Crafting water features with care

March 22, 2021 -  By
Waterfall and pond (Photo: Exscape Designs)

Watch and learn FallingWater Scapes’ Jonathan Marston recommends online training courses such as Aquascape University for seasoned and novice water feature installers. (Photo: Exscape Designs)

“What I like about water features is that there’s a high degree of craftsmanship,” says Jonathan Marston, owner and designer of FallingWater Scapes, a water feature company based in Dover, Mass. “You get to work on an overall design, and you get to be very hands-on.”

FallingWater Scapes specializes in designing and installing water features, and it works with landscape companies who may not be well versed in designing or installing water features or who don’t have the capability to maintain them.

Marston estimates that up to 60 percent of his business has come from homeowners looking to repair or replace water features that were installed incorrectly.

“I think people conflate landscaping expertise with water feature expertise,” he says. “That results in a feature that doesn’t work the way it should.”

John Peterson, project director for Exscape Designs in Novelty, Ohio, advises installers to take their time and make sure they’re doing it the right way.

“You should look at it like you have one chance to do this right,” he says. “Some water features are large, and the access is terrible once everything is landscaped, so they can be very difficult to repair later.”

Marston and Peterson talk with Landscape Management about some common pitfalls when it comes to designing and installing water features.

The right feature

It’s important to take into account how the feature fits into the site.

Sometimes, clients request a water feature and fail to recognize their property may not be suited to it, Peterson says. For example, a client with a flat lot asking for a natural water feature with waterfalls and elevation falls into this category.

Peterson’s company, Exscape Designs, provides design/build, maintenance and irrigation services to a mostly residential clientele. The company installs water features from Aquascape and Atlantic Water Gardens.

Marston says aesthetics count when designing a water feature. “Sometimes, I see features that look like what I call UFOs,” he says. “They look like they just land on the landscape and aren’t built into the landscape.”

For instance, when streams are built too high, they look like volcanoes, he says. A lower-elevation water feature built with more soil helps it appear more integrated into the landscape, Marston says. He recommends tapering out an 8-foot berm for every vertical foot of elevation.

Lower elevation and more soil provides structure around the feature, prevents erosion and lengthens the life of the feature, he says.

Common problems

Marston says typical problems he sees include incorrectly installed fittings or gaskets as well as leaks in the rubber liner and padding, which result from installers not working carefully around the liner and inadvertently creating holes in the material.

Peterson agrees. “When you try to tear a 45-mil pond liner in your hands, it’s pretty much impossible, but if you put that liner in the ground and start moving heavy boulders, you could tear it real fast,” he says.

He recommends establishing a top perimeter of the liner to ensure water isn’t leaking over the edges and using a fabric liner layered over the rubber liner.

Finishing touches

Although his company does install natural water features, Peterson says contemporary, formal water features are becoming more popular.

“We’re seeing things trending like an urn that’s recirculating or a basalt column or a masonry wall with spouts built into the side, more like a focal point,” he says, noting that these can be easier to install and cheaper than a traditional natural water feature, which could cost between $15,000 and $50,000. A small recirculating water feature may range from $8,000 to $20,000.

Marston says that whatever style of water features the clients choose, they’re inspired by the look and sound of water found in nature. “It’s about adding dimension and drawing the client out into a space they’ve already invested in, like a patio, with a water feature that plays on the senses,” he says.

Abby Hart

About the Author:

Abby Hart is the former senior editor of Landscape Management. A native Clevelander, she spent 10 years in Chicago, where she was operations manager of a global hospitality consultancy. She also worked as managing editor of Illumine, a health and wellness magazine; and a marketing specialist for B2B publications. Abby has a degree in journalism from Boston University’s College of Communication.

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