Water Garden is Ithaca

Before 1790, as shown in the map by George Norris, the main part of what we now insist on calling "Downtown Ithaca" was a gorgeous marsh of interconnected creeks: a tiny mesopotamea - with occasional Indian garden mounds in the lucky places where water, light, and soil occured together.

Even a rainbowl like Ithaca is dry at times. After 1800, as the outflows of Ithaca’s three separate gorges were disentangled and channeled to rush them away, Ithacans were, at the same time, digging wells to collect water for their homes. Just this winter, archeological investigators looking particularly for old cisterns and wells, excavated the ex-paradisacal wetland which is now the parking lot downtown behind the public library.

The archeologists didn’t find any wells or cisterns, but there are still some to be rediscovered in our region. A functional dug well or cistern can still be a good source and destination for a circulating water garden , though not so often for drinking water. Shallow wells can be collectors of far too much nitrogen in the runoff from oxygen -starved septic systems and over-fertilized lawns. Same with a pond. You probably should not drink from either.

Our own, East Hill garden is high and dry on a delta left hanging by by Cascadilla Creek back when Cayuga lake was about two hundred feet higher than it is now. The house was then supplied with water from a mill pond which sluiced water out of Cascadilla creek above College Ave, about five hundred yards east and another hundred feet higher than our lot. The antique hydrant from those days is still here to see. I was watching one day about twenty years ago when, due to some local fault or other, it flowed again for two hours, and then stopped.

We here and now get most of our garden water out of a faucet on the house. But you can assume anyway, that if you dig a hole in Ithaca , the rain will come. And if you site your pond properly in the landscape, it can gather more rain than falls directly on it. When the temperatures are into the eghties, we generally add a little water daily to the system, but in normal weather here, the occasional rain is enough.

The pond is half curled like a cashew around an existing hydrangea plant. At it’s head is a little beach, over its back a falls, and at its tail, the outflow. It is just below a small rank of pine trees at the only suggestion of a slope on our mostly level lot. This makes it possible to build a waterfall which does not appear to emrge from a volcano.

Though we have not quite enough light for the lilies I buy a few tropical water hyacinths in the Spring and by the time Fall comes, we have dozens. They die in the winter, so infestation here is not the problem that it has been in Florida, and if global warming should make it a problem, we will import manatees.
Our pond tends to be cool because it is deep and shaded, but hot weather still cuts down on its ability to absorb oxygen, so we periodically send air to the pond from an air pump in the basement, and we keep the falls going in every season.
For a native surface plant we have duck weed, which grows like rafts of tiny lilly pads. This is great for the small scale pond, though on a large pond, seen from a distance, you might see it as a mere scum.
We also have submerged millfoiil and marsh marigolds, as well as ferns, grasses, and daylillies that like to keep a foot in the water. And we do have algae though you might not notice.
Insects, pollywogs, and native fat-head minnows (ransomed from the bait shop) eat much of the algae which the other plants haven't crowded or starved out of our pond. The minnows, which eat most of the pollywogs, reproduce rapidly and never get too large. We have had resident predator: a big old pumpkinseed sunfish. ;lord of the minnows.

A standard formal garden pool is as crisp edged as a swimming pool, but I banned swimming in our garden, and blurred the borders by bringing the liner well up out of the pond and the soil well down over the liner. The garden drinks by wicking at the shores of the pond.
Allowing contact between the soil and the pond is not a way to conserve pond water. But as a way to irrigate the soil, it is more efficient than a sprinkler system, and it allows for bog plantings such as the marsh marigolds. The soft edges and fertile bottom also allows toads and frogs to mate, hunt, hunker, and winter here.
On a few hot nights last summer, after the students had finished roaming and howling, the whole neighborhood could still hear a loud and clarinetic toad song comming from the woofer of our pond, but like no toad song I ever heard before.

Birds particularly like our upper garden which has a simulated spring hole with a spiral brook proceeding from it. The brook pumps in its own circle, but when I overfeed it from the house source, it overflows and sometimes arrivies at the pond by way of a loose aqueduct of bamboo which I set up in the morning and the squirrels knock down in the afternoon. The pond itself has an outlet leading under a bridge to a sink hole with its own trickle fountain.

Here at Edgewood Place we have an indoor fountain which might seem to originate from the Earth herself behind the wall. Our first water garden though, was in our kitchen aquarium, where we raised an Audrey vine that went to the ceiling and twice around the fluorescent light panel. We also had minnows, and the pumpkinseed sunfish. The sunfish grew until it about the size of a small pumpkin, so we moved it to the garden. We then restocked the kitchen with a better combination, including a few swordtails, (which stay small) and a tropical algae-eating catfish. What he or the fish didn’t eat, the vine would. We still have the vine.

By last year the outdoor pond here had reached a mature equilibrium - a steady, clear state - so mostly we have only needed to rake the floating leaves or pine needles off the surface, or chase out an occasional labrador retriever.

That was until the ice/snow event this winter which you may remember from the earlier newsletter, and which I don't much like to recall.
In short then: after we had five years of sunny summers which made the high pines grow outsized upper branches, all full and bushy like fox tails. But winter came early this year with an ice storm for Christmas and then a heavy, plastic snow which stuck and hung on, even under the limbs. That dragged those pine tops over, broke them off, and brought them straight down , not so much like feathers wafting, as like spears - slung points first by the ice.
One went through the roof of a neighbor’s car like a spear through a fish. And one such pine trident put a few holes through the rubber liner of our pond.
When I first saw it the morning after, it was a dry socket.

As the ground thawed and let go the impaled limbs, I pulled them out of the ground and out of the pond. I never saw a sign of the old sunfish, but In March In a mud and leaf ice slurry at the very bottom of the pool, I found the one green frog, which is a smaller version of the bull frog, intact, and actually moving slowly in respondse to my hand warmth. I put him back in and added some more snow and leaves on top, to leave him until spring was more of a sure thing. I have planted many a salad garden in March during the last ten years, but this year it was a couple of months later that the Spring attacked with its alternating blasts of hot and cold, mostly cold, and the male cardinal which spent his days, it seemed, perching on the grape abor over my off kitchen office, and flying down to attack the corner of my window on about a three second beat.

The ground let go very slowly and as i pulled the points from the pool liner, I replaced them with marker sticks so I would not lose track of the holes, but the time I had cleaned it all fairly well, I had found not three, but five holes, including the biggest one, in the very bottom. I repaired all with a rubber patch adhered over the hole with urethane caulk,. I flood ed the pond a few days later, but it wouldnt rise and stay long abouve a certain level

Sidebars, foot notes, and spin-offs:

Though they do not all require a canoe to tend, all gardens are basically water gardens. Granted good water, adequate sunlight, and circulation, you can have a fine garden without any soil at all. In Ithaca, where the waters congregate, also on our glacier-scraped uplands where the soil is thin and often clogged with clay, drainage rather than irrigation is the basic problem of agriculture. The drainage is necessary, not so much to keep plants dry, as to keep them oxygenated: many plants can tolerate having their feet in water as long as the water brings oxygen.

Something is going to mate with the nitrogen in your garden water, and if it isn't chlorine the first to appear will be algae. Algae does a good job of civilizing the nitrogen, but then, of course, you have too much of another good thing. Zebra mussels are the very best at filtering algae, but if you have zebra mussels, you will need a sturgeon , as sturgeon have been observed to eat them at the the Milliken Station Cayuga lake water intake. the top line is: sturgeon, being huge, are easy to locate and eradicate.

Even bacteria can be desirable and functional in your garden water, but to treat a water source for undesirable bactera which would otherwise colonize your person, you might add an ionizing, or an ozone treatment system, or a less expensive point-of-use filter, but probably not the chlorine currently used in the municipal systems. Not chlorine because ( as our government is just learning andtellling us) the chlorine, after it kills the organisms (harmful and otherwise) which are thriving on the nitrogen tea manure and fertilizer make of our ground water, then itself couples with the nitrogen and forms compounds which (by now you have correctly guessed) are carcinogenic.
And we have recently learned that local testing shows that we have just begun to exceed the maximum acceptable level of that unholy combination, by just a little bit. Whether we are indeed already giving cancer to the many to keep comfortable a low proportion of people with poor immune systems, is not clear.

The Cayuga Green project will include pedestrian access to the Six Mile Creek Gorge which is the most hospitable of our Ithaca gorges. Until the late nineteenth century a remnant band of Cayugas used to spend winters only a few hundred yards from downtown in the sheltering amphitheater below the first falls, where now a herd of deer often winters with a flock of turkey's, and sometimes an eccentric person in a tarp or bark shack. Now days it is usually bone dry in August because we drink out of the resivoir upstream, faster than the stream can fill it. Perhaps we manage a slow release program for the sake of tourists and trout fry, many of which must be stewed there every year.

Dug wells or cisterns, with their stone-work shafts, are interesting in themselves, but also and especially for the generations of trash likely to have been committed to them until they were eventually paved over. From my small experience in such wells , I would expect bottom layers of broken hardware and crockery(probably made locally), and various early accidental losses - false teeth, toys, tools, and then many years of mostly cans, with occasional items discarded in the hope that they might never again come to light: all of this loosely bound with a suspicious, oily sludge.

Water may come to your house either from up Six mile creek a mile above town where we suck it up before we have had a chance to contaminate it, or from Bolton point, a mile or two down the lake where the lake is not so obviously affected by Ithaca’s plume of partially treated effluent

Concrete ponds generally heave, crack and leak (like the ponds in the water garden ruins in Redbud woods behind the Treman houses)

Outside, a tub can sit inside a cold frame where it acts as a heat sink to moderate the temperature. We have forty gallon blue plastic grape juce barrel which we cover with plastic in Spring to speed up germination and get a head start on our salad garden. A small bubbler keeps the water active and prevents it from freezing. One white goldfish lives there now and often hangs at the top, the eye of the garden.

So many possibilities. We know of a bank lobby in Louisville which at least used to have bench level ponds with albino cave toads in them.
The largest "water gardens" in this country are probably paddies in the South where rice and catfish are farmed together, or green municipal sewage treatment facilities which are basically managed artificial swamps in which flowering plants do the work of nitrogen recycling. At times, there has been an experiment in progress with such a garden in green houses down by the Ithaca city sewage treatment.

The roots-on hydroponic lettuce sold locally during the winter is an outgrowth of a Cornell project to establish a way to produce lettuce in green houses here which is more efficient than to bring daily train-loads of lettuce all the way across the country from California (which itself imports its water from Colorado: a state in drought and with a rapidly sinking water table ). But we still do. Another possibility, would be for us to send water trains to Colorado.

And that is my proposal.