In lieu of cruises and exotic travel, Jim Wallace built a weekend and summer getaway home for his family at Sun Valley Lake. That’s Sun Valley Lake, Iowa — not Colorado or Missouri.
This Sun Valley oasis is located in Ringgold County near the small community of Ellston, about 80 miles southwest of Des Moines.
His Rocky Mountain-style log cabin overlooks a 500-acre private lake. A nine-hole golf course sits within walking distance. Tennis, boating, fishing, and hunting — all possible right there among the gently rolling hills of the development. Nice.
Like many residents of Sun Valley Lake, Wallace discovered this Iowa haven while visiting friends in the area. The idea of a retreat within comfortable driving distance of his permanent West Des Moines residence was appealing, and thus began the venture of purchasing a lot and selecting a house plan.
Wallace chose a wooded lot on a hill with a broad view of the lake. The subtle A-frame entrance to the home is tucked among hickory and oak trees and easy to miss without Wallace’s directions — past the golf course, around the bend, and up the hill.
The house is built of logs, using a design similar to a home Wallace’s sister owns in Colorado. It has all the features and comfort of a Colorado resort — a wrap-around porch, a boulder indoor/outdoor fireplace, and even a steer skull with horns on a post.
Best of all, it has a tumbling waterfall, big boulders, and a meandering stone path, all part of a garden that transports your psyche to a place other than the farm fields of Iowa. Closing your eyes, breathing lake air, smelling fresh spruce, and hearing the tumbling water, you can imagine being in the mountains or woods of faraway places.
Just Add Water When Wallace completed the home in 2004, he had a stunning view of the lake. Reaching it would be the next challenge.
There is at least a 100-foot drop in elevation from porch to water. He discussed terracing and a possible pathway with his godfather, Oscar Neumann, who suggested including a waterfall in the landscape as a transition between the house, walkway, and lake.
That fits into Wallace’s vision of natural landscaping, working in harmony with the environment. This was a vacation home after all, and Wallace didn’t want his time there to be filled with yard work.
The construction process took five weeks from beginning to end, with a foreman living on location. There were no trees to remove, just a steep slope down to the lake. A silt fence had been installed during the house construction, as well as riprap along the lake edge to protect water quality until the landscaping is established.
The first task of the landscaping project was to install a drainage system for the driveway and downspouts to direct rainwater into the lake rather than down the hill, deterring erosion.
The next step was to set the boulder walls for the walkway and falls, starting from the bottom and zigzagging upward across the hill to the porch area. Using a skid loader, the crew worked granite boulders and limestone pieces like a puzzle, fitting the stone into place, imitating the look of a natural stone outcrop.
Ted Lare Design/Build construction foreman Aaron Aswegan worked from a dynamic vision rather than a preconceived drawing to carve out the falls and stream area, including as many falls as possible. “This is the type of project that is difficult to put on paper. It evolves on-site while sorting boulders and rocks to match together with the land,” explains Aswegan.
The number of falls, the distance the water drops, and what it drops into are all key factors in creating the tumbling water sound. With over 300 feet of stream, several falls with ponds were created for continuous sound through the landscape.
Healthy & Happy One of the more unique elements of Wallace’s waterfall is its open system, drawing on water from the nearby lake. The majority of backyard water features are much smaller in scale and do not make use of an outside source of water.
At Sun Valley, Wallace is sharing his environment with all of the creatures and plants that live in the lake. He needed to find a satisfactory way to keep the streambed and fall relatively clean and chemical-free so as not to compromise the lake’s ecosystem. Just ask Nigel, the resident snake that basks on the rocks and snacks on frogs, how important that is.
As the water from the lake enters the pump, it passes through six four-inch tubes that are lit with ultraviolet lights. The light destroys a good share of bacteria and some algae spores that would contaminate the stream. A pump located next to the dock pushes 12,000 gallons of water an hour from the lake and up the hill.
As the water tumbles down the rocks, it self-filters and collects oxygen, sending healthier water back into the lake, attracting fish, and making fisherman very happy. This cleaning method isn’t foolproof though.
“What grows in the lake will grow in the stream,” cautions Wallace. “And sometimes it is too much.” Wallace will occasionally find it necessary to don his waders and drag a pressure washer through the slippery rocks and down the steep hill to clean out sediment that has settled between rocks and loosens algae buildup.
Completing the Oasis
Once the stones, steps, patios, and paths were in place, it was planting time. Plants with long root systems — including fountain grasses (Miscanthus and Pennisetum) and feather reed grass (Calamagrostis) — are used to help hold the hill in place.
Also in keeping with Wallace’s low-maintenance goal and natural-look vision, the plant materials list is not long, nor does it contain plants that require much more than once-a-season attention.
The perennials include purple coneflower (Echincea), daylily (Hemerocallis), cranesbill (Geranium), tickseed (Coreopsis), stonecrop (Sedum), hosta, and creeping phlox (Phlox subulata). Spruce (Picea) has been planted along the edges of the property for privacy and on the northwest area of the garden to protect it from the wind blowing across the lake.
Junipers (Juniperus) at the base of the garden offer year-round green, and aspen (Populus) provide filtered shade, as well as “quaking” movement and “shushing” sounds in the summer breezes.
These plant selections leave Wallace with almost nothing to do but enjoy what he has. There is early spring cleanup — cutting back the grasses and perennials — and just mulching with hardwood and pine needles in the fall. The garden produces plenty of summer color when entertaining is at its peak.
There is no mowing, although Wallace has had his fill of pulling thistles that have emerged in the disturbed soil — once-dormant seeds made active. This minor annoyance will lessen with time.
While the sounds of boaters and vacationers carry across the lake, Wallace’s waterfalls mask most peripheral noises. Even the rustling of the grasses and aspen adds a natural sound barrier and soothing dimension to the garden.
While Wallace contemplates new ideas to improve on the science of open-water systems and innovative ways to install boulders, the rest of us would simply enjoy the opportunity to lounge in the garden and bask in the loveliness of it all.
Take a cue from natural streams and waterfalls and visit parks and wildlife areas for stream design inspiration. Also check local home and garden shows, garden tours, and landscapers for more ideas on incorporating water features into your landscaping.
Seizing the sound
Rock waterfalls can be an attractive addition to a yard, generating sound, movement, and energy to a landscape. Wise planning can style waterfalls to achieve desired effects — powerful crashing sounds that will drown out traffic noises but not offend the neighbors, or peaceful, soothing sounds of a softly moving current.
To help with the design, consider the following three basic factors affecting the sound of a waterfall.
Flow / For every inch of the width of the waterfall, at least 100 gallons per hour of water should flow. If your waterfall is 24 inches wide, then it requires 2,400 gallons of water per hour. As the amount of water flow increases, the sound increases.
Basin / Various types of sounds can be created by the reservoir that captures the falling water. The loudest effect is achieved when waterfalls directly into a pool of water. The deeper the pond, the more pronounced the sound. A quieter effect is made when water falls onto a rock or boulder or if it simply slides over a series of rocks.
Keep in mind that the pond must be large enough to catch all the water from the waterfall without overflowing when the system is turned off. If there is not enough room, then alternative technology — a pondless waterfall that utilizes an underground basin — can be used.
Fall / The distance that water drops are the most significant feature in distinguishing sound. A 3- to 4-inch drop is quite subtle, but the sound is increased substantially if the fall is 18 to 24 inches. Sound can also increase due to an echo effect if there is empty space under the falling rock.
The sound can vary depending on how deep that empty space is. A series of falls will extend the sound through the course of the stream. Experiment with a garden hose, running water at different heights onto various rocks in a pond or bucket.