May-June 2022 | Home & Garden

How to create a backyard oasis

A local couple created a soothing retreat with water fixtures. Here's how you can create yours.

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At the beginning of the pandemic, Mike and Gabby Coan reinvented their backyard in Cabin John with two ponds, a stream and waterfalls. They got certified in installing water features and founded Oasis Water Gardens to design and build water features professionally. Photo by Margaret Coan

Gabby and Mike Coan of Cabin John were hit hard by repercussions from the pandemic. When Gabby was furloughed from her job as an event manager and Mike had to go online to give piano and guitar lessons, the couple decided to add a pond to their property to corral their energy and lift their spirits.

Gabby’s parents, who enjoyed two ponds at the home where she grew up, had passed along a hard-shell pond liner that they didn’t need, so Mike grabbed a shovel in April 2020 and dug a hole 14 inches deep in the backyard to accommodate the 3-by-5-foot liner. With guidance provided by YouTube videos on how to build a natural-looking pond with a waterfall, some more hard labor, and the installation of a submersible pump to circulate the water, the couple soon had a water feature they loved. Through the process, they also discovered they’d joined a welcoming community. “I suddenly found this entire world of pond people,” Mike says. “It’s like its own little cult.”

Online, he addictively watched pond builders in action across the country and also connected with Ponds by Bee Landscaping in Boonsboro, Maryland, whose staff generously shared their knowledge. About a month later, the couple added a larger and “more professional” pond to their small backyard. They incorporated a malleable rubber liner that’s used by commercial installers, several waterfalls, a 15-foot stream and a firepit. They learned by creating designs similar to those they admired, and also honed their skills by practicing at Ponds by Bee. One of their biggest challenges was “learning how to place rocks so that everything looks very natural,” Mike says.

Meanwhile, the couple also completed five months of mostly online training, along with submitting video samples of their work, to become certified as installers by Aquascape, an Illinois pond product company. In March 2021, the Coans launched Oasis Water Gardens and began designing and building water features professionally, a vocation that draws on and fulfills their artistic sides.

The Coans joined an increasing number of homeowners who are adding water features—ponds with waterfalls, pondless waterfalls and fountains—as they seek to transform their yards into outdoor retreats during the pandemic. “Everyone wants a water feature—they just don’t know it yet,” says Scott Brown, the founder and owner of Damascus Enterprises, a landscaping and water feature installation business in Damascus. He’s been fascinated by ponds since installing one in his parents’ backyard in then-rural Damascus when he was in high school two decades ago. In 2021, Brown saw a 75% increase in his water feature business over the previous year, growth he attributes to homeowners spending more time in their yards and having disposable income on hand that normally might have been spent on travel or entertainment.

Digging your own pond and hauling heavy rocks—like Mike Coan did—can be backbreaking work. That’s why water feature specialists recommend that homeowners hire professionals who can install long-lasting pond liners, pumps, biological filters and aquatic plants—all of which will help keep the water clear and reduce maintenance work. The dug-up dirt can be used to create a berm near the pond or spread over flatter areas of the yard, but sometimes it has to be hauled away, installers say.

Today’s water systems are designed to be more eco-friendly by using power efficiently, with nighttime lighting systems employing LED bulbs, Brown says. Ponds often can be filled with a garden hose and then topped off when necessary due to evaporation. The systems also recycle the water, and that keeps most ponds from freezing in the winter. Professionally installed ponds range from $5,000 to $20,000, installers say, depending on size and other features, such as waterfalls.

When considering a water feature, homeowners can ask to visit examples of an installer’s work. In the process, “figure out what you’re most interested in,” Mike Coan advises. If it’s mainly just hearing the sound of water, then installing a stack of rocks through which water is recirculated or a fountain or a waterfall without a pond would work well, Brown says. Adding a bubbling boulder, which is a rock with a drilled hole for water to flow through, or a small fountain with an underground reservoir could also be ideal for smaller spaces and restricted budgets. If attracting and supporting wildlife is a goal, then a pond is a better choice, installers agree.

Those who’ve added water features often wax passionate about the transformative aspects of hearing water flowing outside their homes. “I like the sound of moving water,” says Jeff Tumarkin of Potomac, who hired Oasis Water Gardens in April 2021 to install a stream with several waterfalls and a pond to top off the patio and firepit that he and his wife, Tricia, had recently added to their half-acre backyard. “Being able to hear the stream is just very peaceful. It’s very zen.”

Carolynn Young says it’s soothing to spend time by the three-tier waterfall that Brown installed in her North Potomac yard in 2020.

“For me, it’s a place of rest and relaxation and rejuvenation,” she says. “I don’t ever get tired of it. It reminds me to sit and be still and get rejuvenated.” Her dream is to have a house on the water, but that doesn’t fit with her present lifestyle. “I had to bring water to my current living arrangement,” she says.

Designed and installed by Backyard Ponds, Kate and Thomas Pratt’s two ponds and waterfalls create a calming atmosphere in their Bethesda yard. Photo by Kate Pratt

Recent pond designs reflect the trend toward more natural-looking landscapes, which contrasts with the formal rectangular design that Gabby Coan refers to as “old school.” Designers now want ponds and waterfalls to blend into the preexisting yard and accentuate its strengths, rather than looking like something plopped into it, she says. Tumarkin’s backyard, for example, has a landscaped hill that ends in a flat area, which Tumarkin and Oasis Water Gardens thought was ideal for the series of waterfalls that flow into his lower pond.

Additionally, many builders may choose to include rocks and boulders, on which lichens and mosses can grow, Mike Coan says. That desire for a more natural look may extend to the plants that designers and customers choose. Some seek native vegetation, including aquatic plants, that will better support biodiversity.

People want fewer invasive species in their yards, so the idea of creating a natural habitat is “a rising star in the landscaping area,” says Jennifer Isley, who founded Rockville-based Backyard Ponds in 1996. She often recommends planting popular plants—swamp milkweed, native pickerel rushes, sweet flag and cardinal flower—that will attract and help to support birds, butterflies, dragonflies and bees.

Having the right mix of plants also contributes to keeping the pond “clean and balanced and clear and beautiful,” adds Isley, who praises the “aesthetic” that a water feature can add to any landscape. “It makes the whole yard feel more alive, like one of those essential components of an ecosystem,” she says. “When you have a pleasant yard, groomed and beautiful, that’s nice, but when you add the water, that’s like the icing on the cake. That’s your spark.”

When Renee Moloznik bought her home in Gaithersburg’s Washington Grove neighborhood, the property already had a small pond that she found challenging, especially dealing with the algae. Still, she liked the idea of having a pond—but with less maintenance. So she contacted Mike Westwood, who owns MetroPonds in Potomac.

“You don’t have a pond—you have a puddle,” she says he joked upon visiting her property. Assessing her yard and its possibilities, he recommended digging a larger pond, installing up-to-date pumps and filters, and adding a stone waterfall. In addition to supplying an auditory dimension, waterfalls contribute to continuous circulation, which helps keep the water clear and pest free. While some homeowners may worry about attracting mosquitos, those insects lay eggs only in standing water. Additionally, aquatic features—especially those that incorporate native plants—will usually attract native dragonflies, which devour mosquitos.

Some homeowners may worry that a pond will only add to their list of maintenance tasks, or that the water will become dirty and unsightly. Problems with excessive algae, water leakage, or cloudy water usually arise from improperly installed ponds or outdated filtration and circulation technologies, Brown says.

After facing frustrations with an existing pond at the Gaithersburg home she bought, Renee Moloznik hired MetroPonds to dig a larger, lower maintenance pond with a waterfall that she enjoys. Photo by Renee Moloznik

If the owner is “putting a lot of work into it, then something’s amiss,” Isley says, adding that her “whole goal is to get things to be streamlined and simplified and have it so that it’s balanced and somewhat takes care of itself.”

Most installers recommend clearing the pond skimmer, which removes floating debris, once a week and cleaning a pond twice a year. According to Westwood, the cleaning process, which can be done by professionals, usually involves draining the pond, vacuuming accumulated debris, and then power washing the liner and rocks before refilling the pond. The new water is then treated with a detoxifier to remove the chlorine and chloramines, he says. Covering a pond with netting in the fall can keep out leaves, which might darken the water and clog the pond’s pumps and filters.

Tumarkin compares his pond-owning maintenance to “having an outdoor aquarium basically” and says it’s “totally worth the work. It’s not even a question.” He checks the filter once a week and uses a long-handled net to clear leaves or debris as needed. His pond has a treatment system that kills algae, and he plans to add a water auto-refill system this spring. So far, he’s handled the cleaning himself and jokes that he wants an even bigger pond, which is a common desire among homeowners with water features, according to installers. When consulting with homeowners, they often recommend installing a larger pond than planned because waterfalls and other features can be added more easily and less expensively than by expanding the size of an existing pond to accommodate them.

Installers say they often refurbish older or problematic ponds, like Moloznik’s, and recommend hiring a specialist rather than a general contractor to do the initial design and installation. “A lot of that refurb work we do is redoing ponds that were built by well-meaning landscapers and other contractors,” Isley says. “People who don’t specialize in it can miss small but key details in the design or the construction.”

Having that larger pond and waterfall that Westwood installed in May 2021 revitalized how Moloznik uses her outdoor space. For safety, she enclosed her pond with an iron fence because her 3-year-old grandson is a frequent visitor. “I sit outside more often,” she says.

“I have a nice little swing that’s near it. When people come to visit, they all love sitting out there where you can hear the water. After a long day, it’s like ahhh. It was a big-ticket item, but it’s well worth it.”

Backyard water features can also support the local ecosystem. “Frogs, birds, all kinds of things need water. So [a backyard pond] can have a very beneficial effect ecologically,” says Ann English, the RainScapes manager for Montgomery County’s Department of Environmental Protection. Frogs, in particular, may act as a bellwether or indicator species for local water and ecosystem quality. The Coans say they frequently count as many as a dozen frogs in the warmer months while they relax beside their ponds or when Gabby meditates there.

Since the Tumarkins installed their pond, their yard has become a welcome home for tree frogs, green frogs, wood frogs, American toads and Fowler’s toads—plus lots of tadpoles. “In the summertime, the frogs are like a chorus out there,” Jeff Tumarkin says. “It was amazing. I was looking into getting tadpoles to populate the pond, and they just came.”

Oasis Water Gardens designed and installed this pond for Marie and Tom Rojas’ backyard in Poolesville. Photo by Gabby Coan

Homeowners say their water features also attract a variety of birds, including cardinals, doves, cedar waxwings, blue jays and bluebirds. Many pond owners add fish, such as small goldfish or guppies, or colorful exotics like koi because they find it fun or calming to watch them. Koi require a spacious pond that’s at least 3 feet deep, Isley says, because they can get large. As Tumarkin found out, a pond with fish may also attract the occasional heron looking for a meal. As a deterrent, he added a pondside decoy heron to discourage those flying overhead. Designers also recommend including fish caves below the surface of the water, where fish can hide from predators.

Chevy Chase resident Pam Booth, whose pond was installed by Isley in 2020, finds the natural activity highly entertaining. Booth’s pond, which is 10 feet long and 2½ feet deep, has stone ledges around its sides where she places pots filled with plants, such as aquatic lilies, lettuce and irises. “It’s fun to watch all the plants bloom, and they’re really beautiful,” she says.

“The birds also like to stand on the rocks and lily pads and splash around. It just brings a whole different type of nature to your backyard.”

Like other enthusiasts, the Tumarkins say their pond, stream and waterfalls have enriched their outdoor social life. Since adding them, the couple has hosted multiple gatherings. “Not only do we love it, but everyone who comes over loves it,” Jeff Tumarkin says. “People want to come into our backyard and hang out.”

With such gatherings in mind, Westwood advises his clients to “think about where you want to spend your time” before installing a water feature. Putting a pond at the edge of the yard may be a mistake because “people want to walk right to the water’s edge,” he says. “You want it to be where you’re entertaining.”

Young, along with friends and family, enjoys her pondless waterfall from several nearby spots, including a screened-in porch, a patio with a firepit, and a hot tub. “After a hard day at work, sitting out there and spending time with people I love makes it a time we can enjoy nature and enjoy each other’s company without technology,” says Young, a Rockville gynecologist. She does, however, employ some technology, using her smartphone to control the lighting and to choose from 10 different flow speeds how rapidly the water will flow over the fall’s tiers.

Young initially planned on a two-tier pondless waterfall for her backyard, but Brown assessed her setting and recommended that she consider three tiers to fill the 3-by-10-foot space she had in mind. “And he was exactly right,” Young says. “We ended up spending a little bit more, but the waterfall fills the area beautifully.” From the highest tier to the lowest, her waterfall has a drop of 24 inches. Water is stored in an underground basin and recirculated.

Similarly, Kate Pratt says she and Isley collaborated on plans for her Bethesda backyard. A juniper in Pratt’s side yard grows almost horizontally toward the sun, so Isley suggested nestling a pond below that tree. “Visually, you have an illusion that there’s a stream feeding into the pond with this juniper over it,” Pratt says. Isley “gave us a bunch of options,” and Pratt and her husband, Thomas, chose two ponds connected by two waterfalls, which were installed in their yard in August 2020.

The Pratts enjoy cocktails near their ponds most summer evenings. “We just feel so lucky these last couple years to have this quiet little spot,” Kate Pratt says. “It’s a lovely backyard retreat.”

Writer Amy Brecount White has a stream running behind her home in Arlington, which she can hear from her deck. She’s hoping to add a fountain with plantings to support birds, pollinators and dragonflies.