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Water features add natural touch to metro area gardens

Classic Garden Creations of Forest Grove handles multiple installations

COURTESY PHOTO: ROSS NW WATERGARDENS - A back yard waterfall provides the perfect accompaniment to a seating area on a wood deck.Water feature specialists have built a slice of heaven, a Japanese garden with waterfalls and koi ponds at a private home in southwest Portland.

Working with designer Sadafumi Uchiyama, the curator of the Portland Japanese Garden, Ross (Joe) Bowen and his son, Ben Bowen, of Ross NW Watergardens transformed the small back yard into a temple of relaxation.

With a price tag just below $150,000, the garden is not far from Portland Community College’s Sylvania campus. It includes trickling water, basalt columns, streams and mini-lakes.

Homeowner Andrea Firpo said she and her husband Craig love the creation. “It’s about the nicest back yard I’ve ever been in,” she said.

“About 10 years ago, we lived in West San Jose, Calif., and we had a 30-foot koi pond with a big berm and cascading waterfall,” she said. “My husband and I have always been attracted to water.”

They wanted to build a new garden when they moved to Southwest Portland in 2014. Their water garden is just 2,500 square feet. “We have a much smaller yard, but we loved working with the space here. We love the simplicity of Japanese design.”

She plans to use the garden in her new business, called Portland Generocity (stet), where she hopes to foster generativity in the city as an intuitive life coach using Reiki and Shamanism.

“Water features appeal to us because they are a real challenge,” said Ben Bowen. “Beautiful water features require more skill, craft and knowledge than almost any other landscape element. When you take something found in nature, shrink it down to backyard size, and do that in a believable way, it is very gratifying. Our clients love it too.”

Bowen said the Firpo’s garden is special because of its size and Uchiyama’s design.

Joe Bowen has more than 40 years of landscape design experience, including a couple years at Kurisu International, an internationally respected Japanese firm. Water features can have a very natural feel.

The Bowens’ company has worked with notable landscape architects and designers besides Uchiyama, including Larry Tamiyasu and Mike Ellena. The Bowens run two two-person crews backed by three support people.

“Most of our projects are much simpler than this one,” Ben Bowen said. Some cost as little as $2,000. Most are around $20,000 to $60,000.

“Many are simple bubbler-style features or Japanese-inspired ponds with bamboo spouts that empty into granite bowls,” he said.

He said every inch of the Firpo garden received attention from his crew.

“The water feature is home to some happy koi. There is quite a bit of filtration built into the feature. In fact, that is one of the great challenges of koi ponds: including filtration that keeps the pond healthy in a way that looks natural.”

The columns that give that feature its unique look are bronze basalt, supplied by Smith Rock Inc. in Southeast Portland, Ben Bowen said.

“We also utilized Camas basalt rectangles and Mica slate. We did the fence and screen behind the feature out of clear cedar. The water feature alone was about a two-week project.”

Several other Portland-area landscape firms also do water features.

Jim and Carol Bremer have been installing water features and a variety of patios and wall installations to homes in the Portland metro area for 19 years.

“It’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” said Carol, who handles office work for their Forest Grove-based Classic Garden Creations while Jim runs the crew.

“We are strictly residential, and do lots of projects in phases — a patio, then maybe later a water feature,” Carol said.

Their projects, large and small, are scattered about the metro area: Portland, Lake Oswego, Beaverton, Hillsboro and Forest Grove.

The Bremers install small water features for as little as a couple thousand dollars, although they recently finished a $35,000 project.

“Water features are one of Jim’s favorite things,” Carol said. “Patios and retaining walls are our major projects. We find water features are a hobby. Some people love the outdoors but a lot of us don’t have time to enjoy it.”

She said she and Jim spend a good deal of their free time in the woods, studying streams and waterfalls to learn ways of making their landscapes more natural.

They use driftwood and various kinds of boulders and river cobbles to replicate nature, she said.