Natural Wonders

Let the Water Features Flow


    The day of the carved marble fountain, at its best a work of art but more often resembling an ornamental cake, has given way to the water feature inspired by nature. Small or large, these often belie the fact that man has created them. Even when the hand of a designer is apparent, nature is clearly the inspiration, be it in the pebbles or rocky outcrops, the stone paving or a graceful cluster of reeds that a variety of birds love to visit.
    The trend is toward the low-maintenance garden with a water feature as a focus. Mostly these take advantage of water recirculation technology so that any loss is
minimal, and for the most part, due to evaporation. Waterfall, fountain, pond or even a simple birdbath—when a water feature is introduced, the garden becomes an oasis for local wildlife and a sanctuary for the homeowner.

From the Ashes

    Montclarians Katherine and Peter Crosby loved their backyard, a woodsy bird-filled haven abundant with shrubs and shaded by several giant cedars. They also loved their one-bedroom cottage to which they’d added three bedrooms and a second bath. On Oct. 20, 1991, they were told to evacuate their home, casualties of the Oakland Hills firestorm. The next time they saw their property, it was a stinking mess of charred rubble and ash. The garden had not a single blade of grass.
    When it came time to rebuild, Katherine Crosby’s garden became her priority. She knew it would be a totally different garden—and she became set on having a water feature. “Previously, with all the trees, we didn’t hear traffic noise. I thought a water feature would block those sounds,” she says. Also, the idea of flowing water symbolized peace, tranquility and beauty—things she craved after losing much of their life to the fire.
    Crosby tracked down Konrad Gauder, a Berkeley-based landscape architect who she knew had created a water feature she’d admired. To cut a long story short, she didn’t get the small water feature she had in mind. She did get a magnificent waterfall built from natural rocks set in place with the help of a giant crane that operated from the old home site.
    Gauder constructed a multi-tiered rock-filled landscape to support the waterfall with rocks mainly from Lake County. The centerpiece weighed in at five tons.
    Completed, the waterfall has given the Crosbys endless pleasure.
    It wakes them in the morning, like an alarm clock. The shapes and forms change with the weather, the seasons and the time of day. It’s eternally soothing and calming, says Katherine Crosby. It attracts birds, dragonflies and other creatures. It helped in the healing process. And remarkably, it looks like it’s been there forever.

Yours, Mine and Ours

    “Sue Falls” is what neighbors call the pondless waterfall Dave and Susan Franklin introduced into their small Alameda backyard in November 2006. They’d lived in the house since 1974, and it was time for change. They entertain a lot, so wanted something aesthetically pleasing. They travel a great deal, so low maintenance was a priority. Susan Franklin had long wanted a water feature, and when she spotted one she liked at the Alameda County Fair, the Franklins called the supplier, California Aqua Pros in Discovery Bay, and arranged for the installation.
    “They brought in five flatbed trucks of rocks,” says Dave Franklin, who describes the process as “kind of an art form.”
    “The guy they sent was really enjoying himself, rolling rocks around and free-styling it, and we ended up with a waterfall that is a foot higher than what we’d ordered, for the same price,” laughs Franklin, who chose the pondless waterfall because “possums and raccoons get the fish, so there was no point having a pond.” (Konrad Gauder says if people want fish, “I will build a cave for them in the pond so they can hide from the predatory raccoons.”)
    Franklin says maintenance of Sue Falls entails cleaning the filter once every six months, and that suits him fine. The Franklins added to the low-maintenance high-enjoyment factor by installing a small semicircular Astroturf putting green on what would otherwise have been lawn space, so Dave Franklin can wake up mornings and practice his golf. And the couple got advice from landscaper Iris Watson of Thomsen’s Garden Center in Alameda on what would look good without a whole lot of work. “We love the waterfall in that it’s so calming. We can enjoy the feeling of being in nature right here in our backyard—and without working at it,” says Franklin.

The Zen Aesthetic

    Gail Schino lives in what she calls a “mow, blow and go” neighborhood where people use lots of pesticides, herbicides and water. Two years ago, the ardent hiker decided to go native. “It’s so different from the manicured look people want today that I thought about it for a long time,”
she says.
    Schino went on a number of garden tours and found she could spot the work of Oakland-based landscape architect Michael Thilgen. Finally she called him and he came up with a plan, having heard that she wanted an eco-friendly, low-maintenance landscape featuring California plants, shrubs and fruit trees. She also told him of her wish to share her space with the local wildlife, which includes deer, possums, raccoons, hawks, garter snakes, birds, frogs and other critters more often displaced than welcomed into the city environs.
    Thilgen put in two water features. One is a frog pond that annually becomes home to a new generation of Pacific chorus frogs. “They’re incredible singers—quite loud,” says Schino. “Lucky my neighbors aren’t too close.”
    Then there is the pristine Zen-like “full moon” pond with its natural fountain feature. Thilgen drilled through a large boulder to give the water its passage, and the pond attracts scores of birds. “Hummingbirds love to bathe in the little hollow at the top of the boulder,” says Schino, who spends endless hours in her garden.
    Thilgen has noticed something of a trend developing as people become aware of environmental challenges. “We’re recognizing that water is a limited resource. The landscape can be a big consumer.” A garden like Schino’s, once established, has more of an impact sustaining the environment than depleting it. It’s something she feels good about—while relishing the delights of what she and Thilgen have created.


Konrad Gauder, Landsculpture
2560 Ninth St., Berkeley
(510) 326-8694

Michael Thilgen Four Dimensions Landscape Co.
2928 Poplar St., Oakland
(510) 893-1999

California Aqua Pros
Discovery Bay, (800) 994-0262

Iris Watson Thomsen’s Garden Center
1113 Lincoln Ave., Alameda
(510) 522-3265

Magic Gardens Nursery
729 Heinz Ave., Berkeley
(510) 644-2351

American Soil & Stone
2121 San Joaquin St.
Richmond, (510) 292-3000


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