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Smart Stream Building
Building 172'- long stream on a privately-owned island off the coast of Connecticut.

By Mike Dahl, LC/DBM



On a privately-owned island off the coast of Connecticut, Matthew Giampietro of Waterfalls Fountains & Gardens Inc. from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., helped build a 172'- long stream that includes five ponds. Existing natural rock outcroppings were integrated into the water feature. The rest of the rocks were collected from around the island. After being hired "for the art of rock arranging," by Ultimate Services Landscape Management Company, a company that Giampietro's father helped owner John Chiarella start, Giampietro arrived with a couple of his employees and enlisted the help of Chiarella's crew who had already put in five weeks of prep work. Giampietro and more than 40 workers installed the liner in one day (above). They spent 11 weeks finding rocks around the island, moving them to a central location and then placing them in the water feature. As building proceeded, Giampietro used buckets of water and sometimes a hose to test the flow. Once the pumps were turned on, there was about one week of tweaking: a critical step before signing off on a project according to Giampietro.

Long or short, babbling or boisterous, with ponds or without, and almost always including waterfalls, man-made streams are enhancements that many professional landscapers love to work on, and that customers love to have. And who can blame them? Free-flowing water is one of nature's most picturesque, calming yet captivating wonders. And unlike others such as a mountain panorama, an old-growth forest or rhythmic ocean waves, streams are wonders that owners of residential and commercial properties can add to enhance their surroundings. LC/DBM readers sent great examples of these projects and what follows is a takeaway of best practices in the craft of stream building.

Making Your Bed
As is typical, the scope of the project dictates the procedures, and tools needed, to prepare the worksite.

Many are excavated by hands wielding shovels as was the case with a water feature encompassing a top waterfall spilling into a 2'-deep pond, followed by a 4'-long creek, then a second waterfall flowing into a 5'x5' bottom pond in Dunsmuir, Calif., south of Mt. Shasta by Cameron Marsala, the owner of Camelot Landscaping and Stoneworks.

Dave White and his crew at Glacier View Landscape & Design Inc. of Longmont, Colorado dug, by hand, a pond that is 12" to 16" deep, a 6'-wide, 5'-long, 4'-deep hole for an underground well that collects the water, and a streambed - to get it below grade.

"We did that so that it was little more natural-looking and set down into the slope as opposed to being built up on both sides," White says.

When the project calls for it, and access is readily available, machines are called upon for the prep work. Scott Conner of Scott Conner Landscape used a mini-excavator on two of his recent projects in Paradise, Calif., about 90 miles north of Sacramento. One included a water well, whose excavation he has this advice about.

"To get the underground reservoirs large enough, you have to correctly calculate how much water is going to be in the streambed." Sometimes the scope of the project means that hydraulic engineers are involved as was the case on a water feature that Matthew Giampietro helped install on a private island off the shore of Connecticut. Kane Brothers from Chicago was hired by the contractor, Ultimate Services Landscape Management Company, to engineer the specifics of a 172'-long stream with five ponds.

Excavation for this project was quite intense. As Giampietro reports, the island itself is just one big piece of granite. In fact, it is the home of the historical Stony Creek quarry that produces pink granite stones - some were even used for the base of the Statue of Liberty. Workers from Ultimate Services did the excavation, sculpting the ground in shifts using jackhammers over the course of five weeks.


Commercial stream projects are also available as illustrated by this project. A newly built wedding venue south of Greensboro, N.C. , included a water feature made up of two streams that are close to 30 feet long with around 10 waterfalls within only an eight foot drop in elevation. Rex McCaskill of Pond Professors and a crew of four installed the streams that were designed by Tucker Beeninga of Next to Nature Landscape Design Inc. Water feature equipment manufacturer Blue Thumb advises that when excavating the basin area for an underground reservoir, save the dirt to build up and create waterfall areas. Also, leave an overhang of at least a few inches of the liner around the entire perimeter, which will allow for adjustments caused by any settling. Hide the extra liner with rocks, gravel, mulch and the like.

Rock Procurement
Boulders and large pieces of stone are a staple of stream building and the different projects here illustrate a variety of ways that they can be obtained.

For Scott Conner's two projects, the rocks came from a contract he made with the government to collect them - in an allotted amount of time - from gold mining tailing piles on public property. The contract took a while to get finalized and he admits it was not cheap. The rocks that Carmen Marsala used on his project were gathered in the mountains of Northern California after first obtaining a $15 permit from the U.S. Forest Service that stipulates where the stones can come from.

Matthew Giampietro did not have to worry about securing permission to gather his cache of building materials because the island where they all came from was privately owned. He took two weeks finding and then tagging them.

Landscape supply company Tribble Stone of Boulder, Colo., is where Dave White of Glacier View got all of his materials: Colorado buff flagstone, 2"-4" and 5"-12" gray rose cobble, granite boulders and Mexican beach pebbles. Scott Stone supplied rocks from the mountains of Virginia for the water feature at the wedding venue in North Carolina.


Scott Conner Landscape of Paradise, Calif., about 90 miles north of Sacramento, built this project for local residents that involved two streams with a series of falls, a koi pond, fountains and pond plantings such as the tall water iris on the right in the photo, the lotus next to it and the water hyacinth in the foreground, which are able to remove algae-causing nutrients. Growing up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Conner says that he often observed natural streams, and came to better understand how they function. He advises other landscape professionals who engage in stream building to do the same: taking photos and studying them, especially the way streams flow.

Rock Movement
From his collection of rocks, Scott Conner transports what he needs for a given project by loading them into the back of a pickup and trailer with a mini excavator, which is then used to place them.

Matthew Giampietro reports that the island's terrain on his project was so rough that machines often could not get next to the selected large rocks. So the crew would drive excavators or ATVs as close as possible, attach ropes to them and then pull them as close to the project site as they could.

To place the large stones, the crew would slide them on planks, roll them on top of pipes, and adjust them with pry bars. His "patient crew" not only helped him set over 500 large stones, but also line the water feature with hundreds of small rocks collected from the shore, sifted to remove the sand, and carried to the site in buckets To get his rocks out of the forest, Carmen Marsala likes to use a two-wheel rock dolly, which can carry up to 500 pounds. He uses a pry bar to lift them on to the dolly, and a ramp to get the dolly into the truck bed.

Recently, Marsala purchased a mini skid steer to help place rocks and is checking with the Forest Service to see if he can use it to gather them.

Glacier View's six-man crew mainly relied on "Egyptian engineering" to set the rocks in the project featured here. "We used steel rollers, brute force and ignorance," says Dave White. "With small backyards, getting a machine in makes more mess than it's worth."

However, he did have to bring in a crane in to set the large granite boulders.


The bottom pond of this water feature, constructed by Glacier View Landscape & Design Inc. of Longmont, Colo., is used as a wading pool, so is lined with smooth-edged Mexican beach pebbles. CEO Dave White says that one key to making sure the water flow is optimal is to have a big enough pump. "If you have enough water at the top, you can pretty much guarantee you'll get water going over the top of the stones," he states. Besides a powerful pump, he installed a ball valve at the top of the stream. This he used as a selling point; telling the owners they can "crank it up during parties to look good," and then dial it back down for day-to-day enjoyment.

Man-Made Materials
All of the projects in this story included pumps, various diameters of flex pipe, solid PVC and rubberized tubing with metal coil inside, and pond liners.

Some of them used waterfall boxes, different sizes of underground reservoirs, and other materials beneath the liners such as a polyethylene fabric on one of Scott Conner's projects, and several layers of woven weed barrier on the Glacier View project.

Also on that one, there is an auto-fill feature connected to the irrigation system. As water evaporates from the water feature, a valve is activated that allows water into the well to a certain level.

The Connecticut island project included a 12-foot surge tank that collects the water if the system is ever turned off.

Filters were used on some of the projects while others relied on natural filtering such as retention ponds, natural bacteria and small rocks.


Masking freeway noise at this house in Dunsmuir, Calif., south of Mt. Shasta, was key motivation for Cameron Marsala, the owner of Camelot Landscaping and Stoneworks (and the owner of the house that he was renting to tenants at the time) to build this small stream with waterfalls. He purposefully located it in the corner so it would echo loud enough to be heard from the house. He strongly advises to install some kind of a membrane before the liner to protect it from getting punctured. For his rocks, Marsala often gets a permit from the U.S. Forest Service, which allows him to get a truckload of them (inset).

Softening the Site
According to Matthew Giampietro, "Plantings are key to the success of a stream. Part of the art of rock placement is creating areas for plants - negative spaces or pockets where plants will grow."

Aquatic plants are submerged in a water feature. Marginal aquatic plants are installed close to the sides. They grow best when their roots are very wet but not totally submerged.

When installing non-aquatic plants near a water feature, Carmen Marsala advises to use root barriers to prevent roots from tearing through liners and into ponds.


Though it does not necessarily look like it, this water feature completed by Scott Conner Landscape is pondless. Conner says that if you design and build this type of system correctly, and use natural bacteria when you put them in, there is really no need for artificial filtration. He finds that many of his projects have an emotional inspiration. This one was to fulfill a desire of the homeowner's husband who she lost to cancer, for a dramatic garden that she could fill with color, surrounding a cascading stream.

More Advice from the Pros
More Advice from the Pros To help achieve a more organic look, Scott Conner reminds that in natural streams, moss rocks do not have moss growing on them below the water line.

"I'm too picky on my stuff," he admits. "I've been known to take something apart if I don't like it. It has to be natural-looking and I have to be satisfied."

Matthew Giampietro echoes Conner's persistence for precision. "If I put a boulder down and it doesn't look good from all angles, I'm going to take it out and try another one." He cautions that it's hard to estimate the cost to build water features beforehand and suggests pricing it on a time and materials basis.

Dave White finds, "that if the customer doesn't want to pay for what it really takes to build a water feature right, then they're not ready for a water feature." And to get past any apprehension of jumping in, Conner suggests to just try one - maybe on your own property. If you don't enjoy the experience don't add it as a service.

But if you do enjoy it, try to find something to improve upon each time you build another stream.

As seen in the July 2017 Issue of Landscape Contractor Magazine

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July 21, 2019, 11:02 am PDT

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