I’m often asked how I got into building water features. Well, it all boils down to some grass. When I was 13, my brother joined the Army and left me in charge of mowing the lawn every Saturday. Of course, in Central Florida the grass never stops growing. What’s more, in the summer you can’t cut it until the dew dries at 10 a.m.—which is also when the humidity reaches 90 percent and the temperature climbs to a heat index that would kill Tarzan. This, in turn, turns your body into your own flowing water feature—an effect that doesn’t stop until you make your last pass with the lawnmower two hours, one gallon of gas and 30 gallons of sweat later.
It didn’t take long before I developed a real hatred for our grass. I also learned that my father was the most amazing lawnmower repair man; no matter how I tried to break the thing down, he was able to have it running in no time at all! (Of course, I now see that my father was teaching me the value of tackling a job rather than avoiding it. I was working harder to keep the mower from running than I would’ve worked just using the thing and getting the job done!)
You Can’t Mow Water!
One Saturday, while pushing the mower and brainstorming about how to escape this torturous ceremony (which my family seemed to love watching from our air-conditioned house), I made a striking realization: you don’t have to mow water! All the lakes around our town had grass growing along the edges, but not out in the center. And even that shoreline grass was allowed to grow naturally! A plan began to form.
I humbly asked my father if I could dig a pond. To my surprise, his answer was “Yes.” What’s more, he promised that we could go see someone that very day who would help us with the project!
Of course, we could only go after I cut the grass … and I couldn’t get that lawn mowed fast enough! I was thrilled, thinking it would be my last time doing it. (Yes, I was young and dumb.)
When I finally finished and showered, we drove to Slocum Water Gardens, where I would meet three people who have greatly influenced my life: Perry Slocum; his son, Peter Slocum, who still owns Slocum Water Gardens; and my friend Randy Slocum, who has branched off into Slocum Ponds and Water Gardens.
That fateful Saturday, Peter Slocum and my father discussed how the pond should be built of concrete and how the Slocums could supply all the aquatic plants we would need. However, it would be up to us to build the pond! While they gave my father the how-tos of pond construction, I was paying little attention to all that was going on. I was mesmerized by this wondrous place and daydreaming about that evil grass at home being replaced by cool water.
From Escape Plan to Life Plan
Had I been paying attention, I would have learned that my father put a lot of stock in apprenticeships. So much, in fact, that at that very moment he was strategizing with the Slocums to create a job that would not pay me! It would, however lead to extensive knowledge of aquatic plant life … it would build in me the character required to build and care for a water garden … and it would lead to a lifelong passion for ponds.
The Hows and Whys of Water Gardening
By this time, my father (who had retired from 15 years with the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine division to become the stationary engineer at our local hospital) had a set idea in his mind about how a pond should be built. But I had begun a transformation into someone who cared more about the way water flowed, moved, shaped and transformed than simply how it supported life. I didn’t buy into the theory that “water is just the means to the end of growing aquatic plants—a theory I heard frequently from the Slocums.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I really was trying my best as a volunteer employee at the Gardens. But I was starting to realize that grass was a plant, and I was learning how to take care of water plants. What’s more, all these water plants needed to be taken care of outside, in the heat. And they really smelled worse than the grass I was so desperately trying to kill at home!
Pulling Weeds … And Then Some
At the beginning I had no knowledge of the difference between a weed and a plant to keep (terminology I still use to this day). The Slocums, however, can just about give you the molecular breakdown of any given plant in a language that I still don’t understand. Why we need the Latin name of each plant, I’ll never know.
One Saturday morning, I was told to remove all the weeds from one of the back ponds that was not viewed by the public, nor from the showroom or the greenhouse. This pond was for cultivating cattails, arrowhead, taro, papyrus and a variety of other plants.
The Slocums estimated that the job should take about four hours to complete. So you can imagine how proud I was when I walked into the showroom after just three hours, covered from head to toe in a very smelly substance, and announced that there was not one weed left in that pond! And that was true; I had removed every weed.
Unfortunately, as I soon learned, I had also removed all the plants. I heard words that day that I had never heard before, and I don’t think all of them were Latin plant names! I didn’t realize just how fast those old timers could move until I saw them rushing to put all the plants back in!
After that regrettable incident, the Slocums sat me down and explained the real purpose of pond weeding and how it was different from harvesting. And the good news of the day: they promoted me to the prestigious position of head pond de-mucker and chief pond sanitation officer! While the job was every bit as smelly as it sounds, it also involved lots of water, which was far cooler than that nasty grass at home.
After my first summer I was beginning to learn just how proud I could be after cleaning and repairing those back ponds. The back side of the Gardens was becoming my playground, and any area that was prepared to hold water could be used to cultivate and harvest aquatic plants that were shipped all over the world. That’s when I realized that some of the plants I was helping with might end up in places that I would visit when I got older.
Soon enough, those days on the back ponds prepared me to work on the front ponds. When that time arrived, I thought I had been called up to the big leagues. I was working the weekends and learning more about the construction of the ponds than the plants that were in them. I also learned how, through the presence of the plants, the water could become the living entity that we all strive for and attain the clarity that everyone expects today.
The patience required to build a soil-based pond is something that many do not have. We would dig out the ground, place new 32-mil liner in the hole and then throw a quarter of the dirt back in. We’d also add some cow manure, peat and a blend of fertilizer from the local mines here in Florida, which made the water look like a mud pit.
However, once we added oxygenating plants and freshwater clams that were obtained from local lakes or harvested out of the other ponds, things started to turn around. I’d put in a few dozen goldfish (to decrease the mosquito population) and then wait around 30 days and watch as the water would become amazingly clear. It would stay that way until we harvested the plants, fish or clams. Then, the de-mucking job would begin all over again.
Waterfalls and Repurposed Materials
My passion for waterfalls began in the back ponds at the Gardens, where I was allowed to play—I mean, work—with many different materials. Florida fieldstone is very brittle and hard, like glass. Also like glass, it will cut the dickens out of you. It has holes in it, which can create an awesome water effect by themselves. But if cemented in properly, it can be used to create a really cool Polynesian look. Add in some low-voltage lighting at night, and it looks like a volcano.
We also used broken slabs of concrete to make stair-step waterfalls, and even an old claw-foot bathtub was used once! Anything we could get on the cheap was fair game.
One Sunday, I went to a flea market and found 10 or 12 cast iron frying pans that were rusty and cracked. I asked my dad if I could buy them and weld them together to make a custom water feature. Miraculously, he agreed. We went home and welded the pans’ handles onto a 3-inch pipe, cascading around the pipe in a circle. Each pan poured water into the next. It was a beautiful idea, and it became one of the first water effects ever added to our pond at home.
Speaking of home: by the time I eventually purchased a house of my own, that childhood home of mine had a 12,000-gallon pond in the front yard and several water features and effects in the backyard … with absolutely no grass to cut!
Becoming the Monster
Perry, Peter and my Dad taught me some valuable lessons in those first years of working at the Gardens: work hard, love your passions and dream until the smile can’t be taken off your face.
I took them all to heart, and that’s how I became known as the Pond Monster. Those men taught me to attack a project like it should have been done yesterday. And now, I can find no better satisfaction than seeing the image in your mind or design come to life … using your own flesh and bone to turn an idea into reality and make it match what your mind’s eye sees.
Today, I’m thankful to know that I was taught by the best. I’ll always have their presence there, watching me as I take each step in this life. I know how blessed I am to have worked with some of the best teachers in this industry, and to have the Slocums and others consider me The Pond Monster. After 41 years of ponds, I can tell you that if you work hard, love your passions and dream until the smile can’t be taken off your face, you’ll be blessed as well.
So always rock on and let the water flow!