Issue 12.1: February/March 2009


story by Janice Crowl
photos by Jack Wolford

I follow Birch Robison down a mossy path fringed by brilliant red sealing-wax palms. Forests of bromeliads big and small spread their leaves like cups to catch the rain. Lacy ferns brush our ankles and sweet ginger perfumes the air. At the first pond, a shimmering oasis in the rainforest green, we shift easily into gardener-speak, naming our favorite aquatic plants, sharing tips and ideas. Our laughter drifts over the lilies, water lettuces and hyacinths; in a water garden the rhythms of life synchronize: dragonflies and damselflies, frogs and toads, fishes and birds, plants and human beings. I can’t be sure how it happens, or why, but even though I’ve never been here, I feel immediately at home. Perhaps it’s because water is the common thread that binds all nature together; it includes us in a community of water. An ‘olelo no‘eau (Hawaiian proverb) recorded by scholar Mary Kawena Pukui speaks of this connection:

Mohala i ka wai ka maka o ka pua.
Unfolded by the water are the faces of the flowers,
Flowers thrive where there is water, as thriving people are found where the conditions are good.

Perhaps that’s why, in the courtyards of Hawai‘i’s towns, in the backyards of houses, hidden among the asphalt streets or at the forest’s edges, we find water. Some water gardens are simple and small—a single lily in a plastic tub—and others are elaborate water worlds representing years of a gardener’s love, labor and, of course, money.

In Hawai‘i a mild climate means gardening can become a year-round addiction—we can’t help but revel in the sunshine and work amid rocks, soil and plants, rearranging and cultivating our personal paradise. But the gardener who takes on the challenge of making a pond enters another dimension where problems and solutions are fluid in every sense; it’s a journey of trial and error, heartbreak and bliss. A professional landscaper could do the job with fewer headaches, but such ease often comes with a hefty price tag. A do-it-yourself water gardener like Birch Robison derives pleasure from playing around in the muck, transforming a hole in the ground into a private Eden sprung from his own creative spirit and sweaty, aching muscles.

Birch is a retired Hawai‘i Community College English instructor, and being a naturally laid-back sort of fellow, he’s got the time and the equanimity for such a quixotic hobby as water-gardening. The proof is in the eclectic, densely planted water gardens that meander down his hilly property in Hilo.

Before he built his first pond in 1987, Birch had tried his spade at traditional gardening. He planted vegetables in terraces but was never successful, hampered in part by the shade of a huge lychee tree. After a friend gave him a book on English water gardens, he cut back the tree, dug a small pond and laid an inexpensive liner he purchased from a garden store. It promptly sprang a leak. He tried again, this time successfully, with a heavy-duty liner made of the same rubber used in septic tanks. Over two decades he created nine more water gardens; the magnificent centerpiece is an in-ground pond, measuring 20 by 7 feet. Seven others are container gardens in whiskey barrels, vintage Japanese furo baths and ferro-concrete bowls. Within each one is a story: a tiny glass fishing float found while living in Micronesia, plants named after the friends who gifted them, a collection of toys that trace his son’s childhood. Each turn of the garden path reveals another chapter in the Robisons’ lives.

Like most avid hobbyists, Birch hasn’t a clue how much money he’s spent to date, nor does he really care. “It’s an obsession. I always want to do something new, and it ends up being more expensive when I start adding everything up. But, my wife approves,” he says. “It’s better than gambling, since I stay home and she gets to stroll through the garden in the mornings.”


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.


In Volcano, towering native ‘ohi‘a trees and hapu‘u ferns surround several ponds; the largest is about 30 feet in diameter with a small waterfall. Cinnabar-colored native damselflies alight on the gleaming water hyacinths while fat, orange koi lazily lap at their roots. Native damselflies are a sign that a pond is in good health; they show up where a native ecosystem is flourishing. Even rare native birds—‘apapane, ‘i‘iwi (Hawaiian honeycreepers) and ‘io (Hawaiian hawks)—visit this garden.

Steve Stephenson and his wife, Donna, gallery manager at Volcano Garden Arts, dedicated the first phase of their impressive 50,000-gallon pond on New Year’s Day in 2000; all the more impressive, perhaps, because they never set out to create a water garden. “This whole project started as drainage,” says Steve, a horticulturalist and former science teacher who now spends his weekdays as the registrar at Ka‘u High School. “When we moved in, there was about a foot of water under the house. We spent years creating drainage away from the house. Then one day there was ash falling out of the sky because someone had been setting fires in the neighborhood, and we decided we’d better do something to have more water available.”

But getting all that water to pond in the right place proved a challenge. If the would-be water-gardener isn’t blessed with a natural depression in the backyard or a friend with a backhoe, the biggest problem to overcome is digging the hole. In most other places, all you’d need is a shovel and a lot of determination, but Volcano, as its name suggests, rests on lava flow. After working two jackhammers to death—they shattered internally—Steve went neo-native and did his basalt-busting with a metal version of an ‘o‘o, a traditional Hawaiian digging stick. It took him eight years, but the result is a hand-sculpted pond that looks as though it evolved with the surrounding native ecosystem. “Donna at first was afraid I’d create a moat around the house. Now she urges me to complete the moat so we can put in a drawbridge,” Steve laughs.

“He likes moving rock,” shrugs Donna, mystified but appreciative.

Water-gardening is a creative obsession for some people, but if you’re just getting started, you can easily go small scale with watertight containers and kits right off the shelf. My water garden is maintenance-free and has no pump—it’s a wine barrel with a plastic liner. I keep Hawaiian kalo (taro), two indigenous wetland plants—makaloa sedge and neke fern—and mosquito fish, which I never have to feed. I think of my water garden as a visual reminder of Hawai‘i’s unique native wetlands and watersheds and how essential they are to the quality of life in the Islands. Water is a powerful presence that connects us to all living things in the wild, and wherever there is a thriving garden, life is good. HH