Whether it’s a bubbling fountain or a winding stream, water features add lasting interest and beauty to the landscape. Knowing how to create and maintain these features is a way to expand your offerings, keep clients happy and add a dynamic aspect to your designs.
“People are attracted by the sound and the motion of water,” says Chris Horwath, landscape sales and designer with Weiss Landscaping in Nevada City, California. “Years ago, ponds were incredibly popular, but ponds just sit there. Most clients have different expectations nowadays.”
Water features are often installed as part of a larger landscape design or drawn up as a part of a project that can be installed over time as budgets permit. Most residential features take a few days up to couple weeks, and the most commonly requested element, the pondless waterfall, typically runs about $8,000 to $15,000. More elaborate projects, such as a small stream with boulders, cost $20,000 to $30,000.
With a thorough examination of the site and proper planning, water features can work in most locations. “I don’t recall ever telling a client we couldn’t do a water feature, but factors that drive up the challenge and cost include steep hills, boulder outcroppings and difficult access,” Horwath says.
One of the most important aspects of the design process is communicating with clients from the beginning. “Clients may not really know what to ask for when they initially call,” says Kelly Ogden, director of revenue with Michael Hatcher & Associates in the Greater Memphis area. Another crucial aspect of communication is ensuring you and the client are talking about the same thing. “I need to know what a client expects when he says ‘waterfall’ to me,” says Tom Wambaugh, owner of Waterfall Gardens in Mohnton, Pennsylvania. “Does he want Niagara Falls or a meandering brook with small spills? There’s a huge difference in planning and budget, and I have to be able to describe all the options.”
Choose placement carefully.
“It all starts with the site,” Horwath says. Where he works in the foothills outside Sacramento, terrain is rugged with sloped back yards that have natural elevation. Yet, what the homeowner thinks is ideal for a waterfall, such as between two large existing boulders, may be inaccessible. Clients also may want a low spot in the yard filled in because they think it’s a natural place for a water feature. “But in the winter, that low spot may be a creek which can flood out and cause your work to settle or fill with silt,” Horwath says.
There’s also the dilemma of a flat site, which may require more work to create elevation. “A level yard can be an issue because you don’t want a waterfall rising up out of the lawn like a volcano,” says John Kenna, owner of Water, Color & Stone in the Greater Atlanta area. “Blend it with appropriate plant materials and mounding so that it appears to be part of the topography of the landscape. Work with nature, not against it.”
As far as installing koi ponds, the overhead canopy plays a role in the health and appearance of the pond. “Shade can be helpful for preventing algae, but too much means your water lilies won’t bloom, for example,” Wambaugh says.
A canopy also helps prevent predator issues like blue heron attacks by breaking up their flight paths so they’re less likely to swoop in and dine on your client’s fish.
Be aware of common pitfalls.
Not knowing what’s underground is the biggest bump in the road when building water features and constructing plumbing and electrical components. “We prepare clients up front by explaining there may be unknown challenges, such as unmarked irrigation lines or a chunk of bedrock right where we need to dig so that costs may be impacted accordingly,” Kenna says.
Size is also a consideration when it comes to ponds. “It’s far easier to balance a large ecosystem than a small one. We generally stay away from anything smaller than about 9 feet by 12 feet,” Wambaugh says. “Balance in a natural pond can be achieved by the proper ratio of aquatic plant materials, a little shade from overhead or plant selection, and a few fish. But a small body of water heats up faster, leading to algae blooms.”
Leaks are another issue. Even a hole the size of a ballpoint pen tip drains water constantly, which adds up, especially in places experiencing drought. Watch for sharp points of rock in the ground, and pad with scrap liner or underlayment beneath the liner such as a geotextile-type fabric.
“I need to know what a client expects when he says ‘waterfall’ to me.” Tom Wambaugh, Waterfall Gardens
More commonly, leaks occur if the liner is cut too short. “Most leaks are not going through the liner. They’re going over the liner,” says Horwath. If the ground is not compacted, it settles and the liner settles with it, causing water to spill over.”
Don’t cut close trying to make things too neat. Instead, allow an extra four to six inches of liner to overhang so you can make future repairs, if necessary.
All the landscape professionals we interviewed say education through classes, trade show seminars, vendors, and websites is helpful. “Sometimes contractors think, ‘Oh, this is so easy. It’s a hole, a liner and some rocks,” Horwath says. “But it’s a mistake to become serious without the education. It’s your reputation, and there are too many variables that can present challenges if you’re not educated.”
Expand your services.
Some contractors offer water feature maintenance plans, charging a few hundred dollars per service call. Annual plans usually include a spring cleaning and a winterization in colder climates. “About half of our clients opt for our maintenance plans, while the rest – typically, the younger 20- and 30-somethings – prefer DIY,” Ogden says. Other contractors subcontract out repairs and maintenance to specialty companies because it’s time-consuming and less profitable than the design/build part of the project.
If your clients are DIY-ers, recommend they clean out organic materials on a regular basis, which may be weekly depending on the volume of leaf litter. Ponds and streams require more intensive maintenance, which most homeowners cannot perform themselves. Proper care includes draining the pond every few years, flushing dirt and debris, and power washing boulders. “A pond that’s neglected causes stress on the mechanical parts as well as the eco-system,” Kenna says.