Go With The Flow

Two New Jersey homeowners create water gardens complete with koi ponds that become backyard focal points.

The multilevel garden of Ron and Joyce Heller’s Tenafly home incorporates two waterfalls, a koi pond, two patios, a hot tub, and a deck that offers a view of the entire yard.
Photos courtesy of Scenic Landscape Architecture.

Ron and Joyce Heller’s water garden cascades from one delight to the next. From atop a gentle grade, a waterfall descends into a koi pond that adjoins a patio where the Tenafly couple relax and enjoy the sights and sounds of the outdoors. From the pond, another waterfall flows into a hot tub encircled by a second patio. Below the hot tub, stairs lead to a deck that offers a wonderful view of the backyard and the water features.

“I get home from work, walk around with a glass of wine, and feel that I’m a part of nature,” says Ron. “There’s no need to visit an arboretum. I just go to my backyard.”

The idea for a water garden, complete with waterfalls, came up in 1998 when Scenic Landscaping of Franklin Lakes was already doing work on the Hellers’ one-acre property.

“Ron was excited about building a beautiful living environment in his backyard,” says Mitch Knapp, owner of Scenic Landscaping and Tapestry Landscape Architecture, who planned the water garden. “He kept mentioning the idea of a pond with koi and lilies.” The entire project took four months.

Watching the fish in the koi pond is a special pleasure, says Ron, noting there’s a legend behind them. “Japanese koi are supposed to bring good luck,” he says. “So far, they’ve brought a lot.” He and Joyce raised their children in the house and recently welcomed the addition of two grandchildren.

At one point, the Hellers had close to 50 koi. Some died, a heron ate a few others, and they now have twenty. To deter more herons from feasting, Knapp placed thin fishnets over the pond.

Heller left the choice of lilies to Knapp, who picked shades of purple, pink, and white, with various size leaves. Surrounding the pond are moisture-loving plants—lotus, water hyacinths, cattails, and forget-me-nots. Variegated hosta creeps over the wall.

Hameln grass, goldmound spirea, and a splash of purple ageratum add interest to the area between the koi pond and the hot tub, while tropical annuals like yellow melampodium, purple carpet, and African daisies in yellow, orange, white, and pink surround the pond in a burst of color. The effect is pleasing and tranquil, inviting family and friends to linger.

The Joy of Koi
When Joe and Carole Banfield moved into their home in Warren five years ago, the two-acre backyard included a dilapidated koi pond. Broken rocks blighted the perimeter and debris clogged the water. Still, the Banfields enjoyed the koi that, somehow, had survived. So during a year-long project to landscape the entire backyard, they decided to restore the pond as well.

With the help of landscaper Lisa Mierop, owner of Mierop Design in Montclair, the couple planned a much larger, more imposing pond, sturdy enough to accommodate scores of fish. But the water garden Mierop designed comprises so much more. Behind the koi pond lies a large area of rock outcroppings, complete with two waterfalls that cascade over the projecting rock shelves as they gradually descend into the pond. The design evokes a woodland setting.

“Our goal was to make the water garden look like it was always there,” says Mierop. “We wanted it to look natural, like something you’d find along a stream bank.”

To achieve the effect, every rock was handpicked, and plantings of grasses, artemisia, and euphorbia were tucked into the pockets between rocks or in crevices. A large piece of driftwood, dragged out of the woods, was placed across two rocks. Near the top of the outcroppings stands a Japanese cutleaf maple, moved from its original location elsewhere on the property. “It was a massive project to move it,” Mierop says, “but we built the rock garden with the Japanese cutleaf maple in mind.”

The Banfields have a good view of the waterfalls and pond from the raised stone patio behind their house. “As soon as we step off the patio, the fish become very active,” says Joe. “They swim to the side of the pond, with their mouths open, waiting to be fed.”

About 20 feet from the water garden is the swimming pool, surrounded by a travertine patio, making it convenient for the Banfields’ five grandchildren and their friends to combine a swim with a visit to their finned friends.

“We started with a dozen koi,” says Joe. “They grew up and multiplied like crazy.” Now there are about 50 koi, from a few inches to a foot long, who swim happily among pink water lilies, parrot feather, and lotus.
“We let Lisa run a little wild with what she could do out there,” says Joe. “It was her vision that put this all together.”

Creating A Water Garden:

Do you have the right location? “If you get too much sun, you’ll have a ton of algae,” says Scenic Landscaping’s Mitch Knapp. “Too much shade and the plants won’t bloom properly.”

“You also need to consider the mature trees on the property,” adds Frank Contey, owner of Terra Graphics, which builds many of Montclair landscaper Lisa Mierop’s designs and collaborated with her on the Banfield project. “You can’t dig next to a massive oak and not compromise its root system or have difficulty digging in that area.”

The next decision is what kind of garden. “If you want fish, the pond must be deep enough to go below the frost line, which, in New Jersey, is 36 to 42 inches,” says Knapp. “That way, the fish can hibernate at the bottom of the pond in the winter.”

Netting can be used to keep birds away from the fish. Or you can set up a shelter using two vertical rocks with a top plate (think Stonehenge) or peninsulas of rocks (like a diving board). “Koi are very smart,” says Contey. “If they see impending danger, they’ll go into that shelter or hide under plants or rock forms.”

For low maintenance, create a plants-only water garden with lilies and, possibly, cattails and lotus. “The depth should be 18 inches to 2 feet deep, depending on the amount of shade,” says Knapp. “If the pool is too shallow, the water will get too hot in the summer.”

A koi pond is built using gunite covered with a liquid rubber sealer or a thick Neoprene liner over matting. To keep the pool clear, a filtration system is required. The popular drop-basket system captures debris in a hidden skimmer box. The skimmed water goes into a basket in the ground, and through a pump that re-circulates it.

“If you decide to construct the garden yourself,” Mierop says, “buy top-grade materials, install an adequate filtration system, clean the filter regularly, and, if you’re going to have fish, make sure your pond is deep enough.”

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