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A passion for ponds: Oasis under the oaks

Terracotta chimeneas and pots and yellow water iris enhance the creative custom deck that Jim Aarons built around his ponds.
Terracotta chimeneas and pots and yellow water iris enhance the creative custom deck that Jim Aarons built around his ponds. The Tribune

When driving through the dry, chaparral-covered hills on the way to Creston, it is difficult to imagine that your destination is an enchanting group of tropical ponds full of koi fish and bedecked by water lilies. The ponds are the inspiration and work of veterinarian Jim Aarons and his wife Mary, who have transformed their backyard into a Shangri-la under the large canopy of oaks.

Aarons became interested in water features and ponds after visiting several gardens in Santa Barbara while attending various courses for a certification in California horticulture at the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens. Intrigued, he then went to a symposium on “Water in the California Garden,” and began reading everything he could find about natural ponds, waterfalls, and filtration systems.

Always ready for a new challenge, he removed the old Doughboy pool from a dusty hole in the upper backyard, and decided to build a pond, thinking, “This is going to be a lot of fun.” It was truly a labor of love, for he dug the ponds by hand, creating three waterfalls to connect them and a series of ledges between the deep bottom of the pond and the top. He calls these “marginal shelves,” which provide a foundation for large pots of earth for submerged plants.

After lining the holes with chicken wire, he placed three or four layers of carpet on top of the wire to protect the plastic liner from the metal.

"It took 10 guys to unroll the big plastic roll and put it in place,” he said. Waterfalls were built with 4-by-4s and railroad ties and then finished with flagstone.

Because of the pond’s irregular natural shape, Aarons used a program on his computer to design the decks with their various angles to match the curving edges so that the liner would be hidden. At certain points, the pond flows under the deck, providing the koi and goldfish cool and shady hiding spots.

He constructed the decks of durable ironwood, selected for its long lasting and weather/water resistant qualities. He burned out three drills pre-drilling the holes for screws to secure the dense wood, he said.

The waterfalls with their peaceful sounds are kept flowing by a small, quiet pump at the base of the ponds. Aarons ingeniously established a series of natural filtration systems, including a wet marsh, a dry bog and the natural skimming provided by the waterfalls. The roots of the plants and the water lilies act as filters as well. He adds no chemicals to the ponds, and the water is perfectly clear. Mosquito control is accomplished by the fish, while raccoons find the ponds too deep for their use.

Three types of carefully chosen plants add to the ponds’ naturalistic look. Aquatic plants that grow underwater were placed in large wooden pots that Jim screwed together and placed on the shallower shelves along the edges of the ponds. Papyrus, parrotfeather, water hyacinth, and pickerelweed fall in this category. The water lilies are true aquatics, placed in large pots 18 inches below the surface in the upper pond.

For the wet marsh area, Aarons chose plants that like to have “wet feet,” such as bulrush, cattails, horsetail and swamp iris. The roots of these plants filter the water as it flows through the marsh. The third varieties, “dry feet” plants, are raised up on the side of the pond, planted in pots or the earth. Daylilies, aster and rosemary are a few of this type that accent the pond with color. The rich array of plants around the pond not only adds to the natural form, but hides any visible liner.

As the plants grew, Jim divided the successful varieties and distributed them around the pond. In order to have color throughout the year, he experimented with natives and Mediterranean plants, weeding out the ones that froze or didn’t thrive. With a greenhouse on the property, he continually propagates plants from cuttings in a raised vermiculite and sand mixture. He always has his garden shears with him when out for a walk or hike, he said, for “you never know where you’re going to find a new cutting.”

Besides being a horticulturist and a veterinarian of 30 years, Jim is a gourmet cook. He and Mary like to entertain and serve themed dinners for their guests on the decks around the ponds. Lighting for warm summer evening comes from chimeneas, small Mexican outdoor fireplaces, and from subtle rope lighting along the edge of the decks. Visitors get to watch the sunset color changes in the water and the colorful koi and blue dragonflies skim the surface as they enjoy delicacies from Jim’s outdoor kitchen.

Reach Connie Pillsbury at conniepillsbury22@gmail.com.

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