n my book, the Mother-of-all water effects for a private property is a ponds. I don’t care what size of pond you create, ponds are serious things and not for wusses. (that would be my highly intelligent phrase for the faint-of-heart, or those unwilling to work).
The Illustrious She told me to get out of the water long enough to write a few points
first rocks placed
of learning for those who may be considering one or more water effects so a) you can get some inspiration, b) save yourself some heartache and money and c) get going tomorrow, on Mother’s Day, 2015, because as my husband says, and I quote, “there is nothing that makes a woman happier than the sound of running water that simultaneously impresses a lot of people.” Hmm. I’ll take the happy part and proudly admit that yes, I love the compliments the water effects provide.
Okay. To business and the backstory. The pond is the third water effect we put on our property, so we had some learning.
First, Rog pissed me off so badly one week that he decided to put a stream under our deck. I legitimately don’t recall what happened. I just remember that as penance, it donned on a full-body yellow rain suit on a Friday night and started working in a
rainstorm. By Sunday, he had it trenched, lined and it was operating the next week. The bid we received was four grand ($4K). He spent less than $200 on materials, and of this, the pump was $150. That stream lasted 8 years, and 2 years ago we had it upgraded by a professional outfit. That meant the lining was removed, the basin and water pump system improved, and the liner was a better quality. Because it was better sealed, the pressure, flow and sound was dramatically altered. The upgraded cost was less than $500.
From this we learned the value of
- the catch basin (the point at which the water starts).
- the water gauge. this is a white condom-looking thingy that regulates the water flow. It’s hidden under a flat rock. We never had one of these, so in the dry months, the water would evaporate and if we weren’t watching it, or went on a trip, the stream would run dry, thereby almost killing our pump. Get one of these. Important, like air.
- the seal. Anyone can purchase thick rubber to seal a stream or pond. The key isn’t so much tacking it down. It’s concreting the edges into primary rocks on corners and bends. Second to this is the concreting the ledges. Every good stream or waterfall has ledges. This is the #1 area where water seeps out, thus killing the entire reason for having a water effect in the first place.
This is foundational information, and was used in creating our second water effect, which was a small pond on the drive-way into our property. This time around, Rog just up and one day, decided to “fix” what the original landscapers installed. What that really means is the landscapers dug a very shallow (18 inch deep) hole, lined it, placed crushed gravel, installed a lame water sprayer inside and then placed plants around the edge. Because the hole was shallow and the ridge too close to the center, much of the water left the pond. It was constantly draining. The small circumference didn’t allow for a water gauge and it wasn’t deep enough (or organic) to sustain plant life. That left us with a stinking, drying, mud heap that did no more than encourage the Red Nile Virus (a passing pseudo plague in the Northwest a few years back that killed animals, and was perpetuated by mosquitos that grew in bogs like the one we created).
headwaters- catch basin
The fix: Rog ripped it all out, dug down four feet, expanding the size, reinstalled a new liner (the dig had several shelves that are common in small ponds). He used an adjustable water prayer that had adjustable height and width levels. It also had adjustable types of sprays.
The granddaddy of the property has had three lives, the first was when the original owner expanded a natural pond. He put some rocks on one side, used a lot of bad cement and trenched a single, small hose to the top. It was simple and ugly, but we knew it was going to take a lot of work so we left it for about four years. Until the pump stopped running. For 4 years, the pond sat dormant, without running water. What we did do, however, was keep it stocked with trout that we fed everyday, and eventually grew to be the size of small salmon. No frogs (cuz they ate them all) but fun for catch and release.
the water splits around a center island with a palm tree
Phase 2 was when we brought in the landscaping crew 2 years ago to overall the pond area. The ceo (and designer, really, a former marine who graduated in horticulture!) did a lot of work himself and said something I’d pass along to all of you considering a pond.
“Tie the major pieces of the pond into other areas of the property.” In this case, we live in the Northwest, so he suggested a few things.
- use native plants, slow-growing pines that are about 5′ tall, thin branches and be placed around the pond, but also in other areas. this is a ‘foundation’ tree. Also very impervious to illness etc.
- use large, native rocks. In our case, the blue stones that could be cut from quarries. These were/are enormous. Because we have (stupidly) elected to landscape 2.5 of 5 acres (ah, youth), these stones were quite large.
- the sub point here is that he used the back loader to strategically inset rocks into edge of the pond. this had the effect of making the pond look much bigger, although it wasn’t
- the elevation of the rocks around the pond. He recommend using these same rocks in open plant areas to tie it together.
Several rocks were placed on one side of the pond and in between, he created a flat area for a “beach,” which isn’t really large, but is wide enough for a rubber boat and 4-6 people.This had the result of providing sitting areas for people by the pond.A note on the materials. Sand wasn’t used, because he said the rain washes the sand away (into the pond) and sand also encourages grass to grow. Use the soft pebbles instead. Soft on the feet. No weeds. No erosion. After 2 years, no deterioration at all. What wasn’t necessary.
A pond liner.
This pond is naturally fed from underground water but that doesn’t mean it always remains full. It has a natural water table that sits at about 3 feet tall, or about waist height. This is way too low, because the center of the pond is nearly 6 feet deep.
Now, if you have a flat area that is in a back year, isn’t on a slope and you don’t have water table issues, you will take the traditional route of digging, putting in a liner, and to the degree you deem necessary, you will need to put down 3 levels of rocks. Big ones to keep the liner in place (in strategic locations), then what is commonly referred to as ‘river rock’ to for weight, (and to keep the liner from bubbling up) and then finally, you will put down heavy sand. This seeps into all the cracks and crevices, and is the basis for supporting the plant life you will eventually grow. Remember that the goal of any pond, no matter how small or large, is a self-sustaining ecosystem. Unless you do this properly, you will just have a big mud-bog, or a pretty water effect that is dead.
In our case, we actually drained the pond (we transferred the dozen pre-historic-size trout to our hot tub, which we had also drained and put in fresh water, because we were assured it would be a one day project and the animals would live). It took two huge sump-pumps but we flushed thousands of gallons of water over the edge and down the hill. The landscapers were rushing to put down the liner, place the rocks etc, and after a week, realized it was an exercise in futility.
They had failed to run the numbers—velocity of the underground water, the force of the water table, and the simple fact that nature would not tolerate a condom on its tummy. No matter what they did, they could not control the bubbling of the rubber (which we wanted to prevent water evaporating in the summer). After a week, the trout weren’t happy, and so we decided it was time for them to meet their maker, and they served as dinner for some of the workers.
Round two of this experiment then was to work with what we had. In other words, we installed a hose, ran it to the center and just accepted the fact that in the summer months, we would fill the pond to the level we desired. Conversely, in the winter months, when the Northwest Monsoons began, we’d end up taking our chances that the darn thing didn’t overflow.
- Removing existing structure. That was the ripping out of the original waterfall
- Creating a ‘head basin’ nearly to our fence line. This was intended to replicate the headwaters of a waterfall. Nearby is the underground pump.
- Three-level waterfall that split in the center. This was done to provide an interesting look, but also increase the flow and sound.
- Large stones (stones are supposed to be bigger than rocks- ha), around the property and then around the pond. This of course meant that our lawns were completely destroyed by the loader, and we just realized it would take a few months to grow back. It was worth it.
- The trench for the intake valve that in near the side of the pond, trenched up alongside the waterfall, and then into the pump at the top.
- Electric. This was accessed by the electric that operates the gate, and we already had the property outfitted with some power. However, we had to upgrade the power, and at the same time, we bit the bullet and laid underground wiring for the lights on the path. Since everything was all tore-up, it was the best option.
After that, the process went super fast. The large rocks were in place in 2 days. The waterfall itself was trenched and layed out also in about 2 days (I was taking pictures). The only delay was when they had to use the concrete. This was essential (oh, they laid the ultra-thick rubber underneath of course). The concrete needed 2 days to dry. (don’t forget the power that must be installed before its complete. We had the spotlights placed in the center of the waterfall, and then on certain features to highlight the waterfall and basin. On day 6, the pump was running and the waterfall tested. The crew spent several days testing the waterfall to make sure it had no leaking. Once this was done, then it was time to landscape with the plants.
I know you are wanting to get an idea of what this cost, but it’s rather tough, because we had other things done. However, our landscaper “guestimated” that the pond part would normally be “about $20,000.” Now, I know from the cost of the rocks (1-2K) and the labor (a week) they probably make $10K on the pond part. Perhaps a little less if you subtract all the trees and plants. However, we have other landscaper/contractor friends, and every last one of them said that they’d have charged $60k for the pond alone.
Talk about getting scalped (them, not us).
the final result
Finding the right person
Now, I also have to give you another bit of advice. When I was first bidding this project, I stopped in at 4 places. Three of the four used the same process. 1. Create “the plan,” for 1-2 thousand. 2. Scope the project (another thousand). 3. Buy the materials (flat fee, they don’t show you the cost). 4. Half up front, then pay the rest. 5. The rest when its done.
I had no problem with steps 3-5. It was the 1, 2 and 3 that got to me. Remember, I come from a business background. That means I appreciate scope of work, and I appreciate the need to pay. What I don’t like is lack of transparency. I want to see what’s being spent and I didn’t like the notion of playing for a plan when they had no responsibility for implementation.
So through blind luck, I went to a nursery, starting talking with a “billy-bob” type of guy who happened to be the owner of the place. I tell him my plight. He tells me, through somewhat of a half-whistle that emerged from the gape in his two front teeth, that “the fella I need to speak with is the person standing over there.” The man happens to be the 6’4 Marine I mentioned in the beginning of this novel-like blog.
Here is HIS process. 1) assess the area. 2) listen to his vision. 3) trust him. 4) pay him as he goes. If we don’t like the work, he stops. If we do, we keep paying.
Boy, was it nice. (by the way, after graduating, he trained under the company that puts in the Four Seasons waterfalls, so when people joke that we have a “Four Seasons-type pond” they have no idea they are actually right!).
We saw the costs for the plants. We agreed to a 10% mark-up with the contractor for his time and effort, knowing that he was purchasing at wholesale and we were getting a great deal.
Okay. That’s the end of this blog. Leave me comments or questions and I’ll try and delve into more details as asked for by readers.