How a Garden Grows: The Skating Pond

This post is the first of several I plan to write, describing how different sections of the gardens at Glen Villa have changed over the years. Let me know what you think. Are you interested in more posts like this one?

Some people plan a garden before they begin to make it, with sketches or architectural plans drawn to scale. Not me. I don’t say this with pride, only as a matter of fact. Forethought helps, but happenstance and serendipity are more my style. And these too can produce wonderful results.

More than ten years ago, an area in the upper field near the road was a wet and uninteresting corner of the property. No one went there because there was no reason to go. There was nothing interesting to draw your feet in that direction, and there might never have been, except for Bridge Ascending.

Bridge Ascending, by Louise Doucet and Satoshi Saito

This splendid piece of art is by Louise Doucet and Satoshi Saito, a husband and wife team who live locally and exhibit and sell internationally. When an nearby covered bridge was burned down by vandals, we asked Louise and Satoshi to transform the remains into a sculpture. They accepted the commission. Together we chose the location, a farm field where the land seemed to embrace the sculpture in a suitable way. The soggy area was at the top of this field, and beyond it was a public road.

When the sculpture was finished, a portion was visible from that road. Visibility was not necessarily a problem but my husband and I feared it could become one: Bridge Ascending was so striking that we wondered if gawking drivers would cause a traffic accident. To prevent this, we pushed dirt up to create a large berm.

By blocking the view, a soggy field became a pond.

The pond in the field, a view from 2012.
Bridge Ascending is in the same field but well off to the right. 

From the start, I knew that the pond should look like a painting that had hung at my grandparents’ farm in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Painted by one of several ‘artistic’ maiden aunts who seemed always to be there, shelling peas and perspiring gently in the summer heat, this painting was not great art. But it appealed to me as a girl. To resemble the painting, the pond needed a path beside the water, a weeping willow, a stone bridge and an inviting place to sit.

Digging the pond made an awful mess but in the process we uncovered some beautiful rocks, grey stones whose smoothness was emphasized by the rough red rock beside it.

A view of the two types of rock that were hidden underground,
unearthed when we dug the pond. 

The year after we dug the pond, I started adding the elements I remembered from the painting. First came a wooden boardwalk. It didn’t circle the pond. Instead it curved gently around the side near the grey rocks, where natural springs made the ground impossibly wet. I planted three weeping willows that I knew eventually would drape over the water. A large rock we discovered while digging the pond became a bridge straddling the stream that fed the pond.

The rock makes a sturdy bridge, but it isn’t like the hump-backed one in my grandparents’ painting.

Then I stopped. For several years I did nothing else. I wanted the area around the Skating Pond to remain as natural as possible. Because on its own, it was becoming a magic place. Almost overnight, the Skating Pond began to attract wildlife — and grandchildren, fascinated by the transformation of tadpoles…

A spawn of tadpoles

into frogs.

One of MANY frogs that inhabit the pond.
It is a noisy place in the spring.

But adding plants is an irresistible impulse for a gardener. Three or four years after we dug the pond, I planted a few shrubs, an attractive variety of ninebark with citrus foliage. (Physocarpus ‘Golden Nugget.) You can see them in this photo from 2008, next to the smooth grey rocks.

The ninebark shrubs look good.
But what about that straw-coloured area beneath them?
Surely something needs to go there…

Beyond the rocks, near the stone bridge, a wet area looked unpleasantly weedy. I decided to experiment with some ornamental grasses and added some feather reed grass (Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’). I like the way it looked, so a year later I added more. It looked even better. I moved the ninebark, which by this time was looking rather sad, into a shrub border at the edge of the field. This left a damp area that caused some concern, but I figured more grasses would hold the bank in place. And I knew that the swathe of grasses needed to be larger to handle the expanse of the pond and the field. So I added more calamagrostis. And more. And more.

This autumn view shows the tan-coloured Calamagrostis in the background.
The bare area is where the ninebark was, and where more calamagrostis would be planted.

I put in some water-loving irises on the wet side of the pond and some orange day lilies on the dry side. I added clumps of Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm.’ And I let the wildflowers do whatever they wanted to do.

Self-seeded marsh marigolds (Calthus palustris) now edge the pond in spring.

In mid-summer, orange day lilies combine with purple blooms.
That is, unless the deer decide they would make a nice snack.

By autumn 2012, I thought I’d finished. Even if they needed another year or two to grow into themselves, the ornamental grasses were arching nicely around the top of the pond.

But the following spring it was clear that work was not over. A big section of the bank had collapsed.

The area that looks bare is actually planted with ornamental grasses
the same Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ that is growing on the right side of the photo,
above the beautiful grey rock.

Water had always been a problem in this area and we had put in many drains to feed the ground springs into the pond. Adding more drains did not seem the best solution. Far better, it seemed, to dig out more of the bank, to let the water run freely. If we were lucky, there would be more rock underground and the bank would hold itself.

We began to dig, yet again. And yes, we uncovered more rock.

In local terminology that grey stone we were uncovering is called ‘ledge.’

We replanted the calamagrostis that had been moved out during the work, added more yellow flag iris and crossed our fingers. Winter and spring would determine whether the bank would hold or whether more work would need to be done.

Exposing more rock created a small pond above the boardwalk.

So here we are, the summer of 2014, only 12 years after the pond began. The grasses are growing, and the boardwalk now separates the Skating Pond itself from a much smaller pond at the foot of the rocks.

This photo from June 2014 shows the same area as the photo above, taken in July 2013.

Can I say that the pond is finished? Definitely not. From a distance the problem area is easy to identify.

Looking across the pond and into the woods,
July 2014

Last week we added three big rocks, setting them well into the side of the bank. I feel confident they will hold the bank in place and that the grasses will finally have time to grow to full size. But who knows? I’ve been confident before. Many times.

The new rocks are at the top of the photo.

The Skating Pond remains a natural space, despite all the plants I’ve added and the changes I’ve made. Beyond the pond, inverted tree trunks seem to walk across the land. They are part of an art installation called Abanaki Walking, a tribute I made to the original inhabitants of this area. In the late afternoon light, they make the pond look warm and welcoming.

The Japanese blood grass (Imperator cylindrica ‘Red Baron’ adds a touch of red.

A final note about the name: My husband loved to skate. So the name for the pond seemed obvious. But the truth is, neither he nor anyone else has ever skated on the Skating Pond. He thought he would, I thought so, too. But clearing the snow and flooding the surface turned out to be far too much work. Yet the name sticks — like a promise that someday, someone will.