Water Works

Forget pools and spas; koi ponds and waterfalls are what’s shaping backyards these days

Grills gave way to mini-kitchens, lawn chairs morphed into sofas, and bonfires became fireplaces. Lately, people have been swathing their patio furniture in fabrics so luxurious that grandmothers everywhere are gasping at the notion of leaving all those couture cushions outside. The backyard has truly become another room to decorate. But now there’s a new twist to the trend.  Bruce Benfield, co-owner of local landscaping company Joyner-Benfield, calls it the “water garden,” and it’s a feature he says is gaining popularity, due in large part to its sound.  

Think of it as the outdoor room’s stereo.   

Benfield says creating a small stream that trickles into a natural-looking pond has become another popular way to gussy up the yard, with the added benefit of soundtrack. Fill the pond with fish and surround it with plants and voila: the water garden. “Mostly it’s the sound of running water that everyone likes so much,” Benfield says, “It’s very soothing. But it’s also like creating your own little eco-system, which is pretty cool.”

Benfield’s company starts the process by building a waterfall that spills into a mini river before welling into a pond. An average size pond is about six feet wide, eight feet long, and two feet deep. Installation can cost between $4,000 and $5,000. “But cost and size, of course, all depend on scale,” Benfield says.  

Joyner-Benfield has installed about thirty ponds in Charlotte over the past couple of years, ranging from tiny creations on small patios to bigger, bolder affairs carved into extensive lawns. The larger ponds can range anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000. Cleaning the pond (which includes draining the water and sweeping the filter) costs between $100 and $200, but only needs to be done once a year. Benfield says you can expect your electric bill to go up by anywhere from $15 to $40 a month, though, depending on the size of your pond and its pump—which must be running at all times to keep the area clean (especially if you add fish).  

If that latter debt sounds daunting, there’s another option—the pond-less waterfall. “The stream from that waterfall runs into a gravel pit that’s hidden from view,” Benfield says. “You can turn this option on just when you want the sound.”

However, decking your yard out means splurging on all the accoutrements. Benfield’s company does not provide fish but he refers clients to Fintastic on South Tryon Street. “A lot of people like Japanese koi because they have lots of color,” he says.  “They cost a couple of thousand dollars. People go with goldfish a lot, too. It’s great because they become your pets.”

As for the plants, Benfield advises people to pick regular perennials while mixing in a few special aquatic varieties.  Devon Cusson, head of perennials at Pike Family Nurseries in Ballantyne, explains that irises are native to ponds and will grow in or beside the water. “The Bletilla orchid also grows very well beside water, and it’s really neat—it’s got these thumbnail-size orchid blossoms,” she says, adding that these varieties are available at Pike. “There’s a grass variety called Juncus, which is actually a water-rush, and it grows in curls, so it adds a nice textured element. Dwarf cat-tails are also great. There’s a lily pad-like plant called the Floating Heart…it all depends on whether you’re going for a tropical theme or a heartier look.”

Cost, she explains, depends on size, space, and “if you want instant satisfaction.”  If you’re patient, she says, you can let the pond naturalize. “You’d be surprised by what will grow in on its own,” Cusson says.

Regardless of your time frame, though, both Benfield and Cusson say “natural” is the look you’ll want to achieve with the water garden, if you also want the effect to be tasteful. “You want it to look like you built your house around that pond,” Benfield says.

Also, keep this in mind: if you’d rather build a swimming hole for yourself to enjoy rather than for a couple of $2,000 koi, the most chic pools are taking their cues from nature. Barb Luzum of Blue Max, a local provider of landscaping materials, says, “We’re seeing more and more landscapers using natural stone, boulders, and waterfalls to enhance pools.” Companies such as Charlotte-based Integrity Pools Ltd. and Pelican Pools and Spas in Cornelius can install pond-like shapes with rock-lined edges, black bottoms instead of the standard aqua, and even linings that look like sand.  

Rick Solow, president of landscape architecture company Solow Design Group, says natural-looking pools cost about a third more than the standard in-ground variety. “They’ll be anywhere from about $50,000 to $75,000,” he says.  “We’ve actually been doing pools that don’t really look like pools for years—free-flowing shapes, a lagoon-like feel, darker plaster so it’s not so white inside, waterfall effects. We do formal pools, too,” Solow says, “specific geometric shapes, radius details, arches—stuff that adds a little more pizzazz.”


Categories: Home & GardenDepartments, Outdoor Living