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The Joy of Koi

An innovative water feature offers a window into a subaquatic world.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Austin Larue Baker

Guests at Carolyn and Jim Halladay’s Carefree house are often surprised to find a large swimming pool in the front yard. They’re equally amazed when, after walking into the backyard, they’re greeted by another pool. Except this one isn’t for people, it’s for koi. 

Built above ground with a dramatic boulder feature and as big as some people’s swimming pools, the jaw-dropping feature is the centerpiece of the newly renovated landscape. It is also a dream come true for Carolyn, who says this is her third serious pond. “My love of fish began at an early age when my father kept an aquarium in my bedroom,” she recalls. “He had guppies, tetras and zebra danios, and all of them would zip away from a curious kid approaching the glass. I just wanted to look at them and was somewhat offended that they were so unfriendly!” 

At the same time, her best friend’s mother, who was from Japan, had a pond with a massive koi. “The fish was quite a bit too big for the pond, as I recall, but it didn’t seem to care,” says Carolyn. “And you could pet it. It was like a dog—it would eat out of your hand, and it loved human attention—very different from the fish in the aquarium in my bedroom. That’s when I decided I was going to have super-cool pet-able koi at my grown-up house.”

Although Carolyn grew up in the Valley, she moved to the East Coast after graduating from Arizona State University. Her folks stayed on, eventually building a house in Carefree. “When Jim and I started looking for our own retirement home, we wanted something in the same area,” Carolyn notes. They found the ideal property on the ridge of a hill overlooking a valley and just a stone’s throw from her parent’s place. “Luckily, we didn’t have to choose between views of the Valley or views of the mountains, because we really do have it all here,” she adds.

“Tempered glass provides maximum visual access to the beauty and life of  the koi.”

—jake Plocher, landscape designer

In 2015, the couple brought in landscape designer Jake Plocher to open up the front-yard views that were blocked by a stucco wall. (This portion of the garden was featured in the April 2017 issue of Phoenix Home & Garden; see “Advantage Point,” Pages 50-54.) “We took down portions of the wall and installed glass in its place so that the Halladays could see the desert views beyond,” Plocher recalls, noting that the transparent panels helped connect the pool and home’s entrance to the surrounding desert. “We never thought in those terms until he brought it up. It was the best idea we never had,” jokes Carolyn. “After that, we put a lot of trust in Jake’s vision both in terms of aesthetic polish and livability.” 

One of the reasons the Halladays were so drawn to the property was the ponds—one in front, one near a guest suite and another on the backside of the house. From the very start, they knew they would have to redo the backyard’s water feature, as it extended awkwardly into a shady spot behind the outdoor kitchen, creating a potential hazard. “Obviously, we didn’t want anyone to fall in,” says Jim. “Also, the skimmer was a magnet for spiders, especially tarantulas.”

In addition, the basin was very shallow and, to protect the fish from predators, it was covered with unattractive netting. “Our experience with koi ponds tells us that a spot of about 4 feet deep or so makes for a much easier situation for all involved, especially the fish, in terms of water temperature, clarity of water, fish health and safety,” Carolyn points out. The initial plan was simply to deepen the pond, but Plocher quickly discovered that the ridge on which the house is built is all rock. “Going deeper than ground level would have entailed some serious engineering and possibly the use of explosives,” Jim says. “So Jake suggested we build the pond up to achieve the necessary depth.”

1. An elephant’s foot palm tree (Beaucarnea recurvata) serves as a living piece of art.  2. Directly behind the koi pond and tucked into the rocks, green soldierlike Mexican fencepost cacti, variegated agaves, golden barrels and an impressive boojum tree soften the hardscape. “Homeowner Carolyn Halladay was adamant about keeping the color palette as natural as possible,” Plocher says. 

The designer envisioned a glass-fronted raised water feature that would allow the homeowners to watch the fish not only from a small seating area situated above the pond but also from the home’s covered patio and even from inside. “It took some research to figure out how to engineer everything to incorporate a see-through wall and use products that would be safe for the fish,” Plocher remembers. To test out various water systems, he brought several small aquariums to his office and filled them with koi. Realizing that acrylic—the easiest material to work with—would scratch when being cleaned, he chose tempered glass to configure the wall. “Tempered glass provides maximum visual access to the beauty and life of the koi, but it also has the strength needed to handle the pressure of the pond structure,” he explains.

It was important to the homeowners that the fish have an all-natural ecosystem. “We wanted a pond that is, above everything, conducive to healthy, happy koi,” Carolyn says. Plocher consulted with koi pond builder Brian Connelly, who designed the plumbing filtration system, a critical component of the water feature, and advised on water depth.

Click here to read an exclusive interview with Brian Connelly, who shares his knowledge on all things koi.

1.  Japanese koi are considered the most desirable type of koi in the world, says pond consultant Brian Connelly. 2. Water flows down stacked boulders and into the koi pond, which was designed to mimic a naturally occurring lagoon with freeform lines. The picturesque setting is enhanced by desert views to the north. 3. The raised water feature holds about a dozen giant Japanese koi. The tempered-glass front offers a whole new perspective on aquatic living, allowing the fish to take center stage, especially at night when illuminated by underwater lights. “The fishes’ scales glisten and resemble mosaic tile,” notes landscape designer Jake Plocher. 4. A fourth pond and a small elevated sitting area adjacent to the boulder water feature provide an intimate spot for the homeowners to enjoy the backyard habitat and mountain views. 

“The original pond was 2 feet deep; this one doubled that, and it holds approximately 13,000 gallons,” explains Connelly. “It has a very extensive plumbing layout. If ponds are not built properly and plumbed correctly and don’t offer adequate filtration from the very beginning, they can be a very disappointing experience for the homeowner.”

More than 800 tons of boulders were craned in and painstakingly stacked behind the water feature to form a one-story-high outcropping with water trickling down its face. A small stand-alone pool was installed adjacent to the boulders about midway up, offering another refreshing point of interest in the rocky terrain. “The idea was to produce a multitiered effect and create a visual experience similar to a waterfall in a beautiful, natural oasis,” explains Plocher.

Surrounding this spectacular waterscape are groupings of cacti, succulents and heat-hardy vegetation, including an impressive boojum tree. The landscape designer also tucked such statuesque specimens as Mexican fence post, saguaros and agaves between the boulders, heightening the drama and providing the homeowners with a yard filled with low-water-use native and non-native species. “Carolyn and Jim wanted very organic-looking plants, and they all had to be super-sized,” Plocher recalls. The overall effect is of a tranquil oasis that just happens to afford sunset views.

“We love the soothing sounds of gently falling water and having a bigger habitat for our koi,” says Carolyn. “We watch the fish, and the fish watch us. When they see us pull up the blinds in the morning, they all assemble at the pond window to agitate for breakfast.” The rest of the day often finds the couple at the window, as well, admiring the aquatic scenery. Adds Carolyn, “It’s hard to say who is more entertained, the fish or us.” π

Landscape Designer: Jake Plocher, Desert Foothills Landscape.
For more information, see Sources.


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