The Great Escape

From Zen-inspired ponds to pools that mimic Mother Nature, these innovative water features defy the ordinary


Three waterfalls cascade into a 48-by-12-foot pond filled with water plants and lots of koi in this Gambrills, Maryland project by Serene Ponds and Landscapes. Photography by Richard Allen.When homeowners can’t get away from it all these days, they’re building “away” in their own backyards. For many, vacations conjure up memories of a faraway sandy beach, a mountainside retreat or a path through deep woods. Now, urban dwellers and suburbanites alike are re-creating memories of their favorite “away” places just outside their homes.

Sandy Clinton, a landscape architect and president of Clinton and Associates, says the green-building movement now taking hold across the United States is also having an effect on what people want. “People are getting in touch with Mother Nature and Mother Earth…and they want to preserve what they’ve already got,” she says.

In the pages that follow, you’ll see lily ponds and “natural” swimming pools, backyards that reflect their woodland surroundings and water features that mask the sound of traffic and, perhaps, transport homeowners to another time and place.

Jane Berger is a Washington, DC, landscape designer and publisher of GardenDesignOnline.com.

Fantasy Retreats

The backyard is no longer just a place where homeowners go to relax. It can be a center for entertainment and drama, or serenity and peace. Accordingly, a new type of water feature is taking over urban and suburban backyards, according to James Londot, president of Serene Ponds and Landscapes. Homeowners, he says, are “looking for a way to escape from inside their houses…a place they can retreat to.” A swimming pool these days is more than just a swimming pool, and water features and ponds have definite themes. His company recently completed projects that re-create a mountain creek (this page) and a Caribbean beach (opposite). “We’re working on one now with an Italian feel to it,” he says.

The waterfall in the picture above recalls a mountainous stream, with water spilling down a hillside over large boulders. It actually empties into a swimming pool that’s on the edge of a large, curvilinear patio at the rear of the house, located in Owings, Maryland.

On the opposite page is a “Caribbean” garden that boasts a 30-foot wide waterfall that drops into a “cool” spa that’s heated to the same temperature as the swimming pool below. The garden includes an outdoor bar with a thatched roof, water that’s a bluish-green color and a “beach” entry to the swimming pool that allows the clients to gradually descend into the water.

Landscape Design: Serene Ponds and Landscapes, Bowie, Maryland Photography: Richard Allen, Annapolis, Maryland

A Natural Palette

A property overlooking the Occoquan River calls for a special kind of landscape, particularly when the backyard sits well above a clear expanse of river. According to Don Gwiz, vice president of Lewis Aquatech, the homeowners knew exactly what they wanted: a “unique architectural feel” to go along with the riverside setting. Unique is what they got.

As the centerpiece of the design, Lewis Aquatech constructed a large rectangular pool lined with a black exposed aggregate called “pebble tech.” At one end of the pool deck is a raised spa (pictured above) lined inside and out with black glass tiles from Italy that reflect the plants in the surrounding landscape. The spa spills over into a rill that leads to a shallow children’s pool, and steps descend to a circular fire pit with a seat wall that’s adjacent to the side of the swimming pool. It’s modern, it’s clean, it’s crisp and it’s definitely architectural.

For another project in Great Falls, Lewis Aquatech designed a natural pool and spa to enhance a woodland setting (pictured right). The pool has a built-in circular spa and a “negative edge” along the back side. Steps from the pool deck lead down to an expansive lawn where the homeowners can sit and enjoy the waterfall. “If the yard is in a natural setting,” says Gwiz, “then that’s the palette one should use to design—lots of boulders, lots of stone, lots of free-form radiuses.”

Landscape Design: Lewis Aquatech, Chantilly, Virginia.


Re-Creating Mother Nature

Corner lots often come with heavy traffic, and this property in Lake Barcroft, Virginia, was no different. The client called in McHale Landscape Design Inc. to create a garden to go with an addition that was underway. Senior landscape architect Anthony Cusat recalls that the homeowner “wanted the newly designed house to seamlessly integrate into a naturalistic landscape.” Cusat designed an eastern alpine landscape by staging the emergence of a small stream along the tree line with strategically placed boulder outcroppings.

The garden was designed to be appreciated with views both from within the house as well as within the garden’s outdoor rooms. A large window in the homeowner’s office frames a river birch that’s planted next to the waterfall and pond. Stone masonry and boulders are integrated so that the entire landscape flows together. Natural stepping stones and a mass planting of Amsonia climb to a lawn area above the waterfall.

Purple water lilies, elephant ears, grasses, boulders, and waterfalls set the stage for this lily pond by Serene Ponds in Annapolis. Photography by Richard Allen. “We were really trying to downplay the hand of man in everything,” said Cusat, “to make it look like the landscape existed prior to the home’s construction.”

Along one side of the property, Cusat built up a wide planting bed with soil excavated during the home renovation. “Day and night, cars would zip by his side yard,” said Cusat. “We constructed a berm with a mixed evergreen screen accented with seasonal shrubs and perennials to buffer the traffic. This planting offers privacy year-round and aided in achieving the client’s desire for a woodland respite.”

Landscape Architecture: Anthony Cusat, McHale Landscape Design Inc., Upper Marlboro, Maryland Photography: Erin Brooke Bogan, McHale Landscape Design Inc.



A Tiny JewelLandscape architect Yunghi Choi likes to “make a difference in people’s lives.” And for her, it all sounds very simple: “You take a little garden and you turn it around and you make something out of nothing.”This tiny Georgetown garden was the narrowest Choi has ever encountered, measuring around 14 feet wide. The challenge was to create an entirely new adventure in the 60-foot space between the French doors of the living room and the garage at the back of the property—the main path the client used to go in and out of the house.Choi pushed back the level area of the garden next to the living room to create a small dining terrace. Then she cut an old spa in half and turned it into a waterfall and pond and erected tall fences on either side of the property. “I was worried it would look oppressive because of the extreme verticals in a narrow space,” she said. “So the lattice was added to give immediate relief before the plants grew in. It creates shadow and makes the fence seem lighter than it is.”An old crabapple tree that had overgrown space was removed to make way for a Japanese maple more in scale with the size of the garden. There’s a secondary, secluded seating area in the rear and even a bench.Formerly based in the DC area, Choi now splits her time between Arizona, Paris, and Patagonia. She says her landscapes are always “very ordered, but there’s enough going on so that you don’t lose interest.”

Landscape architecture: Yunghi Choi, Tucson, Arizona Photography: Roger Foley, Arlington, Virginia.

A Lush Landscape

Serene Ponds created this waterfall that spills into a generous-sized swimming pool in an Owings, Maryland, home. Photography by Richard Allen. To create a truly distinctive landscape, you need someone who can think outside the box. And the owners of this three-acre property in Vienna, Virginia, found exactly the right person to re-design their backyard and create an outdoor space where they could relax and entertain—landscape architect Sandy Clinton, president of Clinton & Associates. An addition to the house used up most of the level landscape. Clinton first encountered a backyard with a steep cliff-like hill sloping steadily upward. In the design stage, she envisioned a dramatic water feature for the backyard and the clients gave her the go-ahead. Now, three large and sculptural retaining walls hold back the slope and buttress a 40-by-20-foot lily pond. “The walls create a dramatic backdrop for a series of waterfalls coming over the top of each wall,” Clinton explains.

A bluestone patio with a seat wall surrounds the pond and a raised planter with three river birches adds height and dimension. When the owners look out from the rear of the house, they see the terrace and seat wall, then water, trees, more water and then the walls. “In that sense, it’s truly theater,” says Clinton, “because it’s like a stage. You’ve got all these layers on a sloped hillside, easily viewed.”
The pond fits in perfectly with the natural woodland. When you park in the driveway, Clinton says, “you hear the water everywhere, and it just draws you back into this tranquil, peaceful and soulful woodland landscape.”

Landscape Architecture: Sandy Clinton, Clinton & Associates, Hyattsville, Maryland Photography: Roger Foley, Arlington, Virginia.


Serene Ponds created a tropical ambiance in this Severna Park, Maryland, project that features a 30-foot-wide waterfall dropping into a spa. Photography by Richard Allen. 


Plants from the surrounding Virginia landscape are reflected in this raised spa by Lewis Aquatech.

Lewis Aquatech created this free-form pool with a built-in spa in Great Falls to replace an old, rectangular swimming pool.

Stone steps adjacent to the waterfall lead up to and under an original oak tree to a cool green lawn area in this garden by McHale Landscape Design. Photo by Erin Brooke Bogan.

A waterfall adjacent to the patio reminds the homeowner of an eastern alpine landscape. Photo by Erin Brooke Bogan.

French doors from the living room open directly onto this long and narrow townhouse garden by Yunghi Choi in Georgetown. Photo by Roger Foley.

The sounds of a waterfall transport the homeowner out of the city environment while wide lattice walls with lush plantings screen out nearby neighbors. Photo by Roger Foley

A lily pond creates a seamless connection to the layers of woodland above and below the property in this project by Clinton & Associates. Photo by Roger Foley.

Waterfalls flow gently over three separate walls into the long pond adjacent to a spacious patio. Photo by Roger Foley.

Three waterfalls cascade into a 48-by-12-foot pond filled with water plants and lots of koi in this Gambrills, Maryland project by Serene Ponds and Landscapes. Photography by Richard Allen.