Anthony & Sylvan Pools has designed and built a variety of free-form pools that incorporate natural elements.

How to Add Natural Stone Features to Your Pool

From grottos to waterfalls, pools are grounding themselves in the great outdoors with stone and wood elements.

To make the poolscape an integrated part of the great outdoors, designers are incorporating natural materials and elements such as boulders and stone, exotic woods, grottos, and cascading waterfalls into their plans, turning the backyard into a private sanctuary.

These back-to-nature settings, as placid as they are pretty, provide a sense of safety and security and are part of a larger worldwide wellness trend that has become paramount in every aspect of our daily lives. From what we eat and what we wear to how we spend our leisure time, nature has become our guiding force. 

“People want to make their backyards unique,” says Tom Casey, vice president of sales for the 75-year-old professional design/build company Anthony & Sylvan Pools based in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. 

“Free-form pools allow them to do this. And they’re versatile because they can be sectioned for a variety of different activities, ranging from lap swimming to lounging on a tanning ledge, that can all be going on at the same time.”

Poolscapes, the ultimate method of displaying the water element, are natural fits to this stay-home, stay-healthy trend.

“Outdoor living has always been popular, and having a private space is increasingly preferred to shared spaces, and the great outdoors is harder to access all the time,” says Bruce Riley, managing director of RicoRock, which has locations in Texas and Florida.

He notes that the use of natural materials, whether to create a pond-like pool or to add classic touches to a conventional poolscape design, isn’t only about optics.

“Rock structures that serve a purpose—jump rocks, grottos, rocks to surround waterslides and even walk-in caves—are also popular,” Riley says.

This design by Armond Aquatech Pools features a rustic pool house and poolscape, complete with fieldstone boulders and grasses and ferns that were planted between the natural stones to enhance the beauty of the free-form vanishing-edge pool. Photograph by Q. Stern Photography

Wood and stone also feel good underfoot, says Mike Ciarrochi, vice president of Armond Aquatech Pools in Bridgeport, Pennsylvania. “They are softer and more forgiving.”

Regardless of the style, size, shape or geographical location of the pool, there are a variety of ways to make it commune with nature and harmonize with the rest of the backyard landscape.

Natural rock and landscaping disguise a water slide in a poolscape designed by Armond Aquatech Pools.

Ciarrochi says that most of his projects, which feature custom gunite pools, incorporate some natural stone in the design. 

“Our clients want pools that reflect or complement nature,” he says. “We use natural materials at the coping and waterline. Pennsylvania bluestone, slate, travertine, and marble are the most popular materials and look the nicest.”

The choice of natural materials, he adds, depends on a number of factors.

“You have to select materials that don’t get too hot in summer and that are compatible with saltwater and sanitizers,” he says. “You have to understand how sealers affect the color and slipperiness of the stone and know how the natural material will react to freeze-thaw conditions. The hardwoods of South America, such as ipe, are good choices for decking because they are not considered flammable. You can put a fire pit or a grill on them.”

Sometimes, the natural selections are subtle. For instance, Ciarrochi recently created a grooved waterfall of Pennsylvania bluestone to complement a contemporary rectangular pool that features a raised spa. 

“It has the audio quality of a rainstick,” he says. “It drowns out the sound of the Philadelphia air traffic. It’s very soothing.”

For one client, Ciarrochi used natural stone to disguise a water slide to improve aesthetics, and in another project, he designed a nature-centric sun shelf veneered with full-color flagstone.

He’s used boulders in a variety of ways to level out changes in elevation naturally. 

“In one case, we added boulders to the bottom of the pool that are half submerged, and other times, we have made natural-stone retaining walls and extended them into the pool so it feels like a pond,” he says.

Natural materials, adds Casey, ground the free-form pool to its geographical location. “Landscaping around the pool is like framing a picture—if you own the Mona Lisa, you wouldn’t put it in a chrome frame because it wouldn’t be appropriate,” he says.

Stonework, particularly stone coping, is one key way to add texture and a natural feel to the setting. “Most of the stone comes from quarries in the area, which makes it geographically relevant,” he says. “And some of the stonework can turn into larger stones and boulders of varied height to create a water feature, which is a very popular option.”

Water features, in fact, are so alluring, he adds, that sometimes people don’t even get into the pool— “they sit next to it and listen to the water’s sound; it’s a respite that allows them to let the worries of the week go away.”

Plantings of trees and plants also add ambience. “We’ve created free-form pools where there’s landscaping along one side so you can’t walk all the way around the pool,” Casey says, adding that his own personal pool features easy-to-care-for ornamental grasses that grow quickly, provide privacy and are resistant to extreme changes of temperature. “We use hardy blends of low-maintenance plants. This really works well when there are changes in elevation—you can elevate one side and dress it up with stonework and a water feature with landscaping behind it.”

In addition to natural elements, there are a variety of natural-looking products on the market that are designed specifically for poolscapes.

A family in Round Rock, Texas used RicoRock’s 4 Foot Double waterfall kit with a custom lift to remodel a pool and make it more fun for the children. Photograph by Heather W., Round Rock, Texas

Riley’s RicoRock, the manufacturer of the proprietary cast concrete rock that shares the company’s name, says his product not only looks like the real thing but also offers more diversity than its natural counterpart.  

“Pre-cast installers are able to be creative without a lot of extra expense,” he says. “Coping and waterline pieces work on both concrete and fiberglass pools and complement boulder waterfalls.”

And, he adds, “A five-ton natural stone waterfall often turns into a 10,000-pound pile of rocks that do not function as well as pre-cast rock.”

A homeowner in Texas used RicoRock kits to replace a sculpted concrete waterfall and a leaking natural-stone waterfall. Photograph by Thomas G., New Braunfels, Texas

RicoRock kits are also ideal, he adds, for updating pools. “Many homeowners add climbing walls to their outdoor space for beauty, entertainment, and exercise,” he says. “Many of our waterfall owners purchase their waterfalls as fun elements for their children to play on but end up spending countless hours themselves just listening to the soothing sounds of their waterfalls.”

Regardless of where they are sited or which amenities they have, Casey says that the real beauty of free-form pools is that “they make a new product look natural and like it’s been there a long time.”,,  

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