How Do You Make Small Waterfalls?

Plus Some Ideas for Water Garden Plants

Image of a small waterfall made with natural rock.
Photo: small waterfall, step-style, using natural rock. I have left part of the rim of the pond liner visible for purposes of illustration, but you would hide this later with stones and/or plants. David Beaulieu

Reader, ProAutomik writes, "I would like to learn how to build a small waterfall for a small pond in the Michigan climate. I want it to be low-cost, too, and I don't mind collecting the rocks, myself and arranging them, so as to avoid having to spend money on something pre-fab. I am also considering incorporating some plants in this space later. Can you give me some ideas?"

Many homeowners are looking for pointers on making small waterfalls of this sort, and why not? Such a feature provides your yard with the splendid sound of trickling water, the use of local stone can give it a natural look, and the cost is minimal. Therefore I decided to share my response to the reader, so that all of you interested in a cascading water feature can profit from the advice. My answer follows.

Two Different Ways to Arrange the Rocks

I have a full article elsewhere about making low-cost, small waterfalls. The example I use there is one that I built for my own yard, and it calls for 25-30 rocks to build the small waterfall. That project essentially entails building a mini-mountain (you can see it in this photo), down which the water will tumble. I explain how to assemble it. I also discuss setting up a small pond for it and installing the pump. This water feature is designed so that it can easily be taken apart for winterization in a cold climate, such as that of Michigan (I live in New England, so you have nothing on me when it comes to landscaping where it gets cold in winter). There is no need to disassemble the rocks, which can be left in place all winter, making it easy for you to set this water feature back up again in the spring. 

But there is more than one way to make a small waterfall with natural rocks. Using 25-30 rocks may be a bit too much work for some people. Rest assured that the "mini-mountain" approach is only one of various possible construction methods. I have used another style of small waterfall in my own landscape that is smaller and consists of a series of steps (that is, rock ledges). The water cascades down these steps on its way to the pond. Actually, the top step is just a covering, which serves to hide your "plumbing." If you limit the number of steps to three, then all you really need is three large, flat rocks (preferably somewhat rectangular or oblong in shape), plus several other rocks for use as spacers between the steps and to hide the base of the water feature.

You can see what this smaller waterfall looks like by viewing the picture that I have used on the present page. Here is how to proceed with this project:

  1. First sink a pre-formed pond liner into the ground, as demonstrated in this tutorial. This rigid liner has a depth of 7 inches and a diameter of 2 feet.
  2. Now build up a base for the natural stone. This base will not show, so it does not matter whether or not the material you use is attractive. Place two bricks at the bottom, then put a cinder block on top of the bricks.
  3. With the base in place, begin working with the natural stone. Lay the first "step" -- that is, one of the large, flat rocks -- on top of the cinder block.
  4. On either end of this first step, place a couple of smaller rocks that will serve as spacers (these will separate one step from the next). 
  5. Lay the second step across these spacer rocks. The first step will stick furthest out over the surface of the pond, while the third step will recede furthest back. The second step will fall somewhere in between.
  6. Repeat to create a third step.
  7. There is no need to try to get these steps to be perfectly level. You are dealing with a natural material, so you have to expect imperfection. But as you lay the steps and "play around" with how they are situated, do try to make them tilt forward slightly, so as to direct the cascading water into the pond.
  1. Now fill the pond with water and install the pump at the bottom of the pond. You need to have a GFCI outlet nearby, as I explain in my tutorial on setting up the pond liner (see link above).
  2. Attach tubing to the pump.
  3. Snake your pump tubing under the bricks and up behind the cinder block.
  4. Now it is easy enough to bring the tubing up out of the water. Pull it up to the third step.
  5. Insert the tubing under the third step, where it will be housed, out of view.
  6. Jam a small rock in under the third step in such a way as to secure the end of the tubing right where you want it.
  7. Turn the pump on to test your small waterfall. Adjust as necessary until you are happy with your cascade. Use any rock left over (or plants) to hide the base, the electrical cord for the pump, or any other features you'd prefer not to show.

Furnishing Your Small Waterfall With Plants

What should you plant in and around the pond that the waterfall will spill into? First of all, let's distinguish between two kinds of plants commonly used for small waterfalls and other water features: 

  1. Truly aquatic plants
  2. Plants that like (or, at least, do not mind) growing in wet soil

Note: Technically, there is a third kind of plant that falls in between these two, known as a "marginal" plant. An example is the papyrus plant. You would not want to install this type of plant in deep water, but it will grow just fine at the edges or "margins" of a pond (that is, in shallow water). But for as small a water feature as the one described above, you probably will not have room to incorporate marginal plants.

You will want to grow the plants in group #1 right in the water of the pond. An example would be a water lily. This is the type of plant that beginners immediately think of when they contemplate water gardens. But for a natural look (to say nothing of an enhanced display), you will also want to grow plants in the ground around the pond.

If the surrounding ground becomes wet due to spray from your fountain, you will want to grow plants suited to wet conditions. Suitable plants for such an area are those that, while not truly aquatic, enjoy (or, at least, tolerate) growing in soil with above-average moisture content (not all plants do). In another resource, I discuss a few plants for wet areas that are native to the Northeastern United States. But if you do not care about sticking exclusively with native plants, consult my more extensive article on growing plants in and around a water feature: Water Garden Plants: Best Choices for Small Ponds.