An Aquatic Passion From a Simple Pond

Serenity pours through Gloria Young's backyard in Winnetka, Ill., on summer nights. Water trickles smooth over rock, frogs croak in the moonlight. They are perched on lily pads that grow amid water iris, swamp marigold, lotus, cattails, and papyrus.

Under morning sun, activity visits Ms. Young's aquatic calm. Neighboring wild ducks stop in, a butterfly koi with long flowing fins, a red and white goldfish and colorful shabunkin swim about. Dragonflies hover like helicopters just above this Neptunian universe.

There are two ways to transform your own backyard into a small water world: hire a professional or build one yourself. Do-it-yourself ponds reflect personal passions, individual fancy, and imaginative whim.

Most do-it-yourselfers insist that a backyard pond is easy to build: You dig a hole, line it with a 45 millimeter Butyl liner, add water - voila!

But even those who think they know what they want upon starting are likely to be overtaken by creative momentum. They end up striving for a bigger pond, a fountain, perhaps a little waterfall, a bit more flora here and a little frog there.

Just as water gardeners often get carried away building ponds, they also are tempted to expand their fish collections. Many start with goldfish, but most eventually come to collect a few koi, the Japanese carp bred for their exotic colors. Koi cost as little as a few dollars, for small domestically bred species, or as much as $10,000 for a rare collector's specimen.

Young's journey into pond gardening illustrates how this popular hobby lures unsuspecting gardeners to extremes.

From the beginning, Young knew she wanted to keep koi. She's so into the serenity and naturalness of it all that she was adamant about maintaining the pond without a mechanical filter. Rather, she learned to keep the water's pH level perfectly balanced (between 6 and 7) by keeping more plants than fish.

Her "little" pond is now the crown jewel in a symphony of sights, scents, and sounds. "Through the east gate you enter a meditation garden where it is quiet, still, and simple," she says. Passage from that quiet corner, through an arbor cloaked in clematis, brings visitors to the luring sound of water and border upon border of dramatic perennials.

But those perennial beds, dressed every year in annuals, are plush evidence of a simple plan gone grand. Fifteen years ago Young intended to plant only a few peonies.

But that creative-evolution force kicked in and she kept adding a few rare and exotic perennials here and there. Today, there are more than 100 growing in her perennial garden.

When Young first bought a small kidney-shaped, polyurethane pond at a local nursery, she might have known it would end up a little more than a modest affair. With her prefab pond in the ground, she began reading articles about building more-personalized ponds.

Filled with inspiration, she picked up a shovel and dug again, targeting a depth, length, and shape for her pond. She consulted various pond gurus and water garden experts.

She learned that if she were going to have koi she'd need a depth of at least 3 feet. Koi stop eating at 50 degrees F., and hibernate over winter in depths below that frost line. She also wanted a fountain - koi can survive the cold just fine as long as a hole remains in the ice to allow toxic gases to escape.

When it was finished, her 10-by-12 by-4-foot-deep hole held 3,000 gallons of water. Her store-bought kidney-shaped pond was history.

The rest of that summer was a comedy of shtick and triumph. At a local quarry, she pulled her Nissan Maxima up alongside rows of dump trucks and started loading. Wallstone would line her pond, flagstone would dress its border.

"I didn't even know how much I was loading. When they tallied my bill the guy said '980.' I said, 'That's the serial number for the stone I selected, right?' 'No,' he said, 'it's the weight - 980 pounds.' As I pulled out, my car tilted to one side. He said, 'Drive slow till you get out of here. On the highway you should be OK.' Then I got a little scared."

On her many return trips, Young collected somewhat lighter loads.

Later she laid out 45 mm Butyl liner - 300 pounds of black rubber - onto her grass to air it, as directed. It was that particularly hot summer that folks still talk about. With the help of friends, she managed to get the rubber into the hole to line her new pond, but not before the sun left a scorch mark on her perfect lawn.

Finally, for a waterfall, she finagled the pile of dirt that had accumulated while digging, installed a circulating pump, and created a staircase of gently trickling water.

Her serene pond with its exotic perennial garden is complete - until another creative impulse hits!

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