Growing Profit Centers

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It's not that big of a leap to expand your business from selling, installing and servicing swimming pools to selling, installing and servicing ponds and water gardens. Similarly, the difference between retailing pool and spa supplies and pond and water garden supplies is minimal. Pumps, skimmers, circulation β€” there are more similarities than there are differences between pond and pool versions of the equipment. And that's why so many pool and hot tub industry retailers are adding ponds and water gardens to their repertoires. These charming water environments are part of the ever-expanding inventory of backyard amenities that homeowners are willing to invest in.

Proof Is In The Pond

One indication of the opportunities in water gardening is the expansion of offerings on the subject at industry trade shows. Veteran aquatic plantsman Larry Womack of Nevada Water Gardens has seen the pool industry's growing interest in ponds firsthand. "It's kind of exciting to see it now. The industries are still separate, but there is a lot of overlap. I'm going to lecture again this year at the AQUA Show," he said. "Last year we installed a pond on the floor, and I think it will be even more involved this year."

So while the step from building pools to building ponds is a small one, full-service builders who go a step further and add living things β€” the elements that make ponds so charming and water gardening so rewarding for the consumer β€” will need a little more information. Living things are sticklers for expiration dates and storage requirements. "If they are going to be in the pond business, they need to have some general knowledge of plants," says Womack.

Anthony Archer-Wills, the noted water-garden and pond designer, suggests that for most builders, outsourcing plant material makes the most sense. "Somebody [on your staff ] really has to understand plants and be a gardener," he says. "They are not a dry merchandise commodity like a pump or a valve you just take off the shelf."

Womack has found a lucrative niche working with the pool industry and provides plant material for many local builders. "If you're not going to take a really active interest in the water gardening, you're probably better off to find someone in the area that is in the water garden business and let those people sell the plants," he says. "And we do this with a lot of pool builders. We probably have 25 or 30 pool builders here that send their people here for plants, just because they don't want to mess with it. And we have thousands of square feet here just devoted to plants."

Even if you don't sell them yourself, plants are essential to having a happy client. After all, a pond without plants is just an unsanitized swimming pool.

Green Machine

Plants are essential to the health of any pond or water garden. They add oxygen, help break down waste products, provide shade and compete with algae for nutrients, usually to the detriment of the algae. Plants add color, texture and even scent to the waterscape. And the satisfaction of interacting with a plant β€” nurturing it and watching it grow β€” is something you just don't get from a rock, no matter how well-placed or thoughtfully selected.

One could fill a lifetime becoming expert on, for example, just water lilies. But there are a few basic concepts that will help bring you up to speed on water plants.

As in politics, all gardening is local. One way to start your education is in learning what not to plant. The same plant that blooms its heart out in Zone 4 may frizzle up and die in Zone 8. Perhaps a larger problem than a plant that won't grow at all is one that grows too much.

To find out in which U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zone your business is located, go to Be sure to check with your local extension agent to learn if there are any aquatic plants that are banned in your area.

Planting For Place

Broadly speaking, there are three categories of aquatic plants. Emergent plants, also called marginals, are rooted in the substrate of the pond and grow up out of the water into the air. Submergent plants root into the substrate but do not grow above the water level. Floaters do just that: they float on the surface of the water and collect nutrients through their dangling roots directly from the water. Floaters add movement and variety to the water garden as they rearrange themselves with the help of the wind or movement in the water.

"Marginals are actually wonderful at clearing the pond," says ArcherWills. "They harbor all kinds of beneficial creatures, which are algaeeaters."

Womack has used carefully selected marginal plants to clean fouled golfcourse ponds. "We can actually filter water to almost drinkable conditions with plants," he says. "If we go into a golf course, for example, and get 10 percent of the retaining pond into a bog garden, we run this water through aquatic plants and the roots clean it up and we can make the water almost crystal clear. It can clean up just about all the chemicals from a golf course."

Submergent plants, also called oxygenators, are the true aquatic plants. They require a water environment to live and they contribute to the health of the body of water by adding oxygen, providing cover for beneficial aquatic organisms and competing with algae for food. "They take a lot β€” some take all β€” their nutrient from the water. But some of these plants can be invasive," says ArcherWills. "A little local knowledge is worth a whole lot for people who are starting up."

Floating plants like water hyacinth provide an instant garden. They are "planted" by dropping a handful into the water. In addition to providing shade and consuming excess nutrient suspended in the water, floaters provide a unique design element. Because they aren't rooted to a particular spot, they are constantly rearranged by the wind and the water. And precisely because of that, they too, can be a problem when they escape from a given habitat.

Lovely Lilies

The aquatic plant that receives the most attention is Nymphaea , or water lily. It's what immediately pops to mind when most people think if water gardening.

"Just about all people want water lilies," says Womack. "There are literally hundreds of varieties. For example, here in the high desert, most of the red flowering varieties are really intimidated by 110-degree, 45-mph wind with 10 percent humidity," he says. "But a lot of the yellows and whites and pinks could care less."

Hardy water lilies can survive northern winters as well as steamy southern summers and are grown as perennials.

"Although they die down each year, the hardy water lilies are fine in quitecold states," says Archer-Wills.

"Tropical water lilies keep their leaves on the surface of the water, but they send their blooms above the surface, four to six inches or more. They tend to be very stellate, pointed starlike petals. The leaves are generally very elaborate," says Archer-Wills.

Womack says that tropicals offer a wider variety of colors and habits than their hardy cousins. They also can be marketed a little differently. "Tropicals offer the bright colors and very fragrant lilies, and in the tropicals you have day bloomers as well as night bloomers," he says. "We try to tell people to consider the tropicals as annuals. When we call them tropicals, then people think they're killing something. But if we refer to them as annuals β€” people spend a lot of money on annual plants!"

Archer-Wills has seen countless clients catch the gardening bug. Once clients are hooked, their ponds grow at the same rate as their enthusiasm. "They've gone to Home Depot and bought a little pre-fabricated pool and they put it in and have it for a year or two and they realize it's very restrictive and how wonderful it would be to have a bigger pond," he says.

The rewards of water gardening are many, both for the gardener and the builder. "Plants are wonderful for us," says Archer-Wills. "They lift our spirits. If the pond is successful, and everything has been well planted, it's tremendously rewarding for people's customers."

You Have To Start Somewhere: 10 Aquatic Plants To Try

Asking Anthony Archer-Wills to chose the best aquatic plants is like asking a father which is his favorite child. So we asked the master water-garden designer to suggest β€” in no particular order β€” 10 good plants for the beginning water gardener.

1. Utricularia (bladderwort) naturally live in very impoverished acidic conditions, starved of nutrients. "They trap insects in their bladders and snap shut. When you pick the Utricularia out of the water, you can hear it crackle. Beautiful yellow flowers held on short stems."

2. Stratiotes aloides (water soldier) is a floater with rosettes of stiff, narrow serrated leaves up to 16-inches long. Resembles the tops of pineapples. "It's such an interesting plant. It doesn't ever die, it sinks to the bottom in the winter, and it rests on the bottom then it comes up in the summer."

3. Sagittaria (arrowhead) in the north and Zantedeschia aethiopica (arum lily) in the south. The arum lily, a South African native, resembles the calla lily with its creamy white spathes.

Sagittaria is thought to sweeten the soil in which it grows.

4. The Louisiana Iris (genus iridaceae) contribute bold leaf variegation and shapes even when not in bloom. Blossoms come in white, purple and blue and resemble their terrestrial cousins.

5. "Pontederia cordata (pickerelweed) is one of my absolute favorites; I cannot find any way of faulting this plant." It has lavender-blue flower spikes.

6. "Then I would have a grass, some thing that's really easy in the tropics something like Egyptian paper reed, Cyprus papyrus, for a fantastic display at the edge of a formal pond. In the north, a very easy plant β€” cannot be killed β€” Gylceria maxima varigata , variegated water grass."

7. Mentha aquatica (water mint) , Myosotis scorpioides ' Mermaid ' (forgetme-not) and Mimulus (monkey flower) each resemble their terrestrial cousins of the same names.

8. "Of the water lilies (Nymphaea ), there are so many, I just wouldn't like to say. Something like 'James Bryden,' one of the most reliable and it's a beautiful satiny red. 'Sulpheria' or 'Chromatella' for yellow. A lovely pink is 'Firecrest,' and there's 'Perry's Pink Perfection.' Among the tropicals, we should have a really good blue like 'Director George T. Moore.' 'Leopardess' is one of my favorites because of the exotic, patterned leaves. 'Yellow Dazzler' is a beautiful plant. And then I would add a night bloomer like 'Red Flare.'"

9. Nelombo lutea (lotus). Apart from their attractive flower and leaf, their unique chocolate brown seed pods are good in flower arrangements. Archer-Wills recommends the cultivar 'Mrs. Perry D. Slocum.'

10. Eichhornia crassipes water hyacinth. "In temperate states it's not invasive because it won't make it through the winter.

β€” K.P.

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