How to Naturalize Your Water Features

We’ve all heard the saying, “the devil is in the details.” For the pond builder, it’s especially true.  Not only do you have the details of running your business, but you also must be concerned about the details of building a pond. Anybody can build a pond, but what separates the pros from the novices is how they treat the details. One of the most important details is making the ponds that you build look native, like they naturally exist in the space.


Inspired by Nature

All inspiration for building ponds should come from nature. If you’re the outdoorsy type, observe the details when you are in nature. Study the way water gurgles over a stone in a creek, or the detail of the shore of a lake. These are the things that will give you inspiration for re-creating a natural water feature in a customer’s backyard.

Upon approaching a potential jobsite, look at the project as a whole, not just plopping a pond in the middle of the yard. During planning and construction, you should constantly ask yourself, how will this water feature be connected and integrated into the rest of the landscape? The size and placement of the pond will determine how easy or difficult it will be to incorporate it into the landscape. Never overwhelm a flat yard with a waterfall that is 10-feet tall. Instead, create the waterfall in such a way that it fits into the region and the grade of the site. Another common pitfall to avoid is making a pond and waterfall too small for the scale of the yard. Instead of looking believable, it will look more like a birdbath than a pond.



Backyard Waterfall and Pond



Integrating the Pond into the Landscape

Once you have selected the location, size, and major shape of the water feature, you need to excavate the pond. It may seem as though there is nothing much to take into account when digging a hole, yet in order to achieve a natural, integrated look, there are several things you need to take into account.

First, dig the pond so the shelves do not create a consistent pattern. Instead, create a natural look by building the shelves with varying widths. You can also eliminate the shelf in a certain area of the pond, creating a deep area at the edge of the pond. Many people enjoy this near the patio or viewing area, as it encourages the fish to come close to the edge. Always try to add curves to the shape of the pond both around the edge and inside the pond, underwater. Curves can be accentuated by the placement of large rocks.




Excavating Plant Shelves in a Backyard Pond



Rocking the Pond

The next thing to consider is rocking in the pond. Use the largest stone available on every project but be sure to mix in a variety of sizes to complement them. Large rocks all on their own, without smaller rocks mixed in for scale, just don’t look quite as big and don’t have the same effect. Another important element is the size of the gravel that you use. The wider the selection of gravel size, the better the pond looks. Small pea gravel mixed with various two and three-inch smooth river pebbles is best for most ponds. At the very least, use two sizes of gravel.

In nature, there is a totally random mix of stone sizes and placement, and the more you can mimic that look in your pond-building techniques, the better the result.



Backyard Ecosystem Pond with Waterfall



Avoiding the Necklace Effect

When the pond has a ring of equal-sized rocks placed uniformly around it, we call this the “necklace effect.” This effect would never be seen in nature, therefore, try to avoid using it in pond construction. To break up the monotony of the stone, integrate other natural materials into the edge detail of a stream or pond. Logs can be very effective at naturalizing a pond in a woodland or savannah setting. It is very common to see a moss-covered log shoreline in a natural creek with water flowing on one side and soil on the other side, along with a clump of ferns. Another idea is to integrate a wetland-type area along the stream edges by adding lots of aquatic plants. The possibilities for naturalizing the edges are endless. Just use your imagination and nature as your guide.



Stream with Log



Making the Connection

If your pond doesn’t fit in with the surrounding area, the one thing missing could be the edge details. These are what connect the water feature to the landscape and make it look as though it belongs. Variety is probably the most important thing to keep in mind when you are finishing the edges of a pond or stream.

First, minimize the use of stone around the edges of a pond. Several tons of stone could easily be pulled from the edges of most ponds. By minimizing stone, terrestrial plant material can grow closer to the pond.

The next thing to remember is variety. A natural-looking pond edge should have large anchor boulders randomly placed around it, accented by smaller boulders and perennials that are planted close to the edge. Other natural materials such as logs, branches, stumps, moss, and even indigenous leaf litter used around the edges act as a strong connection to the surrounding area.



Backyard Koi Pond with Adirondack Chairs



Creating New Views with Plants

Adding plant material close to a water feature also hides certain viewing angles.  This may seem contrary, but it adds a sense of mystery to a landscape when not everything can be seen in one view. As a person moves through the landscape, the view changes. Interacting with the landscape produces a sense of mystery, making it feel more natural. Exploring a landscape that has a lot of mystery and natural detail almost makes you feel like a kid, as if you are exploring something untamed and uncharted. This is the kind of water feature you want to create.



Garden Pond with Variety of Aquatic Plants



The Rest of the Landscape

The other aspect of naturalizing a water feature actually has nothing to do with the pond or waterfall, but rather with the rest of the yard and how it is landscaped. There should be several areas where the stone and other natural materials used to build the pond are placed in other areas of the yard. So, if the pond is in the backyard, several character boulders that match those in the pond should be integrated into the rest of the nearby landscape. Plant material is something that can make a pond look like it fits right into the landscape. So, when in doubt, add more plants. The use of native plants and shrubs always looks more natural. Not only do the edges of the pond need to be naturalized, but the rest of the yard also needs to be considered.

Always observe nature. Take pictures of cool details you see on vacation. Use a variety of stone sizes. Stay away from straight lines and monotony around the edges of the pond. By following some of these simple, nature-inspired rules, your ponds will become sought-after works of art.



Aquascape Academy - Succeeding with Water Features




Aquascape Academy - Succeeding with Water Features

Hands of the Artist

Pre-order your copies of the stunning Hands of the Artist coffee table book that features hundreds of contractor-installed water features around the world.
Hands of Artist Coffee Book