Catching the Water Bug

In the midst of the city, pond and garden club members share ideas to create serene, backyard oases
Photographs by Martin Vecchio

In 1995, Dennis Long, an electrician who worked for Detroit Public Schools at the time, went to a friend’s house to repair a backyard socket. When he arrived, more than just a faulty plug greeted him.

His friend has just finished transforming his backyard into a decorative pond surrounded by irises and lilies. Taking in the picturesque scene, Long was instantly captivated. He soon had a post-retirement avocation to devote himself to — one that would prove to be a lot more fun than freelance electrical work.

Long began to educate himself on the art of pond and garden construction. Through seminars and extensive research, he became familiar with the fine points of design, excavation, and drainage, and how to successfully integrate a pond with plantings. Soon after he built a pond and garden (sometimes referred to as a “water garden”) behind his northwest Detroit home. Over time, Long introduced Japanese koi fish to the pond, creating yet another aesthetic.

Today, the gentle sound of the flowing water and the vision of colorful day lilies, hostas, and begonias combine to offer the ultimate experience of serenity. The scene also features an array of dramatic lighting, which creates a sublime nighttime experience.

Long and his wife, Maria, enjoyed their charming backyard oasis in isolation for several years. Then one day in 2002, a neighbor visited and was overwhelmed by the breathtaking scene. Word spread up and down their block of Pennington Drive, piquing the curiosity of residents. Many soon stopped by for a look, and Long had a new following of friends wanting to take up his hobby.

“People were blown away,” Long says. “They weren’t used to seeing something like this in the middle of the city.”

As word spread and generated even more interest, the Longs decided to form the Metro Detroit Pond and Garden Club. The organization has some 70 spirited members who meet monthly from April to October to trade advice, share photographs, and sometimes attend seminars about topics including water filtration and proper care of their prized koi. 

The highlight of each season, however, is their  annual pond tour, where members open their backyards for the public to “ooh” and “ahh” at their creations. Last year’s event featured the stylings of 10 club members. Each project is truly unique, reflecting the creativity and taste of the homeowner.

When Curtis and Rosemary Tinnon first purchased their home on West Outer Drive, it already had a small goldfish basin in the backyard. But seeing the Longs’ pond kicked their imaginations into high gear, and they set out to expand theirs to 4,500 gallons — and introduced koi. They also installed new filtration, which keeps the water crystal-clear and allows an unfettered view of the colorful fish.

“I enjoy more and more being in my backyard trying to decide what new plants I can showcase to my family and friends,” Rosemary says. “We enjoy the pond so much that we added a bigger deck.”

Some of the club’s members forgo the work of maintaining a pond and opt to concentrate on flowering plants. Mary Ferris chose this approach for her home on Wildemere Street. She approached the project with the dedication of a scholar, studying which plants would flourish given Michigan’s climate and soil quality. She also considered the average amount of sunlight each side of her house would receive on a typical day.

Putting her new skills into action, Ferris chose evergreen shrubs as a foundation, which provide privacy and serve as a background for accent plantings. “I added a palette of azaleas, hydrangeas, and a dogwood hedge in the front yard, a red dogwood tree on the right of the house and a Japanese tree on the northwest side of the house,” Ferris says. “Hanging baskets of flowers are added to draw eyes to every array of the yard.”

Norman Silk and Dale Morgan use their garden display to showcase their historic home’s dramatic architecture. Their home on West Seven Mile is the only known example of a Frank Lloyd Wright design within Detroit city limits.

In 1955, Dorothy Turkel, the original owner, commissioned the famous architect to design her new home and listed several requirements: large windows, very few exterior doors, and a soda fountain. The finished structure exemplifies Wright’s Usonian Automatic style, which ironically has features completely opposite of those requested by Turkel, and no soda fountain. Much of the home is constructed of preformed concrete blocks — each containing its own individual window — which complement 19 external doors.

In 2006, Silk and Morgan purchased the home — which had been neglected and vacant for some time — and spent the next several years overseeing an historically accurate restoration. The task involved painstaking research, such as sifting through primary blueprints and correspondence to determine original paint colors and interior designs. Today the home stands as a tribute to Wright’s unusual and attention-worthy design.

The couple didn’t stop with the interior — the yard abutting the home was also in need of reclamation. They hired landscape architect Richard Hass to create a garden to showcase the home rather than compete with it. Hass selected colorful plantings to play off or “pop” the gray concrete exterior of the house. He also chose blooming perennials with leafy textures that would form a high density to inhibit weed growth — and be almost maintenance-free. A small decorative pool and pieces of outdoor sculpture complete the picturesque setting.

“My goal was to create a garden that would bring the house outward to emphasize the spectacular home,” Hass says.