Water Garden Authority
Come on in - the water's fine .
by Irene Heritage
with Charles B. Thomas
Click images to enlarge
He was born in 1922 on his father's farm in the village of
Chesterton in the county of Warwickshire, just about in the centre
of England. Farming was in the doldrums and after some years
his father went into business in the town of Leamington. He went
to junior schools in Leamington and then Warwick School in the
County Town, one of the oldest schools in England.
He spent a lot of his time cycling around the country lanes
indulging his love of nature, the ponds, trees, plants, animals,
birds and solitude. Another passion was aeroplanes and their
1944-5, desk job, NAV III, HG 229
Group, RAF, Delhi, India
In 1940 he volunteered for The Royal Air Force, and when called
up he did his initial training in Scotland, then flying training
in Canada. He had been named Leslie Victor, but there was another
chap called Les in his group in the RAF and thus it was he became
After service in Africa, years in India and finally in Singapore
in 1945, he returned to England in 1946 and was demobilised.
He went to work in forestry in Dorset, a county in the southwest
and, at a weekend visit to friends in December 1947, he met their
friend Irene from London. So it was that on 11 September 1948
the countryman married the townie, much to the concern of many
< Bill and Irene were married in
Christ Church, Woburn Square, London
Bill's approach to forestry/horticulture was
practical rather than academic.
Bill joined Stewarts of Ferndown, Dorset, general horticulturists,
in 1949, and gradually was able to indulge his love of water
gardening. He met Norman Bennett at Weymouth in Dorset who had
just given up teaching to do the same; they became friends then,
never thought of competing, and remain friends in their retirement.
During the intervening years, this duo assisted several of the
UK's most distinguished botanic gardens to sort out the proper
identities of waterlilies in their collections.
Bill had always been a bookworm (avid reader) and it just
came naturally to write his first article, "Come on in -
the Water's Fine" in 1955, which was published in the horticultural
magazine Amateur Gardening. The demand for articles grew
and life was busy since there were now two young sons in the
The British Broadcasting Company produced a TV gardening programme
from its studio in Birmingham - it was in black and white, live
and no recording. Bill was asked to appear in April 1960. Bill
appeared several times during the next few years. He left Stewarts
to join Highlands Water Gardens in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire,
now living only just over 20 miles from London, but still pleasant
Life was hectic - very full-time job, many articles, the odd
TV appearance, taking part in radio gardening programmes and
lecturing to horticultural societies. The lectures were illustrated
with his own slides, of course. Now he was being chivvied to
write a book.
Bill's The Lotus Book of Water Gardening was published
in 1973 and sold over 150,000 copies. It was translated into
French and Dutch.
In 1981 his Ponds and Water Gardens was published.
There has been a second edition and two revised editions after
that. Copies are still being sold after 25 years!
The Royal Horticultural Society, in association with Collingridge,
produced The Wisley Book of Gardening with sections produced
by various well-known garden writers, also in 1981. Bill wrote
Plants for Pools, and I think it is some of the best writing
Bill has done; he was writing for knowledgeable gardeners.
Bill by now had joined Wildwoods, a water gardening company
in Crews Hill, and water gardening was very popular. So a busy
life continued. Then Charles Thomas of Lilypons Water Gardens
contacted professionals and enthusiasts around the world to form
the Water Lily Society (now International Waterlily and Water
Gardening Society). So Bill (always with me tagging along) was
able to share his love and enthusiasm in person with others from
around the world, but particularly the USA.
< Bill and Irene couldn't make it to the
very first IWLS Symposium but after that they were always there
until their last visit to Baltimore in 1998.
He delivered the keynote address at its 1986 symposium
that included memorable tours of the Missouri Botanic Garden,
St Louis, and Ozark Fisheries, Stoutland, Missouri, USA. During
our trek to the ornamental fish hatchery, the temperature reached
an unusually high 104 F (40 C) with 100% humidity. We felt like
we were in the mist of a tropical rainforest. We shall never
forget our Missouri summer. Nevertheless, we loved being in the
"show me" state, seeing diverse gardens, enjoying the
symposium, exchanging ideas, and meeting delightful people there.
We learned first hand about water gardening conditions and practices
in diverse parts of North America including California, Colorado,
Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Ontario,
Tennessee, and Texas. At its 1988 Garden Grove, California, USA
symposium, WLS awarded Bill its highest honor. They inducted
him into their Hall of Fame in recognition of his outstanding
contributions advancing water gardening.
Pat Nutt congratulates Bill on his
Hall of Fame award.
< WLS banquet in Ripley, Harrogate, with
Bennett, August 1988
Betsy Sakata, Bill, James Allison.
1998 IWGS Symposium >
Visiting the USA rather regularly satisfied a special curiosity
of Bill's, the American Civil War. Like a military officer or
historian, Bill had studied various aspects and battles of that
conflict. Upon gratifying his water gardening interests in the
area we were visiting, he then reviewed Civil War events (Antietam,
Cowpens, Gettysburg) of the locality. American travels also provided
Bill the opportunity to attend Garden Writers Association of
America meetings where he increased his understanding of American
We became good friends with Perry and Maggie Slocum. We looked
forward to seeing them at the annual water lily symposiums in
Europe and America. Perry surprised us when he asked permission
to name a striking red hybrid Nymphaea 'Irene Heritage'. Naturally,
I agreed; Bill and I were delighted.
Life has become relaxed. The retired Bill (with some direction
from me) gardens with his characteristic life-long passion for
plants, terrestrial as well as aquatic. He is especially fond
of his extensive daffodil collection of over 100 cultivars. Rarely
does a day pass that he is not tending to his beloved plants.
Like always before, Bill continues indulging his love of nature
- ponds, trees, plants, animals, birds and solitude.
Bill is universally recognized for patiently providing accurate,
straightforward answers to questions from everyone. It does not
matter if the person is a first-timer, a long-time water gardener,
or an experienced professional. He speaks and writes clearly
in the engaging manner of an effective mentor. Countless water
gardeners around the globe thank Bill who, through words and
example, has ceaselessly encouraged all to follow his earnest
invitation, "Come on in - the water's fine."
Preface to Bill's best-selling Ponds
and Water Gardens
To anyone who has ever had a garden pool no explanation of
its varied delights is necessary. The gleam of water, the tranquil
beauty of lily blooms sailing among cloud reflections, the swirl
of rising fish, the chuckle of a cascade, and the heady scent
of water hawthorn are, for those who have known them, pleasures
without which no garden can be regarded as complete.
Nevertheless, unlikely as it will seem to these initiates,
there are still gardeners who need to be persuaded; who require
assurance that the effort involved in creating a water garden
will be adequately rewarded; that there are sound practical reasons
for going to the trouble of adding water to the garden scene.
The following pages will indicate, I hope, that it is much less
trouble than many people imagine and that the dividends in interest
and the enjoyment for the whole family are enormous.
Some of them are obvious enough. The gardener in the family
will discover how very easily water lilies can be persuaded to
produce magnificent flowers. Those members of the family who
normally take no notice of the garden at all will be found to
take a lively interest in the occupants of the pond and to share
the general satisfaction in the successful rearing of "home-grown"
fish. It creates the focal point that so many gardens lack. Its
magnetic attraction draws the footsteps and gives purpose to
aimless paths. It seems somehow to gather the rest of the garden
comfortably around it, giving both a focus and a unity to the
Then there is the gift of relaxation. While other parts of
the garden wear the reproachful look that nags of work needing
doing, the water garden requires not that we hurry but that we
pause. It reminds us that there should be time to stand and stare,
or, preferably, to sit and stare, or better still, to have tea
by the pool and, between bites, to flick tidbits to the fish
cruising underneath the lily pads.