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A Touch of Giverny
By Christie Craig

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It isn't Giverny, the late artist Claude Monet's famous gardens where he placed his easel and painted images of delicate water lilies, but the Long Star ZNA Koi Club has brought reflections of the French landscape to Houston by way of their own gardens. Once a year, the Club offers visitors a chance to see and marvel at several of these creations. If you missed the tour on June 3rd and 4th, you missed an impressive show, but don't despair, next years tour is already in the planning stages. Until then, here's a sneak preview of Houston's very own...touch of Giverny.

givernyWhile many of the Club members may never have held a painter's brush, they, like Monet, are artists in their own right. A stroll among these many gardens reveals a succession of colored harmonies.

Like a dab of paint on a canvas, they use the brilliance of flowers, the textures of plant life, and well-chosen pieces of statuary to create their works of art.

They choose the perfect lighting conditions, knowing just where the sun's rays will leave dappled shadows. The colors intermixed with the shadows reflect from the water's edge. In the water, you will find what some club members consider the inspiration for the gardens: jewel-toned, brocaded carp from Japan- the koi. The Japanese refer to the koi as, "living jewels" a befitting name, for as these fish, golden, black, red and white, swirl among the ponds they appear as precious gems.

giverny "For me," says Diane Caulk, member of the Koi Club, "the koi are the portrait, the garden is the frame. And the portrait is always more important than the frame."

givernyAs for those seeking show quality koi, these "portraits" can be as pricy as jewels. Many koi enthusiasts travel to Japan where they pay anywhere from fifty to thousands of dollars for these ornamental fish. Others, however, say that by knowing about color and conformation, a person can purchase a ten dollar koi at the pet store and it will be as beautiful and bring elegance to any pond.

While some of the members give equal significance to the garden as they do these beautiful fish, they all agree, the koi helps complete the picture of a perfect water garden. However, the exact definition of "perfect" goes unanswered, for each garden has a unique style that is as individual as the gardeners themselves.

"Some like a very formal, sculptured look, preferring foliage over flowers, while others lean more to the cottage garden appearance," says Virginia Joiner, master gardener and Club member. "Gardens and ponds are an expression of each owner's personality." This personality and expression is clear to see in the garden of Beth and Bruce Grunden, Club members and one of 10 winners of the Golden Trowel Award by Garden Design and a winner in the Country Garden Amateur Garden Design contest. Individuality lies at every nook and turn of this garden, from a totem pole she had carved and made in Hawaii to the collection of prehistoric plants.

givernyJust as the plant life and garden accessories vary, so do the ponds. "Water gardening can be as expensive or inexpensive as people like," says Joiner. From concrete, rubber-lined, to the preformed fiberglass ponds, the choices are many.

While there are companies that specialize in constructing and designing ponds, many of the ponds on the tour were masterminded and built by the owners themselves. "It was a labor of love," says Victor and Marcia Alvarez who designed and, with the help of a few friends, dug, by hand, every inch of their 12,000 gallon pond.

Barbara and Ralph Hilton also designed and built their 2,500 gallon pond which consists of five waterfalls. "The more you put yourself into a hobby, the more you get out of it," says Ralph Hilton. One question often asked of pond owners is, "How much time do you have to put into it?" Water gardeners will tell you that with the right filtration system the pond is practically carefree.

givernySerious pond owners tend to lean more to the biological filtering system than the mechanical filters because they don't require as much care. "More time is spent tending the garden around the pond than the pond itself," says Barbara Hilton. Yet gardeners continue to echo the sentiment, "Time spent in a garden is time well spent."

Weeding the pond's landscape and caring for plants and fish is part of the water gardening process that most pond owners consider enjoyable and even therapeutic. The amount of time depends of the garden itself, or as Charlotte Hilger, Club member and Junior High Physical Education teacher, tells us, "As much time as you need to escape." Hilger comes home and spends several hours a day tinkering and simply enjoying her garden.

"This is my down time. Out here, my day's stress accumulated by working with teenagers, melts away. I love it because...well, plants and fish don't talk back."

Victor Alvarez tells us, "If I've had a tense day at work, I'll go feed the fish before I greet my family. It always puts me in a better mood." Scientist have proven that watching fish can lower the blood pressure and recently they are promoting gardening as a way to reduce stress.

givernyWater gardeners, however, say it much more eloquently. Their stories of savored moments, of sipping morning coffee while watching lilies open to the first rays of sun, of care-free evenings - hushed and still- spent relaxing as the sky turns to dusty pinks, of small talk shared between friends encouraged by the quiet setting of trickling water, these stories alone are enough to make any wanna-be water gardener reach for a shovel and take the plunge.

As touring visitors stroll away, visions of their own ponds swirling in their heads, words such as tranquility, serenity, and peacefulness are used to describe the ambiance found at these works of art we call water gardens. Oddly enough, these same words are frequently used by world travelers to describe Monet's famous gardens.

No, it's not Giverny, but it's close. And for the Lone Star ZNA Koi Club and other water gardeners in Houston, it's as close as their own backyards.

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