The waterfall cascades over a 10-foot craggy cliff, into a Jacuzzi. An adjacent 8-foot fall trickles over stepped, rocky crevices filled with water hyacinth, parrot feather and rushes, finally descending into a goldfish pond with myriad water plants.
The scene could be a tropical rain forest. But it's the Huntington Beach backyard of John Houston, who calls himself "the rock man."
Houston designs, builds and maintains aquascapes, stonework crafted from concrete to become waterfalls, stream beds, decorative walls or walks for water features. He also creates wet walls, decorative walls with flowing water and landscape rocks.
He designed a home system in 1986. Friends and family admired the design and requested their own. In 1991, he started J. Houston Enterprise. He's designed and installed 25 aquascapes since, from a 4-foot-tall waterfall descending to a 5-foot-wide pond for a condominium patio to an elaborate waterfall system for a swimming pool, Jacuzzi and fish pond at prices ranging from $3 to $30,000.
"People who want my kind of work have a vision and love their gardens," he said. "They want something new to work with. I can interpret their ideas."
Houston's artistic background is evident in both the realism of his creations and their artistic flair. While he conscientiously attempts to replicate stones and rocks as they occur in nature, he adds a touch of the dramatic and often some whimsy. Well-worn boots used for planters, antique shears and plastic dwarfs are a few of the ornaments that decorate his backyard boulder waterfall.
Houston obtained a fine arts degree from Rio Hondo College in Whittier, where he studied sculpture, glassblowing and other crafts. He worked in retail display and visual merchandising for many years and taught display courses at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.
He also worked in the art department of Pasadena-based Miller Brothers Floats (now Fiesta Floats), where he welded steel for oversized figures and painted murals on Rose Parade floats in preparation for their petal and seed decorations.
For a while, he worked with interior designers making and building custom cabinetry and window treatments. On one project, he met the owner of Rock and Waterscape Systems and accepted an offer to work with that firm in the early 1980s.
After obtaining his general contractors license in 1991, Houston opened a firm specializing in aquascapes and simulated decorative rock for interiors.
He prefers to design and manage entire projects, including landscapes, he said.
"I do all this for the plants and fish. I like to get plants up from the ground, so they hang and cascade over the boulder's edges," he explained. "It adds a new dimension to gardening."
Each is a custom design.
After speaking with the homeowner and analyzing the landscape, Houston crafts a scale model in clay for homeowner approval. Next, he obtains any necessary permits. (Rock structures rarely need permits as long as they are not attached to any permanent structures.)
Houston begins on-site work by welding steel for the basic skeletal shape of the rock structure. Next, he envelopes it in a layer of wire mesh, which is then covered with a coat of concrete. During that process, he also excavates and installs the pond or stream beds.
He adds a waterproof liner, which is coated with waterproof concrete to protect the pond from the waterfalls or streams. He installs electric and filter systems.
"Then the fun starts," he said. "I add a second coat of concrete and texture the material so it looks rocky. Then I paint and highlight the rock work to give it the aged look."
A project takes about four weeks. The final steps are filling the ponds with fish and plants.
"I also mother each project for a full year [after completion] to make sure the systems and landscapes are right," he said.
While sculpting, Houston creates niches in the rock work where a variety of water or terrestrial plants are inserted. Lately he's been experimenting with succulents and air plants.
Some of the rock work is rounded; others have jagged edges. Some installations simulate Bouquet Canyon stone; others resemble weathered granite.
One customer asked for a water feature to incorporate an antique waterwheel purchased at a local swap meet. Houston created a scale model mill house to incorporate the waterwheel and a flume. The realistic cement structure looks like an antique stone mill crafted of stone. It's also functional, concealing the biofilter, the water garden's filtration system.
Some of Houston's creations have been on display at local garden shows. The waterfall and pond at the 1996 Crystal Court Garden Show simulated Mayan temples and ruins. Last year, he replicated Iguacci Falls in Uruguay for a major display at the Orange County Fair.
This year Houston's display, inspired by Hawaii's Rainbow Falls, will include five waterfalls cascading into a 10-foot-by-15-foot pond containing a pyramid. (The Orange County Fair runs through July 28. His display, in conjunction with Laguna Koi & Pond Co., will be in the fish and plant section.)
For inspiration, Houston enjoys traveling with his family and observes and photographs stone formations and waterfalls in his travels to Mexico, South America, Hawaii, Colorado and Palm Springs. He then reconstructs what he's viewed in his concrete creations.
"I like to take the aerial tramway in Palm Springs and observe the different rock formations along the mountain," he said.