Once established, a well-designed garden is a never-ending story for as long as the gardener tends it. The beginning of a water garden, however, is its most fragile stage as living and nonliving elements develop into a living, breathing ecosystem. Sometimes things go awry; water that’s too nutrient-rich leads to glutinous algal blooms that would make the faint of heart give up and plant a lawn. There is an amazing number of ways a water garden can fail: One could have too many fish that might eat the plants. One could have too many plants, or plants of the wrong type. Perhaps Hawai‘i’s water-gardeners are more tenacious and passionate than those in temperate zones because the weather affords more opportunities to start over, to push the limits of their wild tropical oases. And when a garden does finally succeed, the reward more than compensates for the disappointment.
Indeed, such rewards are what Benno Wang had in mind when he retired from his job as an electrical engineer at IBM and moved to Hawai‘i to pursue his lifelong dream of creating a pond like those of the Chinese farmers he saw in his childhood. He purchased property in Kea‘au, and when grading it he told the bulldozer operator to make the pond “as big as possible.” Little did Wang know that digging the hole would be the cheapest part of the affair. The 45-millimeter pond liner alone cost more than $8,000 and weighed a whopping 2,400 pounds.
“I called the whole neighborhood to roll it out, but when everybody showed up the contractor said, ‘No, this won’t work,’ because the average age of everyone was 70 years old! But … we did it,” says Benno. After the initial investment in the liner, the water came cheap: The immense 179,000-gallon pond stays filled with runoff from the roof of Benno’s home.
Once the pond was established, Benno planted. Giant papyruses, stately lotuses and colorful water lilies grow near boulders in the shallows of the pond. These are your, well, garden-variety water garden plants. But Benno so happens to be the volunteer caretaker of the giant Victoria water lily at the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo. Named for the queen of England, its wickedly spined lily pads are a jaw-dropping 5 feet in diameter but can grow up to 8 feet. At 7 years old, the zoo’s lily is perhaps the longest-lived specimen in the United States. When Benno first tried to propagate the lily in his own pond, the catfish chewed it up. “I was told either you do plants or you do fish, but every water garden person I know can’t resist. But I’m learning,” says Benno. “I’ve had a lot of failures.” His determination has paid off; this time his Victoria lilies are flush with leaves like jumbo birdbaths.
Next to the pond, Benno built a spacious pavilion where his family can fish, dance hula and socialize. “Sometimes my wife and I just sit here and chat for a long, long time, which is not easy to do after forty-something years of marriage. But I can still do it when we sit here!” says Benno, bursting into laughter.