The recent boom in water gardening may be a result of the spotlight on outside living in general as families set up kitchens, living and dining rooms under the trees.

But water gardens are hardly new when you consider that the melting glaciers of eons ago may have formed the very first water gardens. It's not hard to imagine dinosaurs lumbering through lush forests sipping from swamps, bogs and water gardens. And fossil evidence shows that the water lily was one of the first flower plants on the planet over 100 million years ago.

Ask any water gardener about their water garden experience and it's all about the here and now.

"I couldn't imagine living without it," says Sean Mullarkey of Anderson Township, a member of the Greater Cincinnati Water Garden Society, "It's my little oasis, a real stress reliever. If I've had a rough day I go out with an iced tea and just stare at it or read a book. Sometimes if I can work from home I take my laptop and sit next to it."

"It's such a joy," says Herb Schneider of Madeira, also a society member. "My wife and I sit and have coffee and watch the birds," though he admits he's no fan of the blue heron that recently filched some of his prized fish.

"The peaceful and soothing sounds" are on Joe Rachford's list, too. But the Florence homeowner is also intrigued by the scientific aspects of the pond. "As an engineer I am more intrigued by the technology of how a pond system works. There are a lot of technical factors to take into consideration that can keep any technocrat entertained . . . appealing to the biologist, the mathematician, the computer geek, the naturalist, the landscaper.

"Of course my wife thinks I'm nuts, as she just enjoys the peacefulness and watching the fish with the grandkids."

"Once people get a water garden they love the lifestyle," says Dan Meyer of Meyer Aquascapes in Harrison. "Once you have one you really get into the whole pond experience "” watching and feeding the fish, sitting by the pond, enjoying the sounds."

And more often than not, folks come back for bigger water gardens, says Todd Allison of Allison Landscaping and Water Gardens in Sharonville and Western Hills. "Our No. 1 feedback we hear is "¢we wish we'd made it bigger.' "

"A lot of times, clients don't know what size they should go with. The budget obviously determines some of that, but we always encourage a recommended size because, ironically, the larger the system the easier it is to maintain," he says.

Mullarkey knows from experience how that goes. His landscape and contracting experience inspired him to start with a small 6-by-8 foot size. "I started digging and it looked so small so I kept going. It ended up about 16-by-20. And my next one will be bigger for sure."

A natural balance will occur in a larger system as opposed to smaller systems that are more often interrupted or changed by rainfall affecting the pH level.

Allison suggests about 100 square feet or more as a good starter size. "It's not really the size that determines the price."

Instead, it's the accessibility to the site and how difficult it is to get materials to and from the setting as well as the materials that include large rocks, stones, plus the fish and plants.

And almost everyone gets fish, says Meyer. "It's the icing on the cake. Fish bring life to the pond. You walk up and they come over to be fed. They know you. And in winter they hibernate and don't need to be fed."

But water features are unlike landscaping, Allison says. "They are very personal, whether it's to enhance a certain corner of the garden or people wanting more than a plant can offer. People get very connected to their fish. We approach them in a different way than landscaping."

Though maintenance issues have turned many people to pondless set-ups (see page 6) the care and feeding hardly feel like work to owners.

Most need to add "beneficial bacteria" to the ponds once a week to help break down fish waste and decaying plant matter. In fall a leaf net is usually used over ponds near falling leaves, and plants are sunk in water for wintering over. Because our winters are not considered harsh, many owners leave them running through the cold season. In spring, a draining and cleaning gets the leaves and debris out, and plants need to be split or added, similar to dirt gardening.

Mullarkey says his pond "pretty much takes care of itself" and says it requires no more effort than mowing the grass. He uses a skimmer on debris and puts in his biological product once a week, only doing a thorough cleaning "every two to three years."

Rachford, who enjoys tracking the technical aspects of his pond, says the mechanical filters need cleaned every couple of days and that he enjoys the spring muck out. "I look at it as it gives me a chance to closely bond with the fish. They swim right up to you and check out what you're doing."

Our water gardeners listed water lilies, sweet flag, variegated water celery, star grass, hyacinth, marsh betony, dwarf papyrus, iris, creeping jenny, red water dock and canna.