The Rock That Made The Ripples
Charles B. Thomas
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Charles B. Thomas
In 1964 I visited Georgetown, Guiana, and Belem and Manaus, Brazil,
to see ornamental aquatic plants and various tropical fish collection/exporting
facilities. Many varieties of tropical fishes grow naturally
in local waters around and upstream from Georgetown and Manaus.
The latter is especially known as a source for neons, cardinals,
At Georgetown I witnessed Nelumbos blooming profusely.
And in Belem I saw lots of Victorias in a botanic garden.
But flying inland above the Amazon upstream for a thousand miles
in a non-pressurized World War II vintage DC4 to Manaus took
me very close to my ultimate find, the pinnacle of this adventure.
Boating down the black water of the Rio Negro to its confluence
with the brown water of the great Amazon took me to an island
bearing the trip's hidden highlight. As we headed downstream
on the Amazon, the starboard half of the river stayed brown for
miles and the port water remained black. I noticed naked, carefree
children playing in shallow water near the riverbanks. They and
nearby adults displayed no fear of attack by piranhas.
A few miles down the Amazon, we came upon a gigantic island where
my guide and I went ashore. We walked a short distance and he
pointed out rubber trees that were yielding their sap for rubber
production. But the main attraction of the trip still remained
a five- or ten-minute walk through the jungle pathway leading
to a lake.
Once there, we boarded a small flat-bottom boat and rowed toward
an enormous area heavily covered by V. amazonica (called
V. regia at the time). Except for those round pads close
to the perimeter of the vast patch, the pads were more square
than round. They occupied every inch of available surface area,
thereby altering their usual round shape. Those Victorias
boldly flaunted well-established turned-up edges. And they profusely
produced their aromatic blossoms, generously giving a delightful
pineapple fragrance in the early morning air.
I stayed at the then-new Amazonica Hotel, visited the renowned
opera house, and the local street markets where fish were hanging
to dry in the open air awaiting buyers. Piranhas and other tropical
fishes failed to look appetizing to me. Many families lived nearby
in homes resting on stilts over the water.
My grandfather's N. 'Mrs. C. W. Thomas' was the first
waterlily plant patent applied for in the U. S. However, he didn't
follow through on it and Perry Slocum received the first waterlily
plant patent issued by the U. S. Patent Office. Later I received
plant patents on N. 'Virginia' and N.' Louise',
named in honor of my mother.
Dad taught me much about fish hatchery operations, but my
heart was with the aquatic plants. Upon his retirement in 1966,
Uncle Lease Bussard presided over Three Springs Fisheries. He
and Aunt Frances (Dad's sister) lived in Maryland during the
summer, but for nine to ten months each year they resided in
San Juan, Puerto Rico. He taught me a lot of valuable business
tactics, and he gave me plenty of responsibility.
became president in September of 1975 when he retired. Sally
and I purchased over 90% of the business. Sales growth showed
only modest gains. Too many prospects believed that water gardening
was (1) too difficult, and (2) too expensive. The modest six
figure annual water gardening sales figure would multiply by
50 times over the next two decades.
Preformed and flexible liner pools had made water gardening easier
and less expensive. Still, these two long-held objections needed
to be overcome. Accurate instructions along with accurately named
and described plant material needed dissemination.
I was convinced that the only way to expand water garden sales
was for people to realize that water gardening is something they
can afford, something that they can do successfully (and something
that they can't live without). But how could millions of people
receive this message? Paid advertising alone would be much too
Dad was a member of Garden Writers Association of America (now
Garden Writers Association), so I thought that if I became active
with them, attending their conventions, that I could learn much
about writing and ways to get my message across to the public.
Meanwhile, they could learn much about water gardening from me
so they could then write accurately about it.
After attending the first few meetings, whenever there was a
water garden at the site we were visiting, people would call
back to me, "Charles, there's a water garden here!"
Next, they asked me to speak at their national meeting -- a splendid
There I stressed two major points. First, water gardening is
the easiest kind of gardening if you start right. (What do gardeners
find is hardest about gardening, like least about gardening?
Weeds. No weeds grow in a typical artificial bottom water garden,
not even crab grass.) And I explained the basic principles of
starting right. Misinformation from misinformed or uninformed
suppliers and garden writers were big impediments for first timers.
The second major point I made was that once you start right,
allow four to six weeks for the various elements to get into
sync. First timers who feel compelled to adjust the pH frequently
or to change the water at the first sign of algae quickly become
frustrated. And I explained that the typical home-owner could
readily afford a water garden.
I know that there remain a lot of unknown details about water
gardening. Scientists who research pond dynamics claim that even
they do not fully understand everything that happens in a garden
pond. But the simple basics that I, along with many water garden
experts, espouse do yield successful results for beginners, intermediates,
and experienced water gardeners. Begin with too much detail and
you turn off would-be devotees. I favor giving them relatively
simple instructions that will most likely make them successful.
Following that lecture, TV gardening hosts Larry and Anstice
Esdmond-White asked me to help produce a water garden program
for their PBS show broadcasting weekly in 180 markets coast to
coast. It earned favorable ratings, so they included a new water
garden program each year. Some years they were shot at their
beautifully landscaped estate near Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Other
years they traveled to Lilypons, Maryland to create it. Happily,
some years included more than one water garden show.
Son-in-law Richard continued annually with the program after
my last one. I also suggested other water garden related sites,
including Denver Botanical Garden for their award-winning show.
In 1992, Richard and I worked with GWA past president Jim Wilson
of PBS's Victory Gardens to produce a large water garden display
in Columbus, Ohio. The official national garden festival there
commemorated 500 years since Columbus' first voyage across the
Atlantic. Thousands of people viewed that display daily. Jim
(ashore) and I (in the pond) explained water gardening for a
Victory Gardens TV show that was repeated for years.
Besides the free water-garden-publicity benefits GWA provided,
I substantially increased water gardening advertising in national
gardening magazines. The Lilypons catalog was enhanced to include
more information to help water gardeners be successful. I knew
that successful water gardeners would share their excitement
with their friends, and that unsuccessful ones would make sure
that none of their friends would attempt water gardening.
Increasing sales provided funds for increased national advertising
in garden magazines. The business managers of the magazines noticed
full-page color ads for waterlilies, and this provided some push
for water garden articles. Meanwhile, nationally prominent writers
had become excited about water gardening, providing a pull
to publish such articles. Readers who knew a little about water
gardening demanded informative reading material.
The confluence of these factors resulted in national and regional
gardening magazines featuring at least one water garden article
per year. Before, simply seeing one article from the lot of them
was remarkable. Now, not only was a significant quantity of water
gardening articles being published, but also the information
was usually accurate.
Garden writers who had met me at regional and national conventions
began calling me to check their articles before submitting them
to their editors. Even then, occasionally some editors unwittingly
changed the meaning while trying to fit an article into the allotted
space. Nevertheless, articles became significantly more detailed
as well as more trustworthy.
My association with GWA gave me valuable experience that would
be extremely helpful with IWGS meetings. I learned a lot about
meetings while organizing regional meetings in District II, mid-Atlantic
area, being a committee member of GWA's annual meeting in Philadelphia,
and chairing the annual meeting in Washington, DC.
Serving two consecutive two-year terms on their board also gave
me valuable experience about how an effective board operates.
GWA and Mailorder Gardening Association were blessed with pleasant,
yet hard-driving, effective executive directors who superbly
ran the day-to-day association affairs. GWA honored me at their
1996 Minneapolis symposium with the Wilfred J. Jung Distinguished
Service Metal. They grant it annually to a commercial firm making
outstanding contributions in gardening.
Paralleling this, I became active in the MGA. Members include
nurseries like Wayside Gardens and Jackson & Perkins and
associate members like Horticulture, Fine Gardening,
Southern Living, Better Homes & Gardens, etc.
Horticulture's Teri Dunn began writing articles about
water gardening and she became a dedicated water gardener. I
suggested articles to her, sending Teri to see Joe Tomocik, HF,
and John, HF, and Mary Mirgon, HF, all in Denver and Bill Frase,
HF, (originator of N. 'Teri Dunn') in Orlando, Florida.
Her insightful book, along with other water gardening articles,
promoted greater interest in water gardening.
At MGA I maintained friendly contact with magazine people who
could, and did, produce many appropriate articles promoting water
gardening. Besides being on MGA's board, I advanced through their
officer progression to become president. They pronounced me Member
of the Year during their 1988 Los Angeles meeting, and during
their 2001 Memphis meeting, placed me in their Hall of Fame.
During one of his trips to Japan, Walter Pagels, HF, spotted
a unique waterlily, one that he had never seen. He shared a cutting
with Joe in the mid-1980's. It bloomed for him at the Denver
Botanic Gardens, but it eluded identification.
A few years later Philip Swindells, HF, and I toured Denver Botanic
Gardens with Joe. All of the lilies were accurately labeled except
Walter's gift. Immediately upon seeing it, Philip exclaimed,
"It's 'Arc en Ciel'. " Philip had seen it a decade
earlier in Europe, and those who knew about the cultivar had
given it up as being extinct. Once identified, it was shared
with propagators and it is well distributed now.
I hired Rolf Nelson in June 1977 upon his graduation with
a degree in horticulture from the University of Maryland, and
quickly recognized that he was an eager learner anxious for management
responsibility. Therefore, I decided that he was the person who
could operate a branch aquatic nursery in the Houston, Texas,
He left for Brookshire on New Year's Day 1978, traveling by way
of Winter Haven, Florida, to visit Peter Slocum first. Additionally,
I requested that he later visit San Angelo to meet Kenneth Landon,
HF. Also in January I introduced a new name for Three Springs
Fisheries--Lilypons Water Gardens--and four years later discontinued
large-scale fish production.
A year or so afterward, Rolf and his University of Maryland School
of Horticulture sweetheart married. Anita became our assistant
manager in Brookshire. Years later they began their own thriving
business, Nelson Water Gardens & Nursery, Inc.
Another bright young man, Keith Folsom, caught my attention.
He studied horticulture, including water gardening, in college
in North Carolina. After gaining experience at Lilypons Water
Gardens, Maryland, he transferred to LWG, Texas. Later he returned
to LWG, Maryland, as a manager and fell in love with co-worker
Tish. They also married, and then returned to his native Virginia.
There they began their own successful aquatic nursery, Springdale
Working together with Lilypons staff, and with assistance
from interested individuals, including Pat Nutt, HF, Joe, and
Walter, we conducted research into the proper botanical names
of all plants listed in the Lilypons catalog. This extended Dad's
earlier work ensuring accurate photography in the catalog and
in his book. Within a few years, other water garden catalogs
began appearing with botanical names. IWGS counts correct nomenclature
as one of its prime objectives.
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- A Society for Water Gardeners >
In the 1970's in the U. S., mail order catalogers dominated the
water garden business. Major mail order sources were located
either near the east or west coast. People prefer to buy from
a closer source than from a more distant source. As a second
location, Brookshire positioned Lilypons approximately in the
middle between the two coasts.
Moreover, Brookshire's location within a convenient driving distance
of one of America's largest cities facilitates plenty of local
sales. Compared to Maryland, its longer growing season provides
another distinct advantage. So does the opportunity to produce
tropical aquatics with much less artificially produced heat.
When I was in school, Dad arranged for Mother to give water garden
talks to area garden clubs. While my brother and I were attending
the University of Maryland, he sent her there to learn about
public speaking. My degree program required two courses in the
subject (and fortunately for me, not in the same classroom with
my own mother!). Soon after being discharged from the Army, Dad
began to call on me to give the lectures.
More and more speaking requests flowed in from larger and more
distant organizations. Although somewhat reluctant at first,
I soon began to relish speaking. I especially liked the audience
feedback because they could teach me new ideas. And I enjoyed
traveling to so many interesting places. Requests came from universities,
botanic gardens, and horticultural organizations from coast to
coast and abroad. As time passed, I encouraged Rolf, Anita, Keith,
and Richard to speak, spreading the good word about water gardening.
They, too, were somewhat reluctant at first, but I believe that
they all now relish it.
During the late 1960's and early 1970's I attended The George
Washington University. There I earned a Master of Science Degree
in Administration. The scope of new (new since graduating from
Maryland in 1957) management thoughts amazed me. These fresh
ideas helped me to enhance the teamwork at the family business.
The spectacular water garden displays at the Missouri Botanical
Garden, and Pat's enhanced water garden exhibits at Longwood
Gardens (with input from George Pring) greatly impressed others
fortunate enough to witness them, and me also. I recognized that
significant water garden displays like these would become an
important and compelling element of public gardens and parks.
Lilypons Water Gardens introduced displays of water gardens featuring
live, in-bloom waterlilies at major flower shows including Philadelphia,
Baltimore, and Washington. More people than ever witnessed the
beauty and tranquility of water gardens. And for those who were
interested, I was eager to explain that they could readily enjoy
the rewards of water gardening at their own home.
Copyright 2004 Charles B. Thomas
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