Grow with the Flow: Water Gardening Makes a Splash in Central Texas
first published in The Goodlife Magazine
by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden
“I guess it’s the Age of Aquarius,” says Mary Huck with a laugh as she describes the burgeoning popularity of water gardening. Huck, the Vice President of the Austin Pond Society’s annual Pond Tour, ought to know, every year she helps organize an event that sends thousands of Central Texans trekking from one back yard oasis to another in search of aquatic inspiration. Water gardening, or “ponding” as many people call it, is among the fastest growing hobbies in the United States. Here in Austin, what was a small stream of water gardeners just ten years ago has grown into a flood.
Huck caught the water gardening bug in Italy, where she lived for several years. “There,” she says, “I had a small pre-formed pond that I lined with rocks. It was simple, but really very wonderful. We lived a life infused with art and beauty. So, when I came back here, I campaigned for a pond.” Like many others smitten by the water bug, Huck’s campaign didn’t stop with just one pond, she now has two linked by a flowing stream. Dr. Mike D. Maddox, the President of the Austin Pond Society, says this is a common experience, “What happens is that someone goes out a builds a bathtub sized pond, and before you know it, their whole backyard is filled with ponds.”
What’s makes water gardening so addictive? Every water gardener has his or her own story- some of these stories are rooted in the sense of wonder that ponds inspire, others are simply drawn from the sensual appeal that water brings to our arid climate.
“Having a pond nearby really helps you live with the heat, it has a cooling effect,” says Huck. “And, when people come to the house, they are always amazed by the life, its everywhere;” she continues, “the dragonflies, flowers, and fish. It is like a little planet or microcosm. It makes you feel connected, like a waking meditation.”
“I guess it was my upbringing in Oregon,” explains Maddox, “I was drawn to the sound of running water. I started out just wanting something nice to look at outside of my kitchen window and ended up installing a series of ponds. The great thing is that they are always changing,” he continues, “if you put in a lawn it never really changes. But with water, there’s movement and critters, and every time you walk outside something new is blooming.”
Scott Smith, of Aquatic Features Inc., is what I call a “pond artist” he counts himself among the small but growing number of pond contractors in Central Texas who designs and installs ponds. What sets him apart from the “school” is his Masters Degree in Aquaculture which he has applied in both commercial fish farming operations and as a Peace Corps volunteer. “Ultimately, I was inspired by Barton Creek,” says Smith, “starting when I was about six years old I used to go down to the creek to catch fish and water eels and watch the wild turkeys. It was a place to explore and be close to nature.”
Smith, and his business partner, Michael Menghini, create backyard sanctuaries for their customers. “I actually think that a pond makes the yard more useable, says Smith, “it becomes a destination and a place for fellowship where two people can sit down together, talk, and spend time with one another. Water brings in the birds and other critters,” he continues, “and people really love their fish, it gives them a whole new hobby. The first thing that a lot of our customers do when they get home from work is go outside to feed their fish; it’s a great way to decompress.”
Steve Kainer, owner of Hill Country Water Gardens, a water garden nursery and supply business in Cedar Park, says that “Since September 11, people aren’t traveling as much, but they are taking care of their homes. They are looking for peace and serenity and water gardens offer that.”
While some people look at a pond and experience peace and serenity, others cringe at what they assume is a high maintenance nightmare. However, the reality of water gardening is really quite different- if the pond is properly installed and well sited, a few minutes of care a week should result in clear water and a balanced system. “Seventy percent of our customers install their own ponds,” says Kainer, “we encourage them to use the rubber liners, but we have a lot of customers who’ve purchased those little pre-formed ponds at a discount store. The number one complaint we hear is about green water, this usually comes from either a lack of filtration or poor filtration.”
Mike Maddox suggests doing a little planning and research before you start to dig your pond, “The Austin Pond Society has a library and videotapes that we loan out and one of our core membership groups are the people who join just to learn how to do it.” What advice does he share with the un-baptized? “Be careful about where you put your pond. Trees make a mess and too much shade means no lilies. Knowing what you’re going to dig into is important,” he adds, “is it rock or dirt? Also, watch out for utilities and irrigation systems.”
Scott Smith says that “We encourage sufficient depth, around three feet, so that you achieve a temperature inversion in the pond. That creates a layer of cool water at the bottom of the pond during the summer and keeps it warmer in winter. Also, the depth will help protect your fish from predators like raccoons.” Smith and Menghini use liners to build their ponds and then line them with large flat stones, “Most people want a very natural pond with a waterfall and pool, you really have to use large stones to make it look strong and natural. Piling up gravel doesn’t work because the gravel traps nutrients and the ponds get dirtier much faster.”
All of the pond pros seem to agree that getting things into balance is the key to success with a pond. It takes a while, but once Mother Nature steps in, then the fish, plants, frogs, birds, and myriad other creatures will do most of the work for you. All that you need to do is make sure the balance doesn’t get tipped too far in any one direction and be prepared to for a little gentle intervention. That being said, however, potential ponders do face some critical choices. The good news here is that choosing is half of the fun. I’m referring to the choices that need to be made between which kinds of fish and plants you want to populate your watery Eden with.
Lilies are, by far, the most popular water garden plants. There are tropical forms that typically need to be protected during the winter and hardy forms that simply go dormant. Folks interested in keeping things simple often opt for the hardy lilies, but others can’t resist the tropicals. “They’re my personal favorites,” says Kainer, They are extremely prolific, very fragrant, and the colors are amazing- purples, blues, magentas, and hot reds.”
The fish used in water gardens also tend to fall into two camps- koi, which are actually a form of carp, and the many different forms of goldfish. Koi are highly prized for their impressive size and spectacular colors. The down side to koi is that they need more space and often develop a taste for the plants in the pond. Goldfish are a very popular choice for their ease of care. “They don’t need a deep pond and can handle both the heat and cold of Texas very well,” says Kainer.
Fresh from the side of her pond where she has been communing with her koi, water lilies, and giant lotus, Mary Huck reflects on her creation, “I wouldn’t trade the time I spend with the pond for anything. Weeding? I’d be happy to hire someone to do that. But the pond brings me such serenity, I do that for myself.”
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