Hillsides, Waterfalls and Leaves

It was a project doomed from the start.

When I moved into my forty-year-old ranch house built on a small, wooded knoll, it had a deck off the end of the second floor living room, as well as three six-foot square, tiered planting beds cut into the hillside like giant steps leading down to the basement level of the yard.

Each tiered planting bed had a scrawny, bedraggled rhododendron growing in it. It’s a Southern thing. Being the eternal optimist, I provided them with the three essentials: food, water and mulch, but they never responded. I finally decided to transplant them to another section of the hillside and, when I did, discovered why they had done so poorly. The top foot of dirt in each bed was little more than a mixture of dust and finely-ground mulch that couldn’t hold water for more than a few hours. Beneath that I found a layer of construction-grade backfill and, finally, a vein of clay and shale that capped the entire knoll.

Standing there one spring afternoon about six years ago I decided that I would turn these three dusty planting beds notched into the hillside into the ultimate water feature: three pools, with the spillways of the upper two feeding into the lowest one, where a pump would push the collected water through a three-inch pipe buried in the ground up the hillside. At the top, like a spring bubbling out of from beneath a large boulder, it would feed not one, but two parallel, rocky man-made streams, each with a series of small, tumbling waterfalls, before cascading into the two upper pools with a glorious finish.

Like I said, doomed from the start.

But I have always taken the same approach as my friend Ray, who, when faced with a new challenge would say, “Give me a book and an hour, and I can figure it out.”

If one book was all Ray needed, then I figured if I bought six books on waterfalls and pools, mine was sure to work. I needed six because, as it turns out, they all opened with the same piece of advice: don’t build a water feature under a tree.

If you live on a wooded knoll, trees are a part of your life. As I stood in what would be the highest and largest of the three pools and looked up, I could barely see the sun through the leaves of two oak trees and three poplars. Tall, magnificent trees with millions of leaves that, as it turned out, all either fell or blew into the water, where they turned into thick, rotting muck.

But before I could discover what tens of thousands of leaves will do to a water feature, I had to build it. Scooping out the dusty mulch was easy, and digging out the mixture of broken bricks and backfill wasn’t that hard, but when I reach the vein of clay and shale, I was in trouble. According to the books, my pools were not yet deep enough, so I attacked the rock floor with crowbars and sledgehammers, chipping away at it for hours on end.

And when the physical labor stage was complete, my three holes became three money pits. Each of the three empty pools (plus the two streambeds I had carved into the hillside) had to be lined with a total of five large, expensive, thick rubber liners. They were heavy, obstinate and impossible to adjust once draped over the hole like flattened dough over a pie pan without the fear of puncturing them with the pointed end of a sliced tree root or shard of shale. And then came the rocks, which you may already know, are also very expensive, especially if you want the pretty, rounded river rock lining all of your pools, streams and waterfalls. And then the pump and the piping and the wiring and by now I wasn’t feeling so good about my project, as I was already blowing pine needles and dirt and leaves out of the dry, empty liners.

Then the day finally came. I watched the three pools slowly fill with water, flipped on the switch for the pump, and waited for the moment when the first spurt of water emerged from the boulder up on the hillside and gradually filled the two rocky streambeds, then cascaded over two carefully-positioned ledges into the upper pools.

It was a glorious moment.

It was also very loud.

And so began my five years of taking care of my three pools and two waterfalls, which, as it turns out, was worse than keeping a 1973 MGB running, which was sitting, neglected, in the garage all this time rather than purring up the Blue Ridge Parkway. My pools started losing water, either from a leak in one of the liners or through constant evaporation over several square feet of exposed surface and warm rocks. I couldn’t leave the pump running while out of town for fear of the water level dropping below the critical point.

And then there were the leaves, and the muck, and the twice yearly draining, and cleaning and power-washing, and the freezing, and the noise, and the raccoons, and the hoses, and the leaves, and the never-ending worry.

And so on Saturday, we made the decision. We drained the water for the last time, we scooped out buckets of rotting muck, we lifted out slippery rocks, we pulled out the leaky liners and we shoveled in a ton of dirt.

And on Sunday night we came home with what I should have bought six years ago.


They’re a Southern thing, too.

Until next Monday,

Have a great week!