Keyword Site Search

Creating Authentic Outdoor Waterscapes

By Tom and Jackie Jesch, Designed II landscaping

Pond designer Tom Jesch shows off his custom stream, which is modeled on the naturally-carved granite watercourses of the Sierra Nevada. He limits plantings along the stream. "Most guys go overboard," he said. "You want to keep water visible and accessible." Photo by Erik Skindrud

I grew up in the Sierra Nevada, in the foothills, between Reno and Lake Tahoe. My brother and I would hike up into the mountains behind our house, and in no time would be near a beautiful, small creek that threaded its way between the aspens and pine trees, and through the willows. We had willow switches rigged with a short piece of fishin' line, and a hook, stashed away in our secret hiding places. It was only a matter of locating and sacrificing a juicy worm, and soon we had savory trout roasting on the campfire! We dug up some wild garlic and add the tiniest sprigs of sage, and our trout was perfectly seasoned.

How many times have I sat in Orange County, Calif. traffic and missed those days. It's not very often that I'm able to make the retreat back to my native homeland, so I finally had to make a piece of it at our home in rural San Diego County.

A view of Tom Jesch's experimental pond near Vista, Calif. shows off a school of 2-year-old channel catfish. By trial and error, Jesch has perfected a balance of plants and fish that eliminates the need for filters or chemical treatments. Photo by Erik Skindrud

We have developed a methodology and artistic eye toward designing, shaping, and constructing ponds and water features. So when I decided to create a mountain creek in our own yard, we were able to apply our abilities toward creating a stream and pools that are hard to describe as man-made!

First we shape the land. The error that many water feature companies make is the failure to understand water and how it erodes- shaping valleys, canyons, meanders, cuts, deltas, and occupying low spaces. We are careful not to create a "molehill" for our waterfalls to cascade off of. Instead, our waterfalls appear as if they have eroded down in their own canyon to hard layers of bedrock, and when they can cut against it no more.

After the basic shaping is completed, then we contain the water with pond liner underneath. A layer of fabric goes over top of the liner. After that, we hand-shape the features of our stream, sometimes incorporating natural rock, and sometimes forming our own matching faux rock, with concrete. We have developed staining techniques that are permanent and natural appearing. When combined with our textures that mimic features ranging from soil, to erosions, to sand, to rounded rock, to fractured rock, to bedrock with its striations and veins- we can create whatever kind of stream and geology that we want.

And we are not reduced to covering every square inch of the water feature with contrived piles and edgings of rocks, just because that's the only way to hide the liner, or the very man-made looking gray cement of most other water feature companies' work.

A crew created this large boulder with hand trowel-sculpted concrete for a big, 14,000-square-foot pond in rural Riverside County, Calif. Note the varied color and texture--both were custom-crafted to match local geology. (The boulder sits 2.5 feet under the pond's waterline today.) Photo by Tom Jesch

Next, we plant our valisneria living-biological-filter grass system in the pools, and even in the stream itself, to give us the crystal-clear water that is our trademark, without any filtration equipment having to be built into the pump or recirculation circuit. We like to add watercress in spots along the edges, its roots contributing to the cleaning process of the water, and its mats of vegetation creating habitat for baby fish, frog and toad eggs, pollywogs, and many other forms of life. When we selected the water-side, and water's edge plants for our landscaping, we used ornamental grasses frequently associated with water and areas that are moist, as well as paper white birch trees to give the feeling of my homeland mountain aspens (which will not grow successfully in warm climates or much below 6,000 feet). Added to that were a few Arctic willows with their beautiful, wispy, lacy, blue green leaves, and some splashes of wildflowers, like cosmos, daisies, zinnias, erodium and pennstemon.

Ever notice how water turns a discouraging pea-soup green in its first weeks after pond construction? This is a normal part of the process, and in fact, we made it worse by throwing in a few handfuls of 15-15-15 fertilizer! Soon after (about two weeks), the very fertilizer that made the water turn green with single-cell, suspended algae, encouraged and sped up the growth of our valisneria grass, which as it developed, took over the job of growing and producing oxygen, out-competing other algae and bacteria that would normally foul the water, and turning it crystal clear instead.

This view shows shotcrete being applied to the big boulder, which was wrapped in pond liner before finishing to seal the pond bottom. The crack near the top of the feature formed inadvertently but was incorporated into the finished rock. Note the use of tarps and artificial turf to avoid damage to the pond liner during construction.Photo by Tom Jesch

Whenever you first add (or replace large quantities of) the water, be sure and use a de-chlorinating chemical to remove chloramines from municipal water, or it will be hard on your underwater plants, and can kill fish within minutes. We selected many varieties of sub-tropical, and very colorful, fish as the final touch and the living voucher that our water quality is excellent, and clear enough to view the fish from above as if they were in an aquarium. We have tested and selected about 25 varieties of sub-tropical fish that are winter hardy on the Southern California coastal plain, and in fact, we have a greenhouse with spawning and raising pools where we grow our own fish. Soon after we added about 60 fish, they started reproducing wildly, and the numbers went to hundreds by the end of the summer! Our fish weren't content to stay in the bottom two pools. We found them at all ends of the stream, having overcome even two of our tallest waterfalls that crossed an air-gap of over 12 inches! We're talking leaping "salmon" here!

The aquatic grass genus valisneria grows on several continents with several species and subspecies. It is sold in clumps in aquarium supply shops but has been relatively rare for pond use until recently. Jesch says valisneria is an ideal producer of oxygen without becoming invasive. Photo by Erik Skindrud

We built a campfire ring alongside of the creek, brought out some chairs, and now we sit out at night roasting weenies and marshmallows over the sweet smell of pinewood, looking up at the stars, and listening to the frogs croaking. Or, Jackie and I take our bowls of cereal and glasses of juice, and sit out in the warmth of the morning sun, sprinkling in bits of fish food.

We watch the glint and flash of the brightly-colored fish as they dash from their schools to the surface and away again, with a quick morsel of food, while our dog laps away at the cool, refreshing water and we watch the darting dragonflies. And all the while birds splash, and flutter, bathing at the water's edge!

Tom and Jackie Jesch are the owners of Daylily Hill nursery and Designed II landscaping. Learn more at

Search Site by Story Keywords

Related Stories

June 18, 2019, 9:02 pm PDT

Website problems, report a bug.
Copyright © 2019 Landscape Communications Inc.
Privacy Policy