Ready to be shot

Dave and his team have been working hard to prepare for the arrival of the shotcrete crew early tomorrow morning. To my naive eyes, everything appears to be in place.

Our pond-builders spent most of yesterday covering the strip where the tile used to be. They slathered on concrete and shaped it like the concrete sculptors did Monday, with the former pool coping. Dave had been a little worried about the transition between the two sections (the coping and the bowl of the former pool), but by the end of the day, he looked confident he and his helpers had created a dependable seal.

While they did that, David Curtright worked on installing the biofilter that should help keep our pond’s water clear. He had procured for us an off-the-shelf unit from Pentair, a well-known maker of pool filters, one he has learned to modify over the years. He says it works well and the maintenance will be pretty simple: a chore that should require just a few minutes of Steve’s time and attention periodically. We have our fingers crossed. David has a lot of experience, and we trust him. Still, the plumbing proved tricky yesterday, so he will have to return Friday or Monday to finish that work.

Today Dave and his crew concentrated their attention on the little side pool. They lined it with rubber.

Then they spent most of the day shaping and securing that.

After the crew left for the day, we noticed that they also began experimenting with the stain they will use on the faux rock edge. Selecting colors that will look good is a tricky task, more a matter of art than construction.

But that will be one of the last major tasks for the pond-building team. First the shelves and the exposed pool edges must be filled in. That’s the job of the shotcrete master, and we will be ready to greet him tomorrow with open arms.

Lightspeed

Our pool-conversion project took a surprise turn in the last two days. We’ve gotten one piece of good news after another. (That rarely happens during construction, in my experience.)

Early Monday Dave and his two helpers got an early start working on the corner that will become the bog and waterfall. They removed a lot of dirt from the little side pool-to-be, fiddled with the plumbing, and began prepping it for the rubber liner they plan to install.

In the late morning, the shotcrete expert arrived — the fellow who told Dave last week he was booked solid for three months. But somehow Dave charmed him into agreeing to squeeze in our project this coming Friday. That visit will give us the two shelves we’re adding to the deep end, fill in the edge of the pool that the demo guys removed, and build up the waterfall area (though I’m a little fuzzy how that last part will work.)

This morning the cement sculptors arrived. I have to admit I quailed a bit when they started on the first corner. The two artisans looked a bit like kids making mud pies, and I wondered if I would wind up liking the finished product after all.

But as they labored throughout the day, their skill began more and more apparent. Dave later told me demand for artificial-stone creators like these guys take them to jobs all over the country.

There’s a lot of shaping and texturing required.
Our artificial-stone rim won’t remain this industrial color. One of the last steps will be for Dave and his helpers to stain it more natural colors.

Yet another surprise this afternoon was word from the guy who’s building the wooden bridge that will span the deep end. We ordered it November 10 and were told it could take four to six weeks. But it’s almost completed, and Joe, the owner of Redwood Garden Bridges, will drive it down from Clovis (California) this Saturday and deliver it sometime in the afternoon.

We also got word that David Curtright, our water-plant advisor, plans to come tomorrow to install the biofilter which we hope will keep the water clear. Suddenly the thought of getting water in this big hole again seems to be approaching very fast. Next thing you know we’ll be shopping for fish.

Concrete, please

Eight days ago the demolition crew busted up and hauled away the worst of the failing concrete around our former pool. This past week our builder, Dave Drinco, and his assistant Pancho laid the ground for the new parts that will help bring our future pond to life.

They inserted steel rods into the parts of the edge where the coping was removed…

And they troweled on mortar and textured it on the parts where the demo team left the old coping in place.

Pancho roughened up the areas in the deep end, where we want to add two shelves on which we can position underwater planters. The guys then shaped the future shelves using more rebar.

The trickiest thing we want to do is transform the flower bed on one side of the shallow end to a combination bog and waterfall area. We’ll install plants here that will help filter the water that will be pumped through it. On Monday morning David Curtright, the water garden authority who’s helping us, stopped by to consult with Dave about how this area will work.

Dave then created a low block wall to enclose the part he intends to line with rubber.

By the end of Wednesday, this is what he wound up with.

He’s told us he wants to use shotcrete for those shelves. I know how you make a cement pool deck because I watched Dave make ours 26 years ago. He and his team first built shallow wooden containers laced with rebar in the ground, then they pumped concrete from a big cement mixer into those forms. They smooshed that around and smoothed it, refining the surface until it lay flat and level. But I have only the vaguest idea how shotcrete is applied.

I know Dave likes to work with a North County shotcrete specialist he thinks is top-notch. But when Dave checked in with this man early last week, he said he was booked for the next three months. This guy tried to find some other good alternatives, but they weren’t available either. The last we heard late Wednesday afternoon was that the North County guy will try to stop in Monday to see our job. Dave seems to be praying he’ll somehow squeeze us in.

Then everyone took off for Thanksgiving. Steve and I ate our turkey with a bunch of friends on our patio, overlooking our big hole in the ground. I personally felt thankful the pond project at last is unfolding. But I’ll be even more thankful if the shotcrete whiz can fit us into his schedule before too long.

The seeds of our water garden

As I mentioned in my introduction to what we’re doing, I didn’t dream up this offbeat idea on my own. I got it in Mexico. Exactly a year ago, a friend who volunteers at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate invited me to spend several days at the legendary fitness spa as her guest. I knew almost nothing about “the ranch,” as regulars call it, but I was dazzled by my experience. Besides the beautiful hiking trails, the impressive organic farm and food, the amazing assortment of classes to build the body and nurture the spirit, the program also included interesting lectures. I signed up for one I thought had to do with backyard wildlife.

Instead, the speaker, Judie Lincer, told us the story of how in June of 2015 she started the process of creating the pond that’s now the centerpiece of her La Mesa backyard. Like Steve and me, Judie and her family had enjoyed a big conventional swimming pool for years.

Here’s what it looked like.

Judie is a wildlife educator who’s active with the local branch of the California Native Plant Society, the Audubon Society, San Diego Children and Nature, and other outdoor organizations. Since she got so much pleasure from the time she spent in natural settings, she began to yearn for something more natural outside her back door.

One day she went cold turkey. Although she continued pumping the pool water through its filter, she stopped adding any chemicals and wondered what would happen. Soon her pool started turning green.

It got greener and greener, eventually reaching a shade normally associated with the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day. Other changes occurred, some natural, some driven by Judie. Dragonfly and damselfly nymphs appeared in the pond as aquatic insects, which delighted her. They have an appetite for mosquito larvae, and as adults, dragonflies can eat their body weight in mosquitoes daily.

From someone who had too many Japanese koi, Judie acquired a number of the large beautiful Japanese carp and started the long journey of learning how to properly care for them. By October the first baby koi had joined the burgeoning watery community. To keep the water clean enough, Judie devised a way to direct its flow through plants in tubs, some next to the pond and some within it. She experimented with different varieties: water hyacinths, cattails, seep monkeyflower, papyrus, irises and water lettuce and water cress. Some of the plants, acquired from other pond owners and pond lovers, introduced fish she didn’t want. The koi attracted predators: herons and egrets and osprey.

I didn’t take notes during Judie’s lecture, which only whizzed through some of the highlights of her giant aquatic experiment.

One source of delight was learning she and her family members could still enjoy taking dips in it.

Judie didn’t hide the fact that there had been plenty of challenges also. Those predatory birds were one. In response she installed coverings to better protect her pond’s inhabitants.

In the past, her electric bill for circulating the pool pump had been very high, so she was glad to have invested in a variable speed pump, which helped reduce the costs. But she battled algae and eventually installed a fancy UV filter to try to make the water clearer.

In her lecture that day, Judie made it pretty clear she still hadn’t solved all the problems, but she was unequivocal about one thing: she had never regretted the change. She cherished the pond daily.

She sounded eager to help other folks follow down that path. Fascinated by the idea, I took her business card home. When Steve surprised me by being open to the concept, I emailed Judie to ask if we could stop by and see her place.

We did that a few days later, and Judie also wound up directing us to other San Diego County residents whom she guided in transforming their swimming pools. In another upcoming post, I’ll try to summarize what we learned from those visits.

Destruction

It wasn’t as bad as I feared. We woke up yesterday (Friday) morning to find all the water gone except for a puddle in the very deepest part.

Dave, our builder, arrived at 7 and mopped up that remnant.

An old, empty swimming pool is a big, sad hole in the ground.

At 7:30, the demo team arrived.

It took them a while to get organized, but by 8:30 they started destroying things.

I felt sad to see the old Canary Island date palm surrender to their chain saw. It had to come out, though, along with everything else in that side bed except for the king palm. The area will turn into our bog and waterfall, important for filtering the water of the pond-to-be.

I felt no emotion at the sight of the cracked pool coping being busted up and the concrete remnants hauled out to the alley. In fact this work triggered happy news: Dave judged about three-quarters of the coping to be sound enough to remain intact. Soon it and the damaged sections will be covered with concrete that Dave and his helpers will shape and color to be more like a pond edge.

The stucco on the retaining wall around our patio has been a disaster for years. We had it re-stuccoed once, and it just fell apart again. We decided this was as good a time as ever to chisel off that coating and replace it with something more durable. The removal yesterday was noisy and dusty work.

So was the job of prying off the blue tile from the edge. But that racket didn’t last long either.

By 2 p.m., everything was done. The team had bagged up all the fragments of tile and concrete and old stucco and butchered palm tree and loaded it on a truck to be taken to the dump. They swept up, if not all the dust, at least most of it.

I felt a bit like I do when I’m in the dentist’s chair and the noise and discomfort of all the drilling has finally stopped. I breathe a sigh of relief. The decay has gone. Now the happy job of rebuilding can start. Next week.

Crossing the Rubicon

Tuesday morning our builder, Dave Drinco, and his helper Pancho removed the 10 panels from our garage roof. These are the panels through which we pumped our pool’s water to heat it up. We also had a gas heater in our little pool house, but it cost so much to fire that up we almost never used it over the years. Even the panels were put in service only during the summer months. (For us, the air felt too chilly to swim from October through about May.) But ponds don’t require heating, so Tuesday the panels came down.

The panels before removal
During
And after. Now we will be able to use this prime real estate for photovoltaic panels, to generate our own electricity. This is the only roof on our property that will work for that.

Steve and the guys also disconnected the old gas pool heater. Now we just have to haul it away somewhere.

Dave and Pancho also moved my big poolside pots out of the way.

Yesterday we began an activity that felt creepy: pumping all the water out of the pool. We used some of it to water our fruit trees, but most of those 25,000 gallons have gone down the drain, something that in these dry times feels almost criminal.

It took hours…

I have to tell you Steve and I are not normally profligate with water. If one has a swimming pool, emptying it occasionally is considered normal maintenance. I just Googled this and saw advice to do it every 5 to 7 years. Or maybe 10 to 12.

It’s been 13 years since we last emptied our pool. Still doing it now has been depressing — both to throw away all that water and to see what you’re left with when the job is done.

Not everyone who turns their swimming pool into a pond drains the water. But the coping around our pool is badly cracked.

We have decided we should repair that and have the blue tile removed, to make the finished product look more pond-like. For that and other work, the pool must be emptied. Tomorrow the demolition crew is scheduled to start their work (an activity I fear will make the pool-draining look Zen.)

How it all started

The story of how we turned our swimming pool into a pond has yet to be written. I’ve created this blog as a place to write it. But once it’s recorded, we will have to say the saga began in late 1976, when we moved into a house with a pool. The house was barely 1100 square feet, but it wasn’t expensive and it sat on a big lot. The pool consumed a big chunk of the lot.

We were young — me 23 and Steve 27. Maybe because he was born and raised in California, maybe because he had a mechanical engineering degree, maybe because he was a guy, Steve assumed the chores of attending to the pool’s chemical and mechanical needs. We’ve never had a regular “pool guy” other than him.

But he didn’t seem to mind, and I was wild about our pool in those early years. I grew up in Chicago and had never met anyone who owned their own swimming pool! I did laps in mine; sun-bathed next to and in it. At least once a summer we hosted a huge bacchanalian party that featured card tables groaning with potluck food, lots of alcohol, and loud music. It invariably ended long after midnight; after hours of watery hijinks.

When our first son was born in 1984, the pool could have become a menace. But we installed a buttoned-down cover that no little one could slip under.

Here’s my mom, demonstrating the strength of our pool cover.

We hauled Michael and later his younger brother Elliot to swimming lessons when they were toddlers, and each became a competent swimmer. I remember declaring the pool to be the best toy we had ever acquired; that was true for years.

In 1995 when we began planning to fix up our back yard, we never once considered getting rid of the pool, even though it needed lots of attention. We sucked it up and paid the cost of having the cracked old plaster removed…

…and replaced with a gleaming new white coat and updated tiles.

Surrounding it all was a sea of smooth pink concrete, interrupted only a few scattered planting beds. I swam a lot less over time. Doing laps had always bored me, and over time the boys used the pool less too. Still, it was probably at least a dozen years later, after Elliot had left for college, that all that wasted space — the still, turquoise water; the hard pink flatlands around it — began to get on my nerves.

I tried to dress it up by adding some pots, but all that pool and concrete still felt awfully empty.

Both Steve and I had come to enjoy gardening more and more over the years, and I craved a more organic backyard haven. Still I didn’t dream up by myself the idea of turning the pool into a pond. A year ago, I heard someone lecture about the concept. The notion seemed bold, wild. I returned from that talk eager to tell Steve about it but expecting him to hate the idea and immediately shoot it down. Instead he instantly got it. “For all these years, I have worked to kill every living thing in that pool,” he said. “With a pond, it would be just the opposite.”

We didn’t do what some folks have: disconnect the heaters, stop adding chemicals, then wait and see what happens. We’re not that bold. Throughout most of 2021, we read and researched. We visited as many backyard ponds as we could in San Diego. Talked to pool contractors. Joined the San Diego Water Garden Society and attended as many meetings as we could. Now we’re on the edge of the metaphorical diving board. The demolition crew is supposed to arrive this Friday.

We both see what we’re about to do as part science experiment/part adventure. I’ve created this blog because I think the days ahead will be interesting. In the next few weeks, I expect to be posting frequently, writing about some of what we learned in the last year as well as chronicling the most dramatic phases of our pond construction. Then things will slow down. But if it works out as I hope, there will be news to report from time to time for as long as we live next to it. One thing I know already is that ponds are not static.