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Dive In! // the water's fine

Waterlilies are abloom in ponds and whiskey barrels at Aquatics & Exotics, Pinellas County's first nursery dealing solely in water gardening.

The flowers, held by slender stems above floating circular pads, are the colors of the rainbow and more: orange, lime, pink, yellow, lavender, white, blue, magenta.

Goldfish and tadpoles swim among purple flowering pickerelweed, decorative papyrus and underwater grasses. Dragonflies dart among the plants, snatching mosquitoes and other flying insects.

Growing in pots on the ground around the ponds are waterlilies, bog plants, oxygenating plants and sprawling plants _ all the flora needed to create an in- or above-ground pond.

Donna Kiehl, 40, is proprietor of this newly opened business, which shares space with Country Village Antiques in a wooded setting just down the road from the 350-acre Walsingham Park.

A few days after opening, Kiehl's small, open-air store was raided by some of the locale's resident night prowlers.

"I came in one morning to find fish emulsion footprints everywhere," she said, laughing. "The raccoons had a great time with the emulsion. They spilled it everywhere, got it all over their feet and then inspected everything in the store. They even bit off the heads of some little animals made of cow manure."

Now she puts away items that might be attractive to raccoons. "They haven't been back," she said. "I think they just wanted to check me out."

Aquatic plants and ponds have been Kiehl's passion for nearly 20 years. She is practically a walking encyclopedia on the subject.

"Twenty years ago, there wasn't much written on waterlilies or water gardens," Kiehl said. "I learned by trial and error and by talking to other aquatic gardeners."

For the first 10 years, she water gardened in Lancaster, Pa. When she and her husband, Tom, moved here more than nine years ago, she brought along all her plants and water gardening equipment.

But she quickly found out that creating and maintaining aquatic gardens in a subtropical climate is quite different. "Most books on water gardening are for northern gardens," she said.

Kiehl took a master gardener course at the county extension office and worked four years at a local nursery, while adjusting her plants and growing methods to Florida.

"The first thing we did was build an in-ground pond," she said. "A year later, we began building above-ground ponds."

Kiehl now rents an empty field where she keeps propagation ponds.

"Through hybridizing and experimentation, the growing field has become home to several new hybrid waterlilies," she said.

It's also home to a collection of lotus, which bloom from March through June. They'll be available in the spring at Aquatics & Exotics.

Do it yourself

Thinking about creating a waterlily pond?

Here are some tips from Donna Kiehl:

Location is very important. Stay away from overhanging trees because falling leaves will make the pond water too acidic. Also avoid areas where the pond would get runoff from rain or a sprinkler system. Runoff containing insecticides could kill the fish and herbicides could kill the plants. Fertilizer-laced runoff would cause a chemical imbalance in the water and an algae bloom.

Plan for as much direct sunlight as possible, no less than three hours and preferably at least five. A small pond of less than 100 gallons needs one or two hours of shade during the hottest part of the day.

Water depth depends on what will live in the pond. You need 18 to 24 inches for a goldfish pond and at least 3 feet for a koi pond. (Koi are large Japanese carp.)

"I recommend a pond with straight sides and no (underwater) shelving," Kiehl said. "It's easier for egrets, herons, raccoons and other animals and birds to get the fish if there are shelves. There are certain plants that like to be close to the surface and that can be arranged with bricks and other things."

Oxygenate as you fill. Once the pond is lined with a flexible, synthetic material that is resistant to tears and punctures, it's ready for water.

"Try to aerate the water as much as possible when filling the pond," Kiehl said. "Hoses should be held above the pond so there's a lot of splashing and a lot of oxygen going in." If you're using tap water, a conditioner must be added to remove chemicals from the water. "It has an immediate effect and, as soon as it is put in, the plant material can go in."

You need three types of plants, including underwater oxygenating plants (anacharis, cabomba and dwarf sagittaria), sprawling plants (aquatic mint, water clover, parrot's feather, creeping Jenny and water poppy) and upright bog plants (arrowhead, pickerelweed, aquatic canna lilies, cattails, dwarf papyrus).

"Seventy percent of the pond's water surface should be covered with foliage," Kiehl said. "This reduces the sunlight that comes directly into the pond. Too much sun produces algae problems. Waterlily leaves are the best source of foliage coverage." Sprawling plants also aid in shading the pond.

Upright bog plants create pretty reflections on the water, as well as shade during different times of the day. "They also provide a place for the dragonflies to light and a hiding place for the fish and frogs," Kiehl said. "Most are flowering and some are grown just for the texture of their foliage."

Underwater oxygenating plants are very important to the balance of a pond, according to Kiehl.

"They help filter the water of the nutrients that algae feed on and provide oxygen to the water, which is important for the fish. They also provide a spawning area for the fish and a place to hide from predators."

Filtration can be natural (plants) or mechanical (a pump and filter arrangement) or a combination of both, Kiehl said, depending on the depth of the pond.

"I usually like to let nature take care of itself and let the plant material do the filtration," she said, "but that doesn't work all the time."

Let the pond get established for several days or a week before adding fish and don't overstock, she advised.

"I always recommend fish and snails," she said. "Frogs and tadpoles will come."

Kiehl doesn't feed her fish. "They eat mosquito larvae, keep algae off plants and eat decaying material."

For starters

Aquatics & Exotics sells a simple water garden kit for beginners for $125. It includes a varnished whiskey barrel, 26 inches in diameter and 18 inches high; barrel liner; a waterlily; a bog plant; and three underwater plants.

A barrel alone, without liner and plants, is $39.95.

A complete in-ground pond (12 by 14 feet, 1{ feet deep), with plants, runs $500 to $700. An 8-by-8-foot above-ground, wooden frame pond with plants costs $300-$500. Individual plant prices vary. Water lilies are $25 to $30 (1-gallon pot) or $50 (specimen size). Oxygenating plants start at $6; bog plants are $8 to $12.

Aquatics & Exotics is at 11896 Walsingham Road, Largo. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Call 397-5532.