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A Fish Story : Many Find Beauty in Water Gardens, Not Koi


The mere mention of koi fish to waterlily expert George Knopf causes him to shudder and gasp.

"It is forbidden if you want waterlilies," said Knopf, 81, with urgency. "The koi will eat them. They will eat everything."

Any enemy of waterlilies is an enemy of Knopf, a retired physician who began raising the plants in 1961 when health problems forced him to give up his medical practice. Now one of the most widely respected breeders of waterlilies in this area, he has 44 small pools in his back yard in Sylmar, each containing flowers he either bred or improved.

Although koi is on the rise as a hobby, many back yard gardeners have chosen instead to go with water gardens containing lilies, other water plants and small fish. In addition to the beauty of the flowers, amply demonstrated by the spectacular blooms in Knopf's back yard, water gardens are far easier to establish and maintain. Unlike koi ponds, they require no filtration or aeration.

"The idea is to make it as easy as possible for a person to have a pond. That way you spend more time enjoying the pond, and less time fussing with them," said Knopf, who considers his waterlilies a hobby and not a business, although he does sell to local nurseries, landscape designers and anyone else who sees his hand-painted sign in front of the house.

Lily ponds, if set up with the correct mixture of flowers and small fish, become a closed ecological system that is almost self-sustaining. The small fish--usually mosquito fish and goldfish, including the colorful and expensive shubunkin variety--eat the algae that inevitably grow in the pond. The fish waste is broken down by helpful bacteria into the carbon dioxide and nitrates that are needed by the plants, and the plants give off oxygen needed by the fish.

There are numerous books on how to achieve the balance, and most nurseries specializing in water gardens will talk a beginner through the process. Knopf has developed numerous theories and practices that differ from more conventional wisdom, and he is glad to dispense that knowledge to his customers.

"It is amazing how much bad information there is out there," he said.

For example, Knopf recommends that ponds be made of plastic cement, with no pipes or drains. "You have to avoid anything that can lead to a leak or a crack," said Knopf, who uses a wheelchair to negotiate his way around his ponds. During the devastating 1971 Sylmar earthquake, only one of his ponds developed a crack.

The water depth should be only about 18 inches, a depth that allows the ecological balance to get established. (Deeper than that and it's classified as a swimming pool and may require a permit.) "A shallow pool is a trouble-free pool," Knopf said. "You don't ever have to change the water, unless there is some disaster" such as a leak.

He recommends avoiding the use of chemicals to balance the pool. Chemical treatments are necessary only in areas where chloramines, which are deadly to fish, are added to the water supply and must be counteracted.

Knopf's contention that koi and waterlilies do not mix is generally accepted among water pond enthusiasts. But Jacklyn Nagasawa of Sunland Gardens and Barbara Johnson, who maintains several of the ponds supplied by Sunland, believe that theory is old hat. "Just look at my pond and it's proof that koi and waterlilies can exist together just fine," Nagasawa said. One of her large ponds sports big koi, plus blue, red and white waterlilies.

"The hard-core koi or waterlily people go into convulsions when I mention I put them in the same pond," she said, "but if you do it carefully and set it all up together, the fish get used to them and leave them alone. And the waterlilies do not rob oxygen the koi need."

Knopf, however, does not want to do anything that could bring harm to the waterlilies he has worked decades to perfect. Among his prizes are the yellow Chrome No. 3, the pink Princess Elizabeth and Big Red, which Knopf saved just before a fellow waterlily breeder's pools were bulldozed after the man died.

Although Knopf has improved these through selective breeding, he also has created a few new waterlilies, striving for vibrant colors and long blooming periods. He believes his most successful creation, so far, is the orange Indian Summer.

"I've been working on that one for six years," he said. "If it tests out for a few more, I'll offer it to people."

Knopf, who hopes his ponds and business will eventually be taken over by his daughter, said waterlilies have been a great solace to him. "When I could no longer work, I needed something to keep me busy, occupy my mind," he said. "But anyone can do this."

He pushed his wheelchair up to an edge of a pond where a group of large Chrome No. 3 lilies reside.

"This is something joyous, something beautiful. For a hobby, a fellow could do a lot worse."

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