The advantages of building ponds with compact utility loaders

By Amber Reed

 Water gardens and ponds are enviable features for a home’s exterior — they can provide a soothing environment for the homeowner and can add significantly to a home’s value. But building a pond or water garden can be an arduous task, even for a pro. It can take days or even weeks, and can be physically grueling. Pond builders are always looking for tools of the trade that will help them build better ponds faster and easier.

Michael Otte, owner of Whitewater Gardens in St. Charles, Minn., has been building ponds for six years. Otte, a certified Aquascape designer, discovered early on that a compact utility loader was the key to growing his business, letting him create a more professional-looking pond in less time.

“When I was first starting out, I worked for a contractor who owned a compact loader but never used it because the crew was still using their heavier machines, like skid-steers and trenchers,” said Otte. “I asked if I could give the loader a try on a couple of pond-building projects, and the first time I used it, I knew it could change the way I do business.

“As a pond builder and designer, I achieve a more professional look in my designs by using larger boulders,” Otte added. “And, in the beginning, I was looking for a compact, yet durable machine that could lift, move and place heavy rocks. Now, I find ways to use my loader every day, handling all sorts of tasks, no matter if I’m constructing ponds, waterfalls or surrounding landscapes.”

Because of the variety of attachments available, these mighty machines offer pond-building contractors added versatility because they can be used to haul and place boulders, gravel and rocks; carry tools and equipment to and from the jobsite; dig the pond; install waterfalls; put together the surrounding landscape; and even clean up afterwards. And because of the light footprint and compact size of these loaders, disruption to the existing landscape is minimized because they don’t tear up the ground while working around the yard. They can also operate adjacent to foundations, walls and fences.

 On many projects, Otte’s compact utility loader is used in every step of the building process. With a bucket attachment, Otte digs out the pond basin and hauls boulders and other materials to the site. In fact, shuttling materials is one of the loader’s main functions. With the loader, he can move rocks up to 1,000 pounds around the site with relative ease. He uses a multi-purpose tool with swivels and straps to then carefully set larger boulders in place. This attachment is invaluable, said Otte, because it is very important to avoid damaging the fragile rubber membrane that lines the water gardens while placing the boulders. Also, he makes use of forks to set boulders higher up in his waterfall designs. Otte also uses his loader with one of his three bucket attachments to construct berms behind the waterfalls, as well as to backfill and smooth out the terrain during the clean-up phase.

With the right attachments, Otte knows his compact utility loader could be used for many other tasks around the jobsite. For example, with a trencher attachment, he could lay the plumbing in his pond creations; he could use the backhoe attachment for excavation and backfill work; and a vibratory plow attachment would make short work of any irrigation project.

Because he’s located in Minnesota, Otte’s working season usually runs from May through December. He works on projects ranging in cost from $15,000 to $40,000, completing six to 10 big projects a year, with several smaller projects sprinkled throughout. So, he needs the right tools that help him complete as many projects as possible.

“The design of the project really dictates how long it will take to complete,” said Otte. “The terrain, the amount of digging, the size of the water feature, access to the site and any obstacles all go into my planning. Also, weather is a big factor in how quickly I can complete a project. As a small business owner, having the machine to do the job is invaluable.”

Otte sees a lot of contractors using larger, heavier machines to build ponds and knows there is a more efficient way. “I see a lot of landscapers who are expanding their business by building water gardens show up with a skid-steer and make a big mess. They have way more machine than they need, and it’s too big to maneuver around these backyards without tearing things up.”

Another advantage of the compact utility loader is the visibility — Otte can see all around the machine during operation, and he’s able to look right at what he’s working on. This allows him to be more specific with the machine’s operation.


Otte tested several different models before buying. He was looking for a machine that he could transport with a ½-ton pick-up and enclosed trailer — equipment he already had in his fleet. Also, he wanted a loader that had the lift and carrying capacity to move large boulders. “The ability to install appropriately large rock is what separates professional contractors from homeowners,” reveals Otte. “I was also looking for a machine that had highly responsive hydraulics and an aggressive powertrain. I was looking for good engagement from a loader.”

Although he didn’t initially have a preference for a gas- or diesel-powered unit, Otte ended up choosing a gas unit because his other equipment is gas-powered, eliminating the need to keep two different fuel types on hand. And, its ability to climb is one of the reasons he chose a wheeled model versus a tracked unit — because wheeled units have more weight at each wheel, Otte’s loader is a powerful climber. Although, Otte notes, tracked models offer the advantage of a longer wheelbase and the ability to lift more.

“Having one compact loader in my fleet is enough to make my company profitable,” said Otte. “It saves me a lot of physical labor.”

Amber Reed is with Performance Marketing, West Des Moines, Iowa.

Article provided by The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minn.

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