Chapter 5

The pond, the bog, and the waterfalls

Part II

Kieran Egan

Preparing the pond

With Moby Rock now outside the hole looking in, I was able to continue with the pond excavation. I threw a considerable amount of clay into the hole left by the rock, leveling the base at about two and a half or three feet. That seemed enough. I then cut back the sides, wondering at the distinct layers of soil exposed, and the differences in its colors.

Once the overall shape and depth seemed about right, I began laying a long two by four piece of wood across the excavation trying to get it level. It was crucial to get it right, or the pond would flood over and away at the lowest point of the rim. This involved taking a sliver off this side and adding it over here, patting down a bit there, taking a diminishing chunk from this side. When it was level all around the rim and level at the base, I did some final sculpting of the sides, making the shelves neater. When finished and tamped down, I thought it looked quite an attractive earth sculpture.

Next I had to cover the surfaces of the pond--base, sides, and shelves--with something that would protect the vinyl liner from being punctured by a stone or sharp root once the great weight of the water was in it. Being overly cautious I decided to put a layer of sand around first, and on top of that to spread a layer of fiberglass insulation.

Slapping the wet sand on all surfaces proved hard on the back. The base of the pond was easy, as were the shelves, but the sides were a bit of a pain. The damp sand had the terrible habit on this bright sunny day of drying out and dribbling down to the floor of the pond. More water onto the sand, and then slapping it back into place, evening it out, and in the end my sculpture of layers of brown earth became a somewhat more rounded one of uniform gray. I maybe put too much sand on the bottom, raising the depth of the pond to a bit over two feet. Here's my abstract ground-sculpture in gray:

Engaging in overkill, I then bought the thickest fiberglass insulation I could find, and began laying it over the sand. It looked quite vivid in its bright yellow strips, but it also looked chunky. I couldn't make the foot-wide chunks fit neatly around the curves, but felt that the weight of the water would compress them to a fraction of an inch or an inch. It was so difficult to cut the stuff to fit around the shelves, that I decided I would settle for putting the battens of insulation on the base and sides of the pond up to the level of the shelves, where the pressure of the water would be greatest. It looked quite dramatic, if a little daft.

Before doing the final work on shaping the pond, I had bought the liner. The landscape supply place had a section given over to ponds and liners, and examples of varying thickness. One of the books recommended at least 20ml. or even 30 ml. thickness. This meant nothing to me. I described my project and the dimensions of the pond, and was advised to take the 40 ml. liner. No doubt this helped their bottom line, but it seemed sensible, as the liner was no place to skimp.

The liner is made of polyvinyl chloride, hence PVC. In case you know as little as I did about how such miraculous materials are made, I thought I should look it up. But after examining a number of sources, I'm not really ahead in the game of understanding. I gather that the liner is just one of the many forms PVC can be extruded into&emdash;if 'extruded' the right term&emdash;and is, as one of the books pus it "any of various tough, chemically resistant, thermoplastic polymers in which the repeating unit is ·CH2·CHCl·". This is how dictionaries and encyclopedias conspire to disguise the human meaning of such wonders as PVC. It is a product of astonishing human ingenuity, of individuals' dedication and insatiable inquiry, stretching back through the centuries as one curious person built on predecessors' findings, yet all this wonder and drama is suppressed. The understanding I was looking for was about who discovered what, in what circumstances, driven by what passions and hopes or fears. I know the information is somewhere in the library, but I'm afraid you are going to have to look it up for yourself. I have a pool to get on with, while gratefully acknowledging a debt to the unknown inventors of the miraculous PVC liner.

For a liner, one measures the length of the pool, adds its depth twice, and then one foot at each end for overlap, and then one does the same for its width at the widest point. Measuring generously and adding a bit at each measurement point, I reckoned I needed 22 feet long by 17 ft. wide. It came in five foot increments, so, as I also needed spare liner for the stream, I asked for 30 feet by 20 feet. The guy who sold it to me was one of those who had got tough he-man chic to a refined, minimal art. I chatted about the project and what I though I might need. He hardly spoke a word in response, grunted a couple of times, and did say, "I'll give you 40 ml. Good price." The only other words were:

"It'll be waiting for you over at the supply shed."

Having paid, I drove across the yard, thinking driving would be better than carrying the liner all the way back to the car. In the huge open shed there were three guys measuring and arguing. One began cutting, while passing judgement on the parentage and intellectual endowments of one of the others. This didn't fill me with cheer. They walked across the black liner while cutting it, which felt like carpet salesmen clumping in big boots on a customer's white Berber. They then began to fold it, at which point I realized I had another problem. It took the three of them to maneuver it, and even with the efforts of these strong guys they got it into the back of the car with some difficulty. The rear of the car sagged under the weight. I asked whether they weren't planning to come and help me at the other end. They laughed, a tad dryly; as well they might.

Back home I opened the trunk and looked at the heavy multi-folded vinyl, wondering how I was going to get it out. My wife was at work, and our two strong sons and strong daughter were away. I pulled the wheelbarrow up to the trunk and began heaving one side and then the other, pulling the top layer outwards. I was able to unfold an inch here and then an inch or two on the other side. My strong wife came home as I was beginning to get the first layer over the lip of the trunk, and together we were able to pull more of it out towards the waiting barrow. Sweating (or glowing) and straining, we finally had a folded layer of the liner droop heavily onto the barrow, which shuddered. Once one chunk was over, we heaved at the next layer and gradually got it over the lip. Then, emboldened by real movement, we tugged the final chunk up and it reluctantly oozed out, hitting the barrow with a muffled thump that nearly had it over.

Buckle-kneed, I wheeled the barrow to the back of the garden, heaved the liner out onto the grass, and unfolded it. Either I had been overly generous in my estimates, or the wrong guy had won the argument in the supply shed. It was the cutter's parentage and intellectual endowment that should have been brought into question. I could have covered a fair part of the neighborhood. No wonder it was so heavy. Without unfolding it all, I began to cut. It proved quite easy with a sturdy pair of scissors. With straining difficulty, I folded up the huge unneeded part and dragged it to the side of the lawn.

The books suggested that I should get a partner to help stretch the liner over the pond space, but as I set about the job the next day there was no-one home, so I set to heaving the vinyl towards the pond. I moved from side to side, gaining a few feet each time. Within half an hour I was covered with sweat but the pond opening was covered with liner. But instead of sagging into the space that was to be the pond, the liner sat unevenly on the tops of the fiberglass insulation battens. It had dragged them out of position on its way over, as the ice sheets had no doubt dragged Moby Rock. There was nothing else for it but to fold back the liner as far as I could and struggle under it to pull the battens into place all the way around. This proved hopeless. It was like an antechamber to hell in there. The weight of the liner was considerable, and I had to hold it up with one hand while trying to locate a batten in the almost complete dark and pull it back to its proper place against the sandy side. As soon as I had a piece back, and untangled my sweating self from the humid world under the liner, the liner fell back and simply dragged the batten out of place again.

I spent some time futilely struggling to shove and hold the battens in place, till it became clear they were simply too big. I needed either to replace them with thinner and more maneuverable slices if insulation, or assume that the sand would provide adequate protection for the liner. The Irish assumption that all will be well if one takes the easier road won out. I sweated some more dragging the battens out, no doubt also scraping away some of the protective sand.

At this point family showed up, and I had help fitting the liner into the pond, folding it over at the corners to minimize wrinkles. I laid just a few stones around the edges of the liner so that they would create some resistance when the weight of water pulled the liner downwards into the pool. Once all was in place, we had the ceremonial squirting of water into the space to begin making it a pool. Here's Joshua, almost squirming with excitement. Just look at his fists. He was hopping from foot to foot:

His aunt, Catherine, is holding the hose gun and his grandma, Susanna, is offering moral support. After a while, we had something that was beginning to look like a pond:


Once the water was in I cut away most of that vastly excessive load of liner. Then I began the knee and back straining job of carrying a further delivery of three tons of stones from the driveway to the back of the garden. Then it was jigsaw time. I began by laying the biggest and flattest stones around the rim of the pond, hanging them over as much as seemed safe so that they disguised or hid the liner. A stone at a time, and within a little while, I had a pond with stones around it, and after topping up the water and adding a few plants on the edge, I had something like this:

To the right you can see where the water is to fall in, if I can work out how to get it to flow over the stones. I had cut the liner away except where it was to provide a rear wall to the falling water. It seems as though it should be simple to set up a waterfall. But water has a peculiar habit of refusing to come over the stones one has set up. Instead, it inconveniently seeps behind them or beside them, with just no appreciation of the aesthetic effect it might have if only it took the dive off the top stone and sparkled on the others as it tumbled musically down them. Look at what I've got on the right in the picture above and see if you work out how to lay big rocks to guide the water to a glittering Niagara.

Apart from that problem, I had to work out what the stream was going to be like and where it would flow. Initially I had imagined a pile of stone at the top rear of the garden&emdash;a ghostly echo out of time and place of those Chinese artists' abode among mountains and rivers. Little they imagined of my struggles to emulate them in miniature. I thought I would lead the hose from the pump in the pond up to those stones and the water would emerge into a small pool. It would then head down a winding stream with a couple of small waterfalls until it hit the final straight and took the dive off the big waterfall into the pond.

While in a hardware store I saw a hard plastic mini-pond, that would be ideal for the top pool, so I bought it and lugged it home. It seemed to grow in size by two-fold when I put it on the raised garden. I forget just what a small space I am working in; it clearly fills too big a place in my imagination. Still, I could surround the shaped plastic head-pond with stones and ferns, and put a few water plants in it. But all this vague planning was undermined by the need to keep the pond water clean, which in turn led to a further monumental building program.


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