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WATER ON REQUEST : Installing ponds, modest or otherwise, to soothe the soul also lets hobbyists nurture plants that aren't suitable for dry land.


Visitors to the 1995 Orange County Fair marveled at the Thunder Bay Lagoon, where simulated lightning, thunder and rainfall depicted a tropical rain forest. A cascading waterfall poured into a waterlily-filled lagoon, surrounded by lush tropical plantings.

Now, back to reality.

More modest water gardens can be enjoyed in Orange County back yards with just a little expenditure of time and effort. There, waterlilies can bloom spring through fall, vividly colored goldfish can splash about, and the soothing sounds of water gently cascading over a manufactured waterfall can provide a focal point for the garden and an oasis of peace and tranquillity.

Water gardening also provides the opportunity to tend plants that aren't suitable for dry land. It also unveils an entirely new ecosystem.

"I love nature, and understanding the process of creating a balanced pond brings me closer to understanding the world," said Ben Plonski, a co-owner of Laguna Koi Ponds in Laguna Beach.

Plonski and his partners, Jay Thayer and Greg Zuccolotto, provided the waterlilies for Thunder Bay Lagoon. Their firm also installed two smaller demonstration water gardens, stocked with lilies, water plants and fish.

For people who'd like to try a water garden but don't want to invest considerable sums, Plonski recommends installing a small pond using a plastic liner or preformed fiberglass shell. These types of ponds will accommodate waterlilies and goldfish.

A plastic or fiberglass pond cannot, however, handle koi (Japanese carp). Since koi eat plants and scour the pond bottom in their quest for food, to house them adequately you'll need a cement pond at least five feet deep, filtration systems and protection for the plants.

City permits are required for koi ponds because most cities categorize them as swimming pools. Perimeter fencing is also required.

But a water garden doesn't need to be any deeper than 18 inches, so permits aren't required, nor is special fencing, Plonski said. "Instead of koi, which shouldn't be housed in a lily pond, we recommend goldfish to add color and interest and help maintain the pond's balance."

Goldfish, plain or fancy, help maintain pond balance by eating algae as well as mosquito larvae. Whenever water and sunlight are combined, algae are present. There are hundreds of different kinds of algae, ranging from microscopic to giant, such as seaweed.

Water gardens are subject to both the free-swimming types of algae that make the water look green and the filamentous types that grow, hair-like, along the sides of ponds and plant containers. A certain amount of algae is necessary, but too much makes the water murky, and the water garden becomes sick.

The correct amount of algae is maintained by adding aquatic plants that not only are visually pleasing but also consume nutrients in the water that would otherwise be consumed by the algae. They also shade the pond surface with their foliage, depriving algae of needed sunlight.

"There should be at least 50% coverage of the pond surface by aquatic foliage," said Jon Rasmussen, owner of the Pond Co. in San Gabriel. "Balancing a pond is both an art and science, and it sometimes involves trial and error because the pond changes as the fish and plants grow."

There are some simple steps to take in the planning and creation of a water garden.

"First, decide why you want a water garden," advises Bill Uber, owner of Van Ness Water Gardens in Upland. "Do you want a waterfall? How much time are you willing to spend in maintenance?"

He recommends that novices keep it simple by installing a small pond.

Plonski agrees. "You can have a lovely water pond using a 10-foot-by-10-foot liner, which results in a 5-foot-by-5-foot pond. It will hold several waterlilies, oxygenating grasses, three or four goldfish and a few other aquatic plants."


Going With the Flow

Building a pond or waterfall can cost as little as $100 for a kit--saving the thousands it could cost for professional installation. Before beginning, carefully consider the location: Select one that gets five to eight hours of sunlight daily. Don't place the pond under overhanging trees, where leaves and debris can foul the water, or at the low end of the property, where it will fill with rain or irrigation runoff that can deposit dirt or chemicals from fertilizer or pesticides into the pond (it'll kill the fish).

A) PLANTS: Marginals plants help camouflage the edges of the pool and act as a transition between land and water. Submerged plants oxygenate water and provide protection and food for fish. Grassy aquatic plants cleanse the water by removing mineral salts. Floating plants such as lilies, which enjoy sunlight, can shade water below the leaf pad, reducing algae growth and adding color to water surface.

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