Water is Central to Outdoor Living

In the drought-stricken West, you might think that public pressure to conserve water would be putting a damper on outdoor living. You see, water features have always been a prominent part of outdoor living spaces, and when the state shuts off public fountains, you might think that property owners will have reservations about installing their own.

However, Chad Morrill, founder of Pro Ponds West in Sun Valley, California, says that the trend has been toward more water feature installations, not fewer. “A lot of people are putting in gravel or synthetic turf, and when you do that to an entire yard, you’re stripping the life out of your landscape,” he said. “So it’s been very successful to then add some sort of little water feature to offset that effect.”

It’s not just an aesthetic concern. For environmentally-conscious property owners, a water feature offers a way to give back to the environment, turning their backyard into a watering hole. “We have a lot of customers who are in Pasadena or out in the foothills, who enjoy the hummingbirds, the dragonflies, and the bumblebees, and all the other wildlife that a water feature supports,” Morrill said.

Many of them, however, are more than happy to consider getting a pondless waterfall to create a small ecosystem in their backyard. Though large for a water feature, these options are smaller than the ponds and streams you find in nature, and fit more neatly onto a property.

For many clients, it’s simply a question of cost. Although the general economic outlook is on the mend, many property owners aren’t quite willing to foot the bill for a full-on-pond in their backyard. Water features like pondless waterfalls and fountains provide a way for them to get their toes wet.

Some homeowners are looking for the minimum amount of maintenance on their water features. They just want to have something small and beautiful, with running water. “For those clients, we’ll do a bubbling rock feature, or a water wall,” said Jeremy Locke, director of horticulture and design at Great Lakes Landscape Design in Oak Park, Michigan.

Once they get a taste and see how water can transform their outdoor living area into a little slice of paradise, they’ll be more willing to spend a little more and upgrade to more major water works. These little features work so well because they’re affordable, and introduce owners to the calming beauty of running water.

A water wall is pretty much what it sounds like, a wall that has water continuously spilling over it or running out of it. They come in as many designs as walls themselves do, and can spill water out of a spout built into the wall, or just over the lip of the wall itself.

According to Locke, bubbling rock features are the more common option. The property owner selects a stone he likes, and that stone is drilled through its core, to become the centerpiece of the feature. Then installation goes a little something like this:

“We make a cavity in the yard, line it with EPDM, a type of synthetic rubber, and put in reservoir cubes, which are essentially just milk crates, to form the bottom reservoir,” Locke said. “Then we set the drilled rock on top with another type of reservoir that holds the pump, so it’s still accessible from the surface.”

From there, he can feed the hose through the stone, put small decorative stones in to hide the bottom reservoir, and fill the system with water.

The system that Morrill uses when putting in ponds recreates nature. He installs plants along the water’s edge, or in the water itself, to eat up the nutrients that a more traditional pond filter is designed to weed out.

It takes a week or two for those plants to establish themselves, so he jumpstarts the process by dosing the water with beneficial bacteria. They also consume the nutrients that algae need to grow, and keep the algae from taking over while the plants take root. It’s important to remember that these bacteria are aerobic, they need oxygen or they’ll die.

The submersible pump and running water built into the design can take care of that indefinitely, but if the pump breaks, or the power goes out, the bacteria will suffocate. “If you shut the system down for more than three or four hours, they will really start to die off due to lack of oxygen,” Morrill said.

Biological filtration with plants and bacteria isn’t the only way to keep algae down. Mechanical filters that rely on running the water through a layer of sand or beads to physically separate out impurities are another option. UV lights are also used in disinfecting water.

Just because small water features have less maintenance needs than a pond doesn’t mean they don’t need maintenance at all. If there’s the potential for a client’s property to reach sub-zero temperatures, the pumps will need winterizing. Fortunately, it’s fairly simple. “Winterizing is just removing the pump and setting it in a bucket of water and put it somewhere where the water won’t freeze,” said Locke. “You don’t want the O-rings to dry out;, once they do, you have to replace them.”

Even if they didn’t look beautiful and help the environment, water features would still appear often in outdoor living designs, because water is just plain fun. Most people tend to think of pools when they imagine playing with water in the backyard, but with a little imagination, other types of water features can be just as enjoyable.

Maybe a client lives in a high-traffic area and wants to drown out the noise with the soothing sound of gently running water. Maybe they want a water feature to complement their firepit, grill, or outdoor oven.

Some designs feature a small, shallow ‘beach entry’ for the family dog to go get a drink, and cool off during the heat of the day. If the rocks are solidly attached to the liner, and won’t shift underfoot, kids can play around in the pond just like they would in a pool.

By and large, property owners are looking to you to be their guide when it comes to water features. They may have some idea of what they want (a babbling brook, a place to play, a refuge for koi) but they don’t know how to make it happen, or what their options are.

Telling them—or better yet— showing them, the variety of ponds, waterfalls, fountains, streams and water walls available to them will spark their imagination. If you’re able to go into the ins and outs of each, and what they can expect in utility costs and maintenance for each, it will reassure them that you know what you’re talking about.

Once their hearts are set on a design, the real magic starts. Most people live in a state of compromise.

They make reasonable decisions, take the interests of others into account, and never get exactly what they want. When clients dream of their outdoor living spaces, they’re letting themselves go.

They’re building a space that’s exactly what they want, exactly the way they want it, and you can help them do it. When the installation is finished and that water feature starts up, don’t be surprised if there isn’t a dry eye in the house.