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Themes, Anyone?
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Themes, Anyone?

0He’s a longtime believer in using naturalistic approaches in pond design and installation. But lately, Mike Gannon has also spent some time questioning that foundation — and wondering out loud if there might be value in looking at his design options in new and divergent ways.

For as long as I can remember, it’s been drummed into my head as a pond designer and installer that my noblest goal is to create imitations of nature so convincing that they look like they’ve been there forever.

I’ve never really bristled at that concept and have worked with more than my share of locally sourced stone and native plants through the years. But I once had a project – a simple Japanese-style pond and landscape – that started me thinking that there were design solutions beyond an absolute fixation on site-specific naturalism that would make my clients happy.

To be sure, my Asian-influenced design was naturalistic and had a healthy level of authenticity about it, but it didn’t belong in New Jersey the way another pond might. And ever since I completed that project, I’ve been expanding my thought processes to include the possibility that my designs can be more about successfully expressing a theme than they are about literally imitating nature.

In overlaying that Japanese-garden theme onto my clients’ New Jersey backyard, I had a nagging sense that I was violating some tenets of the Modern Pondmaker’s Prime Directive. But I have to say that the result was spectacular, no matter that anyone who was paying attention would have a hard time believing the pond had been there for long. I also have to say that it started me thinking about other thematic possibilities I might feel good about bringing up the next time a client asked for guidance.


Of course, I can’t predict when or if such occasions will actually arise: Nearly all of my clients are in the market for a certain approach, and I know this because just about the only guiding words I ever hear from them are, “We want it to be really, really natural.” But if they’re among the few who seem willing to jump outside the box for something unique – as was the case with the folks who asked for the Japanese-garden approach – I’m now readier than ever before to have a good time right alongside them.


Some designers and installers effectively ‘theme’ their pondscapes without worrying about the fact that inserting a lantern like this one is out of phase with a goal of absolute naturalism in a backyard in Dallas or on acreage outside Atlanta.

A big, meditative garden with a red bridge and boulder-strewn pond and a deer-chaser fountain and a rake-ready rock garden is one elegant possibility, but what about a fun pond? What about a pond that reflects, for example, the owners’ ethnic or national heritage? What about a pond that they’ll love to bits even if it looks like it’s from the other side of the planet? Essentially, I’m arguing that these can be paths worth considering.

In fact, after years of keeping themed ponds in the back of my mind, I often start now by thinking about personalizing my work on behalf of clients who don’t care as much as I’m habituated to do about the pursuit of absolute naturalism. After all, how “natural” is any modern, feature-filled pond when it comes to maintenance? Who’s fooling whom?

So let’s see: What about a California-style pond for clients who’ve just relocated from there to New Jersey – or a New Jersey-style pond for a family who’s just moved to California? What could be more personal and personalized? How far can we go beyond traditional forms like Japanese gardens before we run out of room?

How about a themed pond that features a decorative windmill and tons of tulips planted all around it? How about incorporating a pair of decorative Dutch clogs at the water’s edge or including a little Dutch flag – or a Dutch-boy figurine the can be made into a pond spitter? All of a sudden you got yourself a Netherlands theme!

It may not be for everyone, but it sure would be a fun and interesting place for a proud Dutch family to enjoy and maintain. And I can only imagine that the process of theming will continue for them as long as they live in the house and are adding details that truly make the pond their own.

The best part is, setting up a theme along these lines is an easy thing to do!


How about a nautical theme? This could be done by using more rounded, coastal boulders and beach gravel or sand in the design of the pond – and then accessorizing appropriately. How about taking the old anchor that’s been sitting out by the mailbox to express the pride of a retired naval officer and moving it into the backyard to keynote the nautical theme? Just accent the space with fishing nets, shells, starfish, boat bumpers and buoys and it’s done.

Then, the next time the homeowner sees an old diving helmet at a swap meet, the process of personalization takes off and the interactive work of expanding on the theme starts to get fun. And the possibilities along these lines are endless.

And why make excuses when you set up a tropical-style pond in a climate more suited to winter pond-ice hockey? It doesn’t matter that you’re nowhere near the tropics: With a little planning and some careful plant selection, such a pond could be transformed into a tropical paradise.

Just start with a great waterfall – a wonderfully seductive tropical hallmark – and use potted tropical aquatic and terrestrial plants that can be stored inside through the harshest winter months. (You can also find tropical-looking plants in most regions.) Beyond the water’s edge, it’s easy to work with non-aggressive bamboos, hardy palms, even colorful impatiens.


This is an odd, freestanding fountain, but I could see it on an island in a pond where other Alice in Wonderland concepts came into play — all in the name of good fun of a non-naturalistic kind.

Without great cost or effort, your clients can go from an archetypal New Jersey front yard to enjoy a Tahitian-style backyard that they can accessorize with tikis, hurricane lamps, bamboo furniture and drinks that use little umbrellas to skewer big chunks of pineapple.

This is why I mention fun in ways I don’t often associate with truly naturalistic ponds. The latter are not to be messed with, by and large, and I know my own reactions when I see an otherwise award-worthy natural gem that a homeowner has adorned with cringe-inducing accessories. (“Gee, honey, I think this old gas pump will look fantastic next to the waterfall!”)

With a themed pond, it’s all about the accessories: Even though I’m uncertain how anyone could make an old gas pump work, once a suitable theme is established, the pondscape becomes an interactive setting that clients can work with, play with and have fun with every day. Personally, I love that thought.

How about a woodland theme, highlighted by a nice, long meandering stream that rolls into the pond? Just set the stage with some chunky, flat stonework along the edge and maybe punctuate it with some dried ornamental wood – then encourage the homeowners to find statuary of woodland creatures to place along the banks of the stream and the edges of the pond. Plant some conifers and ferns and it’s all set: Overnight, there’s a woodland habitat just beyond the patio.


There’s a possibility here that I’m over-thinking all of this because of my personal dedication to truly naturalistic ponds. Perhaps other pond designers and installers have always been theming their ponds – subconsciously or not – every time they include a statue of a squirrel or a Japanese lantern or a chunk of a deadfall tree trunk. But honestly, I don’t believe this is much ado about nothing.


This is in fact a theme park in Poland, but I can imagine scaling this ‘primeval meadow’ down to backyard scale for an ambitious (and fun-loving) homeowner. It’d still essentially be naturalistic, but we’d no longer be enjoying ourselves in contemporary New Jersey.

Indeed, I get the sense that lots of pond professionals are pretty well boxed in by their clients’ requests for “natural” looks and by the generally accepted requirement to make a brand-new pond seem as though it’s a survivor of the last Ice Age. As I see it now, themed ponds have a particular role when homeowners seem inclined to get involved and exercise the urge to express themselves through personal choices they make about the looks of their pondscapes.

All of this said, I’m pretty much a traditionalist and have spent a career figuring out how to leave my clients with “forever” ponds – and I don’t see dramatic changes coming there. I also suspect I’d get a bit squeamish if, in a discussion of themes, a client suggested a Harley-Davidson pond or even a Snow White/Disney-themed pond, to offer a pair of extreme possibilities.

I’m not into abandoning well-honed design principles and practices: All I’m suggesting is that there’s value in having an open mind and in adding a question or two to the list of points covered in initial client meetings. I can’t help thinking that this is a pathway to personalizing ponds and more fully integrating them into my clients’ lives.

I’m not done with native plants or local stone by any means, but if my clients open the door? Tahiti, here we come!

Mike Gannon is owner and lead designer at Full Service Aquatics, a pond installation and service specialist based in Summit, N.J. A certified Aquascape contractor, he may be reached at [email protected]

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