One man’s aqueous idyll

After retirement, Bob Shaw created his dream garden in his Des Moines, Iowa, backyard.

Photos by Craig Summers Black
FALLS AND FLOWERS:A cozy dining area nestles up against the central falls of Bob and Becky Shaw’s water garden.

Bob Shaw still winces when he talks about the construction of the stone bridge in his water garden.

“They dug the channel wider than they intended – and you can’t put what you dig out back,” he says. “So they had to bring in a bigger stone than they had anticipated. That rock is pretty massive – 6,800 pounds. They had to move it with this big hoist. I couldn’t watch.”

Now, however, that huge stone – and the rest of the 5,000-gallon water feature with its six cascades – is all nestled in, comfy-cozy, softened by foliage and flowers that spill over, much like the water itself.

Despite the billowing camouflage, the stone is so large that you almost wonder if it could withstand a direct nuclear strike.

“Well, no,” Mr. Shaw says with a laugh. “But it’s guaranteed to withstand any relatives that I have. This water feature will be here despite any storm that takes the house down.”

A big retirement project
Shaw retired about five years ago and promptly set about planning the new garden on a double lot in suburban Des Moines, Iowa. His wife, Becky, who still practices medicine, gave him her blessing, and Bob set out, a man possessed.

“Taking the Master Gardener’s class was No. 1 on my list,” he says. “I’d never had enough time to make it work, so I was in.”

Was gardening Bob’s midlife crisis? The pond his flashy convertible?

“Becky probably hopes so,” Bob says. “There certainly can be a lot worse things.”
But even for the indoctrinated, the Shaw garden seems, well, generous. Both Becky and Bob’s parents instilled their love of gardening in their offspring, so you can appreciate their reaction to Bob’s lagoon.

“Oh, they think it’s way too much,” says Becky.

Even Bob did. At first.

“The project was supposed to take five weeks, and it took five months,” he says. “When we finished, all you could see was rock. But after the plants started to mature and it all filled in, I knew it was all worth it.

“Those rocks have so much character. They remind me of the cliffs on northeast Iowa. It’s Iowa limestone and Wisconsin granite – a meeting of the Hawkeyes and Badgers.”

Ducks, frogs, and birds
It’s also a meeting place for wildlife.

Bob likes to talk about the mallards that nested here and the four ducklings that hatched. Becky marvels at the frogs and the toads “that just showed up – and now we just have this chorus in the evening.”

And the birds.

“It’s funny, but when we first started up the pond, the birds wouldn’t go near it. Too loud, I guess,” Bob says. “But that didn’t last long. Now they just love it. I’ve been watching a half dozen robins bathing as we’ve been sitting here.”

Says Becky, “It’s this little habitat in the city.”

Unbeatable annuals

The growing season in central Iowa can be can be sweaty, windswept, and short. Many perennials have truncated bloom times. Some that are “guaranteed” to make it through Zone 5’s average winter low of minus 20 degrees F. sadly don’t: too little snow cover, too much wind.

So, to have continuous color in the garden, Bob Shaw makes annuals do the yeoman’s work. Maybe it’s not trendy, but it is effective.

His favorite combination of annuals is a copy of a planting scheme at a high school in St. Louis that he put in a new bed in his backyard.

“We knew it would thrive in the heat and humidity,” he says. “It was already St. Louis-proof.”

Lantana New Gold, Homestead verbena, Rambling Red petunia, and Alabama Sunset coleus are the workhorses. A smattering of Victoria Blue salvia, New Look celosia, Profusion zinnia, and Dragon Wing begonia are integrated here and there.

They look great for a long time. Says Bob, “It’s just a lot of fun to have that amount of color.”

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