The response of Paul Stetson's neighbor to his latest project was immediate and hostile. The then 10-year-old from New Bedford, Mass., had barely begun to dig his first-ever water garden when the crusty old schoolmarm looked out from her home and thundered: "I'm not going to have a mosquito-ridden swamp under my bedroom window!"
But the youngster was quick with a response: There wouldn't be any mosquitoes because the goldfish in the pond would eat them, and it wouldn't become a swamp because the water lilies and other plants would feed on all the excess nutrients in the water. What's more, it would also be a beautiful thing for her to look out on.
At that stage the neighbor ordered: "Stay right where you are." Though he didn't realize it right away, the young Stetson had done something dear to every teacher's heart: his homework! He knew his subject, in other words, and she was impressed.
Moments later she appeared in his yard with $10 in her hand, a goodly sum back in the 1940s. "Here, this is to help you with your project," she said, and thereafter became an enthusiastic follower of the pool's progress.
In those early post-World War II years, Stetson was a rarity among amateur gardeners. Few people in the United States - outside of professionals at parks, arboretums, and on private estates - ventured into water gardening. Building a pool wasn't simple, nor was relevant information freely available. Now, it seems, almost everyone is getting into the act. Water gardening is the fastest-growing segment in horticulture.
Today Stetson's Paradise Water Gardens here is one of a dozen or more mail-order suppliers of water-garden plants and equipment in North America, and what happened with his neighbor he has seen repeated over and over again in the years since then: When misconceptions go, people are drawn to water gardening in a major way.
What brought about the change? Paul Thomas, third-generation owner of the Maryland-based Lilypons Water Gardens, established in 1917 and for decades the lone supplier of pond plants and equipment in the US, sums it up in one word: "simplicity." Where concrete was once the only appropriate building material, now constructing a pool "is as simple as digging a hole and putting in a [plastic] liner," he says. On top of that, much of the mystery surrounding water gardens has dissipated.
"People now know," says Mr. Thomas, "that water gardening is the easiest gardening you will ever do. There's no digging, hoeing, mowing or raking and no weeds, not even dandelions. Once you start right," he says, "your water garden practically takes care of itself."
On top of this, there's also the universal appeal of water - the look of water, the feel of water, and the ever-soothing sound of water running over rocks or splashing back into a pool from a fountain. As Jaqui Heriteau, longtime garden writer, editor, and co-author, with Thomas, of the book "Water Gardens," likes to put it: "Not many of us can afford to live by the lake, but at very modest expense, we can bring the lake to our own back yard."
Even the smallest pond, she notes, will quickly attract lakeside fauna - agile toads, stately dragonflies, butterflies, and birds. It's up to the gardener to introduce the aquatic plants - water lilies, rushes, irises, among others, and several floating species like the water hyacinth - the fish, and install a small fountain.
Ponds can range from as small as half barrels, suited to the patio or deck, to as large as your yard can accommodate. But the trend is toward larger ponds. Where six feet by four was standard for the home garden little more than a decade ago, 100 square feet of surface water is the current average for American homemade ponds. Studies also show that these ponds use less water per square foot than an well- maintained lawn.
The British and Irish are among the world's most avid water gardeners. "Over there every gardener has a pond and buys three new books on water gardening each year," Ms. Heriteau says with some exaggeration. But, she insists, "America is catching up rapidly," noting that where garden centers barely gave water gardening a nod a little more than a decade ago, "now most centers have a designated water-garden section."
None of this surprises Greater Boston resident Barbara Ward, who put in a small water garden four years ago. "There's nothing more relaxing," she says, "than to go out to the screen house on a warm evening, sink into a chair, and listen to the water bubbling in the pond. In many ways it's the highlight of my day."
Water Gardens: How to Design, Install, Plant, and Maintain a Home Water Garden, by Jacqueline Heriteau & Charles B. Thomas (Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1994)
The Complete Pond Builder, by Helen Nash (Water Gardening Inc., 49 Boone Village, Zionsville, IN 46077).
Water Gardening From Denver Botanic Gardens, by Joseph Tomocik (Pantheon Books, Knopf Publishing, New York, 1996)
Water Gardening - From Start to Finish, Lilypons Videos, PO Box 10,
Buckeystown, MD 21717