David Curtright
Escondido, California USA

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I have been an aquarium hobbyist since I was about 5 years old. My father had an active hobby and was one of the founders of the Los Angeles Aquarium Society. His hatchery in my grandparent's backyard was one of my favorite places to go as a child. It had an odor and a feel that I remember today. During and immediately following World War II, he and his friends used to travel into the deserts of California and Nevada collecting fish from the various hot springs that are to be found there. They collected and spawned many fish that are now extinct, endangered, and/or protected, including Cyprinodon diabolis, C. nevadensis, Empitrichthys merriamii, etc. His stories of their wild times in the desert, swimming in Devil's Hole, running from ranchers, running out of gas during the war, and the fun that they had bringing the fish home and working with them in the labs at USC or at home, were an early inspiration to me and to my older brother, Jack.

The first pond that I ever saw was at the home of one of my father's childhood friends, Dr. William. H. Hildemann, a noted immunologist at the time. Dr. Hildemann had a small pond in his yard. I was mesmerized by the lilies and bog plants, particularly Water Poppy. He later moved to Mandeville Canyon, in the hills above L.A., where he built a large pond with solar heating. In it he kept everything from Heterandria formosa (seventh smallest live-bearing vertebrate in the world) to Pseudotropheus zebra (a large and aggressive African Cichlid). He also kept a Victoria each year. His pond was kept so warm that on cold winter nights you could see steam rising from it. It was a phenomenal pond and I was always amazed by the verdancy of the thing. He would throw Poppies, Echinodorus, and Parrot's Feather away by the garbage can full. I was also inspired by him to keep aquarium plants, especially Echinodorus and Cryptocoryne. If he had two of something, one of them was mine for the asking. He was very inspirational and patient with a youngster. He died young, but his legacy lives on in some of the aquariums that my brother and I got from his estate, and still use. He introduced me to a fellow named Robert Gasser, of Stuart, Florida, from whom I got some of my first unusual aquarium plants.

My aquarium hobby/habit grew to quite a pitch. I soon found that I enjoyed plants more than fish and went that way, blooming poppies in my bedroom, blooming Cryptocoryne, sprouting ferns from spores, etc. By the time that I left my parents' house in 1976, I had 19 aquariums in my room and nearly 20 other tanks outside. My parents were very tolerant of my life style, encouraging me in every way.

Now I had grown up, and my lack of formal education more or less forced me into making my hobby my livelihood. I had been working in a precious metals refinery, making powders for the electronics industry as an R&D Tech, when I was approached by the personnel director about a pond that she had. I worked on it, and then another, and soon it was a regular weekend event. When I was laid off in November 1981, we bought a $7.50 ad in "The Pennysaver", a local throw-away, and I started working on ponds as a vocation.

I had never kept any lilies beyond the ones that you can get in an aquarium store. The only ones of any note that I had worked with were Dr. Hildemann's. I had helped him repot some of his (Nymphaea 'Green Smoke', 'Director Moore', 'Albert Greenberg', Victoria), but I was a near-complete neophyte. My learning curve steepened sharply in the early 80's as I struggled to keep my small family alive. I had also never run a business before.

One day my wife and I were on the freeway east of San Diego when we saw a sign that said, "Water Lilies". We pulled off of the road and found the place. It was the home of the Drakes, and the place was called Live Oak Water Gardens. Mr. and Mrs. Drake were very old and infirm, and, sadly, they had allowed their tanks to dry up over the summer. There were still some Iris fulva alive under a tree and we got them. They had allowed about a hundred genuine N. 'Virginalis' to dry up in one tank. I wish that I had found them that spring instead of that summer.  

At any rate, they told me that if I wanted to keep lilies that I had to meet this fellow in Del Cerro named Walter Pagels. They gave me his phone number and I uncharacteristically called him almost immediately. That evening, I think. He said that he would be glad to meet me and show me around, so we set up a meeting for a few days later, probably on a weekend because he was still working then. Well, my life has never been the same since. Here was my next inspiration. His enthusiasm, generosity, and sheer thoroughness of knowledge made me realize at once how little I knew and how much I wanted to know more.  

Walter Pagels & David

Things went from there. We survived Reaganomics, built the business in spite of ourselves, too stubborn, or stupid, to give up when we should have, and continued to build on to what we had on our little lot on a west facing cliff in southeast San Diego. Between pond jobs I painted houses, repaired roofs, fixed friends' cars, including Pagels' once, and did any other thing, mostly legal, that would turn a buck. Eventually, we developed a reputation as people who knew whereof we spoke when the conversation was about ponds, and eventually work started to find us. I spoke to garden clubs, and generally espoused the virtues of water gardening to any body who would listen to me.

Since we had very little usable space on out lot, we developed the strategy of using our maintenance clients' ponds as extensions of our nursery. After all, they pay for the pumping of the water, they pay to feed the fish, they paid us to install the plants that they bought from us, and then paid us to take care of them. Then they paid us to take the extras out, for us to sell them to somebody else. So why didn't we get rich? I do not know.

We realized at some point that we would not get that way until we branched out. The local market was not sufficient to keep us going year-round. We tried a catalog of sorts, advertising in the Mother Earth News. That didn't get very far because we were not ready for the volume of business that came in. We tried a retail nursery in one of the more posh areas of town, where we got a great deal on an acre of land. That fell through after a year or so because of a proposed golf course (Ugh!), which was actually OK because at one point, March 6, 1994, San Diego experienced an El Nino storm that brought enough rain to bring a 100 year flood into our nursery, pointing to the one major shortcoming of having anything in a river floodplain. Our little nursery was under five feet of swirling water. I got there just in time to see the last of our large koi being swallowed by a heron. I picked up the mess of tanks that had floated, drowned rabbits, snakes, and squirrels for the next two days. It took me eight hours to get my truck out of the mud.

We moved back to our yard in San Diego and started over. Pretty soon our yard was bursting with plants and we needed an outlet, which presented itself in the form of one of the premier nurseries in San Diego County. They were desperately in need of a new water plant section, and we happily provided it for them. We built tanks, brought in plants, and have been selling them there ever since.

Realizing, once again, that we could not depend upon the local market for our livelihood, we decided to establish a web-site for our business. This was in 1995, when the internet was just getting started. Being on the internet would avoid the incredible expense, and ecological disaster, of printing a glossy catalog, and would expose us to people all over the country at all times of the year, day or night. Things developed slowly at first, but soon it began to actually pay for itself. After a couple of years it began to turn a profit. Now, the internet business is easily a third of our income and it continues to grow.

In Oct. 2001, we moved into our new digs, a 2.6 acre, lightly sloped, southeastward facing spread in Escondido, 30 miles north of San Diego. We now have three greenhouses set up, with two more on the way. We are closer to our maintenance route, 10 miles instead of 30, and the neighborhood is better.

We are now locally recognized as experts in our field, providing plants to many of the pond builders in the area and to a couple of nurseries. Each year we plant most or all of the ponds at the county fair, and I still give lectures, but now I get paid to do so. Our business now includes an on-line store at Pondplants.com, and a regular maintenance route (some of our clients have been with us for nearly 20 years). Between those things and odd repair work that comes in, we are in no danger of starvation. Our maintenance ponds range in size from small puddles that are owned by some of the people that we started with in the 80s and 90s, to one in La Jolla that holds nearly 240,000 gallons of water. We go as far south as San Diego, and as far north as San Juan Capistrano, where we maintain the ponds at the old mission. It is our only public pond and we have maintained it since 1992.

I travel when I can, thrice with Walter Pagels now, twice to Florida, and in April 2003, to Australia for almost three weeks. I always learn more than I can remember when I travel with him, and I always look forward to the next opportunity. I definitely plan to go back to Australia to continue what we started there in '03, and I am currently (12-06) looking forward to a trip to South America with Don Bryne, of Suwannee Labs, to look for Victorias in northern Brazil. This is the realization of a 40 year-old dream of mine, and when the opportunity presented itself this past summer, I got wobbly in the knees and swore to find a way to go. Since I first began to read books on plants and fish, I have wanted to go to the Amazon to look for myself.

We are currently beginning to train somebody else to do most of our maintenance route so that we can expand it beyond what I can keep up with alone, so that I can be a little easier on my body, and so that I can spend more time writing and traveling, two pursuits that can be made to be mutually supportive. I do have other hobbies: a family hobby in classic automobiles, including a Duesenberg. (No, I am not from a millionaire family. My parents bought it in 1952 for $500.00). I am also interested in the biological sciences, gardening, languages, and politics. But growing aquatic plants is my true hobby, my business, and my raison d'etre. It is what I think of as I fall to sleep at night, and it is what I wake up to do in the day, and I hope to be able to do it until I drop at some ripe and satisfying age.  

Water Garden Safety
by David Curtright

The Genera
Nymphoides and Villarsia

By David Curtright

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