It all began 15 years ago with a lot of research and a garden hose. Oops, did we forget to mention a shovel? The hose was so Bob Henson could create the shape of the pond he was about to dig in the back yard of his home in Sappington.
He had meticulously researched all the details of creating a water garden: the size of the pump required to keep the water flowing, what was needed to create a biological filter and the myriad of other items that are important, particularly if you hope to have fish in your pond. The earth he dug out of the soon-to-be pond he piled up around the sides of the depression. “You never want a pond where the yard drains into the pond,” he explains.
The next year, on spring break from his job as a chemistry teacher at Rockwood Summit High School, he dug a stream while snow fell. He went on to create a second pond and a waterfall and a third pond, not to mention a bog for carnivorous plants. He also built a bridge.
“I’ve always been interested in ponds and water plants,” he explains. “Having a science background, I investigated the parameters of all that I was dealing with; what type of pond; what size pump. After I built the big pond, I knew what I had to know about the aquatics. I had done all the homework, figuring out the ABCs of it. If you do it right, nature kind of takes over.”
From that first pond, he let his imagination run free. “I would be working in the garden and an idea would strike me and I would think, ‘Next year I am going to try this.’ One thing led to another and another. I was like 'The Little Engine that Could.'
“My problem was the yard was kind of flat and I had to work around that because I wanted a waterfall. I thought of how many tons of rock and ground had to be moved and stacked because I wanted it to look natural. Every time I came to a junction, I could go left or go right, and I thought where is that going to take me? People walk through the garden, and they don’t see the half of it.”
What they do see is koi and goldfish shimmering in the ponds. A myriad of different pathways that take a visitor through fields of hostas in a variety of shapes and sizes including several giant Empress Wu, one of the largest of all hostas. Large swaths of ferns sway in the breeze. There are stands of Italian arum and wild ginger. Mounds of evergreen creeping juniper, that have been in the garden since Bob began his creation, frame the ponds in green even in winter. A number of aquatic plants, including waterlilies, decorate the ponds’ edges. The different shades of green blend and glow with a verdant hue worthy of the Wizard of Oz and his Emerald City.
Along the way, he added two greenhouses to his property; one for orchids and the other for tropical plants. He created seating areas for visitors to appreciate the garden from different perspectives. He built an arbor as a base for a lush stand of chartreuse hops vines and a huge white dovecote copied from examples used throughout England and Europe. Water sprays from a fountain Bob devised by lining an old wagon wheel with copper piping and punching holes in the piping.
“There is nothing you see here that I haven’t built,” Bob says. “I learned by watching my dad. He was very mechanical, and I picked up that gene from him. The more you do, the more you learn.”
For his gardening gene, Bob credits his mother. "I became interested in plants pretty early on in my life,” he recalls. “I remember going over to visit one of our neighbors. She was working in her garden and there was a big spider that intrigued me. My Mom was a gardener, and my sister is a big gardener. After I retired, I kind of cut loose.”
Along the way Bob joined the St. Louis Water Garden Society, where he now serves as president; became a volunteer at the Missouri Botanical Garden; took the course sponsored by the University of Missouri Extension Service, to become a Master Gardener and volunteers in the maintenance of the waterlily ponds at the Jewel Box in Forest Park.
He has become fascinated by carnivorous plants, which he grows in a bog especially suited to their needs. Perennials flower to attract the pollinators that pollinate the plant. Carnivorous plants flower and send up a shoot that attracts the insects that they consume, he explains. “I don’t have to do a thing with them. Once I put them into their medium and keep them moist, they feed themselves.”
A participant in the St. Louis Water Garden Society Pond-O-Rama tour, “I get more questions about the carnivorous plants than anything else,” he says. This year’s Pond-O-Rama will take place the weekend of June 23-24. Ticket information is available on the St. Louis Water Garden Society website at www.slwgs.org/pond-o-rama. This year Bob will not be a participant as he will be fulfilling a dream by taking his boat down the Mississippi River and into the Bahamas. It is Bob’s boat that led to several dramatic stainless-steel sculptures that grace his garden.
While boating at Kentucky Lake, he learned about a local sculptor John Toras, a welder by training, who creates dramatic pieces out of stainless steel that are perfect for outdoor display. A giant, golf-playing octopus now tees off over the large pond. Delighted with that, Bob commissioned a dragonfly with wings that flutter on a windy day and a school of koi that swim in space.
Bob’s digging days are now over with almost all of the space in his garden occupied with ponds, streams and plants. These days the bulk of the work is in the cleanup from fall and winter that takes place in April and May. “Then, it’s just maintenance,” he says.
It is the continual movement of the water that makes water gardening so rewarding, he feels. “A garden is static unless you have water in it and that water is moving,” he points out. “You can go out and sit and feed the fish; that’s what I really like about it. There are times you have to get in and clean the pond and I have slipped. But when it’s hot outside, I don’t care.”