaches were utilized in this serene, Japanese-inspired garden. (Click Image to Expand)

Nature gives you all the answers you need, but it takes time to place rock the way it would be found. Flat rocks should lay flat, not be set upright — unless the intention is create the look of a sheared-off, fallen rock. The grain and stratification of the rock must all go the same way. I’ve seen many poorly contrived features that use beautiful and expensive rock and wonder if the purpose of the feature was to look like a pile in a quarry. Less is more when it comes to large projects. Placing boulders as accents and blending into a landscape has a much more dramatic effect than laying borders in a “string of pearls.”

Additional Considerations

Never let large, heavy stones touch the liner. Protect, protect, protect the liner!
Never allow a fork operator or excavator with teeth unload rocks by haphazardly grabbing them, marring their surfaces! Protect rock surfaces with pads when strapping them for lifting. Keep the excavation simple and let the stones dictate the water’s edge. Your placement should control the shape of a pond, not the hole you dig.

When working with larger stones, always take care to protect the liner.

When working with larger stones, always take care to protect the liner. (Click Image to Expand)

A problem I find in some water features I have been called to service is the use of too many small rocks. It’s an easy option for many pond builders, and it may look good, but the aftermath can be challenging. Cleaning a feature is difficult to begin with, but if you step on the wrong spot, plan on spending time repiling all those little rocks. Don’t let your time constraints rule your art! Plan on extra time for careful and correct placement.

Lush vegetation, cool reflective water and the bubbling sounds of brooks and falls are soothing and enjoyable. Transforming a blank canvas to do this — and do it well — takes many special techniques, time and knowledge. But never forget to spend time considering, planning and executing the primary basics: rock choice and placement. Evolve each project from below the earth, tying it into the ground and making it a part of the surrounding landscape.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply