Planting a Patch of Eden

Water Gardens

Ever since Adam and Eve were sent from Paradise, people have been searching for a way to return to Eden.

The Babylonians thought they were onto something with their hanging gardens, then along came Alexander the Great, and that was the end of that. When Ronald Colman found Shangri-La in the movie Lost Horizon, he turned his back on it, only to regret that decision for the rest of his life. Betsy Becker wasn’t about to make that mistake. On finding a small piece of heaven in Darien, she and her husband, Jed, promptly put down roots.

For the Becker family, paradise takes the form of a water garden, one that consists of a narrow, rock-lined cascade that tumbles musically into a flower-fringed pond. Colorful koi and other fish frolic among the lacy water celery and floating hyacinths, while from spring through early autumn this ethereal oasis explodes into an artist’s palette of flowers, including purple irises; yellow and maroon water lilies; pale red allium; pearly white turtlehead; cerulean forget-me-nots; and willowy, billowing arrowhead. Tall sprigs of mint shoot up between the weathered river stones that surround the pool, where bullfrogs cavort in the sun and various songbirds surreptitiously bathe.

Just another example of Mother Nature at her finest? Hardly. The Becker pond was pieced together stone by stone, with heavy- gauge rubber supporting it underneath, while the cascade that roils and rolls over rocks does so by virtue of a hidden pump. There are concealed lights, too, to illuminate the garden at night. “It just makes the property,” Betsy remarks, which is saying quite a bit, given the curbside appeal of her stately residence, an off-white, clapboard-sided colonial. She and Jed enjoy the sight and sound of the brook, which babbles just off their flagstone patio, and their daughters, Catherine, age thirteen, and Abby, twelve, find the koi among the more enticing aspects of this watery glade.

The girls dubbed their favorite fish Spot and Goldie, on account of their distinctive markings, and have enjoyed observing changes in them as the latter have “grown up,” Betsy says. Additionally, the pond has served as something of an ongoing science experiment, with the kids tossing in crawfish, turtles and snails, as well as tadpoles and frogs. As for the mix of annuals and perennials, Betsy likes to tinker with that from year to year. “It’s always fun to see what will work,” she says.

That this water garden was already on the property is one of the reasons the Beckers bought it when they moved to Darien five years ago. While they were still in St. Louis, Betsy and Jed asked their daughters what their concept of a dream home would entail. “They wanted a fish pond and a waterfall,” Betsy recalls. “So when we saw this house, we thought, ‘wow, perfect.’”
 
Indeed, more and more area residents are coming to view a water garden as the finishing touch to their exterior décor. Jeffrey Duncan, of Duncan Landscaping in Norwalk, created the one on the Becker plot eight years ago. Over the past twelve months he has installed about twenty more throughout the area, and he reports that the demand for such features is gradually increasing. Why? “There’s a very real therapeutic effect in having the sound of running water near where you sit or eat. Most people are attracted to that,” he explains. And from a strictly dollars-and-cents point of view, a water garden can add value to your home.

After seeing this sort of garden being installed in a yard near her New Canaan residence, Angela Kelleher decided to take the plunge herself. She hired Andrew Loglisci, and together they decided to tuck one into a gentle slope along the side of her property, just under a small oak tree. That was three years ago, and the pleasure she has derived from it since has been unending. “There was nothing but lawn there before,” Angela says. “I filled the space with something aesthetically beautiful and gave it a whole new life.”

Angela’s peaceful nook is within view of the road, just across a split-rail fence and several steps from her white, shingle-sided colonial-style home. Though of modest size, with a pool that measures roughly two yards across and a three-step cascade about four yards long, neighbors are constantly stopping by to admire it. “People leave notes in my mailbox, thanking me for the experience,” she says.

No wonder. Ornamental grass grows between the wide, flat stones that ring the pond, endowing it with a natural look, and a bench sits invitingly among a rich array of flowers — from daffodils and water hyacinths to yellow and purple irises — that bloom throughout the warmer months. The irises are especially appropriate given that Angela was partly inspired by her many visits, years earlier, to Monet’s gardens in Giverny, France. Installed at a price of about $10,000, this is her version of Giverny, she notes, on a level that she can afford.

Andrew Loglisci has created more than 100 such gardens over the years and every one of them is unique, he insists, because he adapts them to the existing terrain. His greatest difficulty, given the abundance of boulders and rocks in our native soil, lies in fitting the pond and waterfall into the ground. “But I use flexible liners, so I can conform those to any shape or size and go with the [existing] landscape,” Loglisci says. “And when I’m completed you don’t see anything artificial.”

Like any healthy ecosystem, a water garden requires minimal upkeep by the homeowner. When operating successfully they maintain a natural balance, with the water and sun feeding the plants, the plants filtering out excessive nutrients in the water, and the fish subsisting on the plants and eggs of other fish. As an added plus, “Where I put the pond, you no longer have to cut the lawn, and where there are water plants, you no longer have to sprinkle,” Duncan points out. “The system works fine on its own.”

That said, like most other yard features, some seasonal tweaking is necessary. Angela pays Loglisci Water Gardens of Norwalk to clean her pond in the spring and close it in the fall. In between, she empties a small filter bag once a week, tosses in a shot of algaecide — to keep algae growth under control — about as often, and every few days feeds the fish. The frogs, which gravitated to the pond from a nearby wetland, get by on bugs and insects. Then, in winter, a compact heater keeps the water from freezing solid, allowing the hibernating fish to survive.

And though there are no ornamental flowers to grace the spot at that time, a fine sculpture of ice forms, a rippling filigree that mimics the cascade. “It’s really pretty,” Angela states.

Betsy Becker agrees that keeping up a water garden is more a matter of routine than effort. The biggest challenge she faces is making sure that her kids don’t accidentally flip the switch inside the house that turns off the pump or, in winter, the heater. And running the latter, she says, accounts for one of the pond’s higher expenses. “But of all the electricity that you use, that’s the one that’s most worth it,” she feels.

This is especially true when you consider that a good-size koi can range in price from $40 on up to $4,000, depending on its size, coloration and pedigree. Carole McAnaney, who lives across the street from the Beckers, maintained a water garden for many years before filling it in this past spring. When her heater broke one winter, the water iced over completely, killing off all the koi. Yet their eggs remained viable, and by the following August the pool was repopulated with fish, albeit far smaller ones.

“Fish will grow to the size of their environment,” Carole reports, “and because I had a very large pond, I also had some very large fish.” So why did she do away with her water garden? Her sixteen-year-old son built it while she was off on vacation, digging the hole, clearing the rocks, and implanting the flexible liner himself. As a result, although it functioned, it never really functioned well. “I couldn’t find a pump that would adequately keep it clean,” Carole says. And unlike the professionals, her son neglected to ‘landscape’ the interior with rocks and gravel, accoutrements that lend sight appeal and provide fish with places to hide. “If I had one like Betsy’s,” she says succinctly, “I never would have filled it in.”

While an expert can convert a portion of almost any yard into a water garden, those with a tilt are easier (and less expensive) to manipulate. “I don’t want to be building mountains in yards that are flat, but I can rearrange and change the whole topography if I have to,” Duncan says. The same goes for Andrew Loglisci, who claims that he hasn’t yet had to say no to a property owner. A little bit of a slope, though, gives him much more flexibility. “I can get really fancy with the waterfall and put a nice pond at the bottom,” he comments.

Of course one could always build a water garden without the waterfall, but then it would be less a water garden than a pond. “The cascade gives you the sound you’re looking for,” Loglisci explains. “It echoes when it hits the rocks and splashes into a pool, creating a very relaxing, tranquil effect.” How relaxing it is depends on the volume of water churning through the system. The 17-foot cascade that Loglisci created for one client and a 150-foot stream he installed on a different estate clearly produce very different aural sensations. Then there is the waterfall he devised to fall into a family’s swimming pool. “Their kids had moved away and the diving board was no longer being used, so I took it out and turned that area into a really nice focal point,” he says. Being chlorinated, the water remained free of fish, but by using an abundance of flowers and water plants, Loglisci was able to manufacture a beautiful, natural-looking setting.

Perhaps the most unusual request that Duncan has fielded was for what he describes as a 45-foot moat to line the perimeter of a patio, apparently so that the client could float candles on it during her dinner parties. “That was a simple job,” he reports, though he may be grading it on a curve against a separate commission that called for a 180-foot “river” with six cascades flowing over a 20-foot bluff. The latter, which pumps about 17,000 gallons of water through its system every hour, took two weeks (“and a lot of manpower”) to construct and set the homeowner back about $60,000.

Loglisci and Duncan gravitated to the business of water gardens via landscaping and horticulture, and thus each has a keen eye for botanical details. So much so, in fact, that their artistic handiwork often serves as a draw for wildlife. Beyond the occasional frog or turtle, this means that on a typical day such springs could see any number of birds bathing among the lilies, and even squirrels, chipmunks and deer may drop by for a drink. Raccoons, which might covet the koi, find the water too deep and, after a couple of exploratory visits, will probably leave the garden alone. “They only wade by nature, so they won’t bother it,” Loglisci observes.

As for waterfowl, Carole McAnaney sighs that she’ll miss the pair of mallards that used to grace her pond in the spring. What she won’t regret is the end of the autumnal incursions by osprey and egrets on their migratory tour south. Beautiful as they are, such birds have an appetite for fish, which is why Carole and Betsy made a practice of alerting each other when one had popped in for a snack. “You could tell when he’d been here because he’d drop shells, and there was all kinds of debris left on the lawn,” Betsy says of an egret that made her garden a regular feeding stop. “We had some large frogs that were missing, too.” Jeff Duncan reports that a decoy bird planted among the rocks is sufficient to keep such solitary waders away from the water.

The one type of animal you are not likely to find in these water gardens is snakes. “I’ve been cleaning them for the last nine years,” Duncan says, “and beyond an occasional garter, I haven’t seen any.” Which suggests that as peaceful patches of paradise go, not only is it possible to return to Eden, but one can actually improve on it, as well.

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