The company teaches landscapers how to build backyard ponds

For many there is nothing quite like relaxing in a backyard garden and listening to the water lapping over a small waterfall.

“We did a survey and the number one reason people wanted a water feature was the sound,” said Jennifer Zuri of Aquascape.

Imagine taking a dip in a 4 foot deep paddling pool with your koi pet after a day at work. Maybe the kids or grandkids could invite friends over to splash around.

“We’re all excited about swimming ponds,” Brian Helfrich, vice president of construction at Aquascape, told a roomful of landscapers Monday during the annual Pondamonium conference. “We inspire more and more customers.”

More than 500 landscapers from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and other countries attended the three-day conference. Demand is rising as people spending more time at home due to the pandemic are seeking interactive landscapes instead of lackluster lawns and boring backyards.

“COVID has really helped us,” Zuri said.

Since 1991, Aquascape has been helping homeowners around the world realize their home remodeling dreams by providing materials and expertise to build waterfalls, plunge pools, recreation ponds and other water features.

“Rec ponds” are on everyone’s lips these days. The trend is towards larger and more formal pools, although many clients prefer smaller, more natural-looking ponds. It’s about creating an integrated ecosystem tailored to a specific property.

St. Charles-based Aquascape Construction’s business took off after the Chicago Tribune featured founder Greg Wittstock, then 22, in 1992. Back then, customers typically paid around $3,500 for a project.

“That was the linchpin of everything,” said Gary Wittstock, the founder’s father.

Today’s customers typically pay $100,000 or more to complete an order in a matter of weeks. Do-it-yourselfers with more time can buy pumps, pipes, filters, rocks and other accessories at the Aquascape retail store near DuPage Airport and spend a lot less money.

The company has perfected aeration and filtration techniques that keep running water clean and crystal clear. Gary Wittstock told me how he developed and patented a skimmer system that removes debris and reduces maintenance. The elder Wittstock maintains a social media page called The Pond Father.

Helfrich, the site manager, has been with the company since 1995. His keynote address on Monday touched on Roman baths and ancient formal gardens.

“Swimming ponds have been around for thousands of years,” he told the group.

Aquascape knows its theme. Since 2014, the show “Pond Stars” on the Nat Geo Wild channel has shown the company’s work to a global audience.

Many people in Blue Island or Tinley Park may think their yards are too small for a water feature. You would be surprised by the styles of immersive ponds that fit into relatively small spaces.

“You don’t need it to be 2.10 meters deep to turn it into a recreational pond,” said Helfrich. “You don’t need a huge swimming area.”

Helfrich told his audience of landscaping contractors that traditional swimming pools pose problems with permits and fees. Swimming ponds are free of bureaucracy.

“This is new territory for a lot of us,” he told the group. “We all get involved together at the same time.”

Conventional swimming pools are typically made of concrete. Ponds typically avoid structural complexities with sturdy liners that hold water. Concrete also needs to harden, which can delay construction.

“One of the beauties of the liner as a sealing pool is that it works right away,” said Gary Wittstock.

Two key principles of healthy ponds are aeration and filtration. Contractors create hybrids that combine natural and mechanical systems. Pumping water to a waterfall aerates a pond while skimmers and natural plants filter the water.

Roots of lily pads and other plants in shallower areas help filter ponds. This helps to avoid the use of chlorine or other chemicals and ensures a natural look. Many customers stock their ponds with koi or other fish, while others do not. Some customers stock larger ponds with trout, zander and other game fish and invite friends to fishing tournaments.

“People still want that pool vibe,” Helfrich said. “Some people still resist swimming with fish.”

In the Chicago suburbs and other northern climates, traditional swimming pools often sit covered and unused for nine months of the year. The sun can warm the water in shallower swimming ponds enough that they can be used from April to November.

Additionally, Rec ponds offer tranquility and enjoyment when not in use for swimming.

“A Rec pond can always look beautiful,” said Helfrich.

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Fish survive winters as long as ponds are more than 2 feet deep and a hole in the surface ice is maintained, Zuri said.

After Helfrich’s keynote, dozens of contractors worked in teams to enter a waterfall construction competition. Others toured the company’s 23,000-square-foot warehouse and office complex.

A recently completed expansion allows viewers to watch koi swimming underwater. A thick pane of glass separates the pond from a sunken terrace. Helfrich estimated the value of the project at $650,000.

Some had lunch together and talked about a tour at the start of the conference showcasing the company’s work in the Chicago area. Helfrich spoke about a client at Lemont who just retired as an educator.

“Our clients #1 are doctors and #2 are school teachers because they have summer off,” he told the group.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.

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