Up a Pond Without a Paddle

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I'M always complaining about my ponds,'' said Carolyne Roehm, the former fashion designer, glancing toward the extravagant series of interconnecting ponds and waterfalls on what was once a dry meadow at Weatherstone Farm, her sprawling estate in Sharon, Conn.

The watery idyll, for which she once had such high hopes, is now a sea of frothy green scum that her gardeners scoop -- to little avail -- once a week.

Walden was never like this.

''I bought little grass carp to eat the algae, and now they're practically the size of whales,'' Ms. Roehm lamented, ''but I still have algae.'' This week, a frantic call went out for a supply of Clear Difference, an algaecide, and Muckbuster, an enzyme that digests fish waste.

Ms. Roehm's enormous water garden was installed at considerable expense during her marriage in the 1980's to Henry Kravis, the billionaire leveraged-buyout specialist. So sophisticated is the high-tech recirculating system for her aquatic Eden that, at the flick of a dial, the water can be made to fall at three speeds: babbling, gushing or Niagara-torrential.

''My head groundsman turns it on full blast, and I'm forever asking him to turn it down,'' she said. ''I think many of us have a yearning for this great pastoral scene, but the reality doesn't quite match the fantasy.''

Still, the rush to create ornamental ponds in unprecedented numbers across the nation is creating a new chapter in American gardening history.

''Swimming pools are passe,'' said Alan Sperling, the president of the National Pond Society, in Marietta, Ga., who keeps a national register of the country's two million nonagricultural ponds (and reported $750 million in national sales of pond services and supplies last year). He says the number of ponds is growing by 10 to 15 percent a year, with an astonishing estimate of 250,000 new ponds expected this year and for each of the next five years. ''Happy pondering,'' is his cheery way of concluding telephone conversations. He gleefully reported that more new ponds are being installed than swimming pools.

But why this sudden preponderance of ponds?

''People want to be connected to their land,'' said Dorothy Kalins, the editor of Garden Design magazine. ''Creating a pond is a little like playing God with the aid of a recycling pump. In a way it's an act of supreme arrogance, but you get a big bang for your effort -- much more so than with a vegetable garden, which offers a subtler bang.''

Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, said the link between people and ponds has a long pedigree: ''Ponds provide a prehistoric connection to the environment. As primates, we dwelled by shallow ponds and lakes, traveling from one body of water to another to survive.''

''Ponds have become incredibly popular in the past two years,'' said John Troy, the proprietor of Troy's, a garden supply store in Bedford, N.Y. ''This year, we've put in 35 already. We only began selling pond supplies three years ago because so many people were asking for them.''

Mr. Sperling defines a pond as ''anything larger than a fishbowl and smaller than a lake.''

Attempting to install a pond of any size that gives the impression of having been wrought by nature itself requires a level of artifice that is rarely achieved without considerable expense -- which can be very considerable when imported fancy fish are included. An exotic collectible koi can cost $10,000 and is nerve-rackingly vulnerable to any passing blue heron cruising for a buffet.

Any pond starts with a hole and a lot of plastic (or bentonite clay, if it is large enough to require a bulldozer). After the lining, without which the hole becomes just an oversize puddle that seeps back into the soil, comes the dirt; then plants, water and fish, in ecologically amenable proportions. Natural ponds are fed by streams or springs, but in those that are built, the water usually has to be kept moving with a pump. If it stagnates, it will be a fishy death trap and paradise for mosquitoes and algae, which can turn a water wonderland into a seething sea of green.

As Mr. Sperling put it: ''You never dream how much wildlife you have in your community until you build a pond. Butterflies, dragonflies, swallows, raccoons, snakes, frogs and toads appear, just to name a few.''

Barry Kieselstein-Cord, the jeweler and fashion accessories designer, extols the glories of skinny-dipping in his pond in Millbrook, N.Y. ''Nude swimming in it is very sensual,'' he said.

And perhaps slightly risky, given a pond's come-hither charm for snapping turtles.

''I've seen a turtle snap off the end of a broomstick with one bite,'' said Cynthia Rice, the owner of Beardsley Gardens, a nursery in Sharon. Even with a modest pond, she added, one should expect snapping turtles. ''They're very common, and you can't keep them out,'' she said. ''Somehow, they just arrive. They'll travel over land to find your pond, and they can be ferocious.''

The path to pond bliss is strewn with other obstacles, not the least of which is geese, whose droppings can be an irksome pollutant; torn and leaky plastic pond liners; muskrats, which chew the roots of the water plants (''Even Monet had muskrats,'' said Donald E. Deuster, a pond owner in Libertyville, Ill., who received Garden Design magazine's 1995 golden trowel award for water gardens); costly or unsightly fences (required for safety, depending on depth, as with swimming pools), and faulty acid-alkaline balance.

Ms. Roehm said: ''The worst problem with my ponds is they just weren't dug properly. The contractors left out a vital lining layer and it had to be redone, and they were made too shallow, so the sun's rays reach the bottom, turning them into giant algae incubators. As a result I'm now trying to hide my ponds with tall grasses and other plants. But I guess these are the problems you get when you're not paying attention because you're working too hard, you're too young and too rich.''

For those seeking quicker and cheaper alternatives, ponds are available on a more modest scale.

Mr. Sperling said a homemade pond roughly 8 by 12 feet can cost as little as $1,000 to $1,700 (including pump and tubing, aquatic plants, some plebeian fish, a pH-balance kit and a small bench from which to admire one's handiwork).

James van Sweden, the author of ''Gardening With Water'' (Random House, 1995) and a landscape architect in Washington, said the minimum for a professionally designed and installed pond of similar size is about $3,000.

Mr. Deuster's garden, which covers just a third of an acre, has no fewer than seven ponds and is full of such brilliant-hued flora as dazzling pink Nelumbo nucifera lotus and rosy Nymphaea Perry's Pink waterlilies.

Mr. Deuster, who digs his own ponds, finds maintaining them to be relatively easy. ''Before I dug my ponds I had grass,'' he said. ''Now, I never have to mow the lawn.''

He has learned to cope creatively. ''I don't have an algae problem because my waterlily and lotus leaves cover most of the water surface, so the sun can't reach the bottom,'' he said.

How about those pesky muskrats? ''All you have to do is plant everything in wooden boxes and put wire over the roots so they can't get at them.'' And raccoons, which wade into ponds and devour fish? ''You just have to dig it to make the sides more than three feet deep. That way it's too deep for them to wade in.''

POND accouterments are endless for those who can't resist the extras. And for the easily tempted, Mr. Sperling of the National Pond Society has a favorite maxim: ''A pond is a hole in the ground with a finite amount of water and an infinite amount of cash.''

In his 50-acre garden in Mount Kisco, N.Y., which includes a private zoo, Michael Steinhardt, the Wall Street hedge-fund manager, has installed six connecting ponds, which he surveys with the help of a golf cart. ''The black swans are nesting right now, and the Russian sage is in bloom,'' he reported last weekend.

And Betsy and Jonathan Greenburg in Salt Point, N.Y., have a floating gazebo with an electric motor that lets them glide silently across their five-acre pond.

For others, the ultimate pond accessory is one with fins.

''People in this country have a hard time understanding how a fish can cost $10,000,'' said Joel Burkard, the owner of Pan Intercorp in Bothell, Wash., which supplies thoroughly thoroughbred koi for pond owners. ''But in Japan, people think nothing of paying as much for a great fish as they would for a car. And some koi in Japan have sold for as much as a million dollars.''

Bill Blackburn, a passionate koi collector, who has a pond in his garden in Seattle, admitted: ''I know it's weird. My wife pointed out it's pretty funny that some folks get excited about entering their $10,000 fish into a competition where all they'll earn is a $25 trophy.''

Koi folk generally disdain goldfish, and goldfish folk rarely have a civil word to say about koi.

''Goldfish are far superior,'' said Steve Frowine, a landscape architect at White Flower Farms in Sharon, who has traveled to Japan, China and England to purchase goldfish to add to his own collection. ''Koi are aggressive. They can destroy your pond plants by eating their roots, and they often require very fancy filtration systems. They're very dirty fish.''

Last weekend, Mr. Frowine joined a thousand or so other goldfish fellow travelers in Akron, Ohio, for the third annual goldfish show and symposium of the Goldfish Society of America. (''It's the North American championships,'' Mr. Frowine said.)

The subject of goldfish, however, arouses contempt from Bill Blackburn. ''Frankly, I don't like them,'' he said. ''They're very fragile, they don't live long and they're way too small. Listen, my average koi are 20 inches long. I'd like to see a goldfish that big.''

How does he explain the fierce rivalry between goldfish folk and koi folk? ''I wouldn't call it rivalry,'' he said. ''Goldfish aren't even on the same planet.''

Mr. Burkard, the importer, explained his passion. ''Koi is the hobby of kings,'' he said. ''The Asians call them living jewels. And some pretty important people collect them: the Crown Princess of Thailand, Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Gloria Estefan and Sylvester Stallone.''

But koi and goldfish tend to attract the same groupies, cats and raccoons prominently among them.

Mr. Blackburn has driven 18-inch-long steel stakes into the ground every two inches around his pond to keep his prize koi (including a 1996 Koi America Show ''best in size'' shiro utsuri, for which he has been offered $10,000) from appearing in the Zagat guide of local burrowing otters; as further protection, there is a six-foot-high cedar fence. His golden retriever, Mozart, is on 24-hour heron detail.

''I've got to protect my investment,'' Mr. Blackburn said of his pond's high-price inhabitants. ''It's like I've got a Lexus floating around in there.''

Ah, nature.

Published in the New York Times on August 8, 2006

Christopher Mason