Backyard takes on wilderness look with addition of waterfall

Photos by Ken Spencer/Newsday The garden of Dr. Stephen Cuchel of Roslyn Harbor, seen in the two photos above, was featured in Garden Home Magazine. LEFT: The stream and waterfalls was constructed by Ed Drohan in his back yard in Sag Harbor. The waterfall starts way up on the hill in the woods behind his house, and looks as if has been there forever.

Photos by Ken Spencer/Newsday The garden of Dr. Stephen Cuchel of Roslyn Harbor, seen in the two photos above, was featured in Garden Home Magazine. LEFT: The stream and waterfalls was constructed by Ed Drohan in his back yard in Sag Harbor. The waterfall starts way up on the hill in the woods behind his house, and looks as if has been there forever.

Nothing brings a garden to life like a waterfall. It appeals to all the senses: The sound of splashing water on a hot summer day, the sight of bubbly froth swirling on the rocks, the earthy scent of damp moss and moisture-laden air.

Birds love to bathe in shallow pockets and pond fish have been known to hang out under the falling stream as if they were in a kind of fishy spa.

Home improvement experts say now is the ideal time to plan and build a backyard water feature that's sure to captivate and amuse for years to come.

Here are two waterfalls that might provide some inspiration.

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MELVILLE, N.Y. - It's as if a really big giant scooped up a chunk of wilderness, hopped on a passing magic carpet and plunked his cargo onto Ed Drohan's backyard.

A fanciful scenario perhaps. But Drohan, a water garden designer in Sag Harbor, says his replica of a mountain waterway is a dead ringer for the primal forest he rambled in as a boy.

"I grew up in the woods; my family's home backed up on 100 virgin acres of forest and lakes and hills," says Drohan, 41. "My friends and I were always exploring and camping in all those hidden little gems in the woods that made us feel like we were the only humans to ever set foot in there."

His vivid boyhood memories of nature in the raw now serve him well. He is certified by Aquascape, a nationwide supplier of landscaping materials that also runs seminars on the latest design techniques. And he is a division manager for Ray Smith and Associates, a Southampton landscaping company.

When a career move brought Drohan and his wife, Sara, 32, an elementary school teacher, to Long Island's East End three years ago, their search for a house, he says, "ruled out any that didn't have grade-level changes because an existing slope was the first requirement for the natural landscape I intended to develop for my own home."

Brooklyn-bred Sara's chosen domain, adds her husband, was their cozy wood-shingle-clad house (today, they share it with their 1-year-old son, Adam). But Drohan eyed their hilly backyard with anticipation of creating his dream waterscape on the boulder-studded slope.

In just one week, he and his crew muscled 80 tons of craggy Pennsylvania moss rock onto the barren, one-third-acre site, turning Drohan's nostalgic design into reality while using professional techniques to keep from disturbing the native moss and lichen. What Drohan describes as "a hundred-foot-long river" now flows down the slope, pausing in a small, tranquil pond and then, in a nature-mimicking zigzag, gushing over a series of rocky waterfall ledges and finally spilling into a large fish pond stocked with koi.

The water is pumped via an underground pipe up to the head of the "river" and recirculated. Nature, too, had a hand in authenticating the untouched wilderness effect: During the site preparation, the antler of a deer was unearthed and remains near where it was found, and, when one of the trees that rim the slope fell, it was left exactly where it landed, as it would in the forest.

"I planted some water hyacinths in the ponds, but only the native grasses along with some yarrow and morning glories that came up by themselves are growing there - nothing that doesn't belong," Drohan says.

"It's important to aerate the water by letting it bounce and splash over the rocks, and I leave it running year-round to keep it from stagnating," Drohan explains. "Besides, the water garden is as beautiful in the winter as it is in the summer."

Tips for waterfall design

Professional landscape designers Eric Hagenbruch and Ed Drohan offer some tips for waterfall design:

Think location, location, location. Near the house is best for maximum aesthetic effects, and also for the electrical connection to the pump. Equally important is a site on an existing slope, if possible, for the most natural look.

If there's no pond on the property, you'll need to build one. Basic waterfall materials include a rubber liner, a pool pump that connects to an outlet with a safety device called a Ground Fault Interrupter installed by a licensed electrician and, of course, an assortment of boulders and rocks. To save your back, enlist some muscle; boulders weigh hundreds of pounds.

If there's a slope alongside your pond, you're in luck. If not, you'll have to build one. Either way, shape the slope-face into ledges in an irregular pattern, then cover the slope with the liner. Starting at the rim of the pond, stack rocks and boulders topped with flat slabs onto the ledges; test and adjust for water runoff using a garden hose. Hide the pump hose and any exposed patches of liner with smaller rocks. Add shrubs and plants for finishing touches.

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