Disappearing Waterfalls

Few sounds are as soothing as the gurgle of flowing water. A pond paired with a waterfall can be relaxing but its pool of water comes with a host of maintenance issues and safety concerns. Keep the waterfall, lose the pond and gain all the benefits with next to no hassle.

A pondless waterfall provides the aesthetic of moving water without the upkeep because the water is pumped in a continuous loop after it empties onto a decorative gravel bed. “Because there is no standing water, there is no need for the ecosystem needed to keep a pond clean,” said Leonard Mirabile of Autumn Leaf Landscape Design in Centerport. “There’s very little maintenance involved. And they are safer than ponds for children and pets.” And, unlike a pond, there is no reason to keep the system running all of the time to sustain fish or keep the surface from freezing over. A flip of a switch turns the waterfall on or off—cuing up a Zen-like atmosphere takes only a few seconds.

Pondless waterfalls also offer design flexibility. They can be as small as 4 x 5 ft., a good size that fits neatly in the corner of a small yard, or be as tall as the homeowner likes, flowing into long winding streams before disappearing below ground to be pumped back to the falls. Designers like to install the feature where it will be visible—like near a patio, deck or porch—keeping the height and width scaled to the surrounding area. At the core of the system is a pump that requires electricity, which might also influence the location. Costs vary, but small pondless waterfall packages, which Mirabile said are the most popular, start at about $3,500.

The construction process is relatively simple. The hole that accommodates the pump and the water collection system is covered with a pond liner so all the water stays put. A hard plastic container, called a vault, protects the pump from the gravel. The removable top of the vault is a few inches below the top layer of gravel, providing easy access to the pump. While there are a variety of water collecting systems, Autumn Leaf uses polycarbonate containers that have open grids resembling milk crates. Each container holds about 30 to 40 gallons of water, which is the capacity of a small waterfall. The containers provide space for the water and they cut down on the amount of rock and gravel needed to fill the hole. Once the working parts are installed, the pit is filled with stone and the water percolates through.

The waterfalls themselves are connected to the pump with tubing and can be placed on the ground or elevated. The higher the water drops, the more noise it makes. Streams that connect the waterfall to the holding area can be any size and take any number of twists and turns. The best designs meander a little, just as streams do in nature. To keep the water moving, there should be a 2- to 3-inch slope over each 10-foot length. This can be accomplished by elevating the waterfall for long runs.

With the workings in place, all that is left is to landscape the area. “Many people install LED lighting with their waterfalls,” said Mirabile. “It gives the area a whole different ambiance at night.”

Pondless waterfalls were invented for the maintenance averse, though evaporation may require an occasional top off with a garden hose. For the truly hands-free, there are systems that collect rainwater to continually replenish the feed. However, some structures have mesh filters that require yearly cleaning. Come winter, follow the pump manufacturer’s instructions. Some say it is fine to keep the system running all winter or simply shut it off and leave it in place until spring. Others recommend removing the pump for the cold weather. But who’s going to be outdoors to enjoy it anyway?