Sculpting with Water

Artist and gardener David Geiger created a vibrant, ever-changing aquatic habitat at his wooded Chilmark property.

An elaborate water garden, rife with giant lotuses, feeds a brook that prattles over rocks, sweeps under a windowed walkway, passes next to a porch, and joins a pool surrounded by plants in a mélange of colors and textures.

The vista is at once soothing and exciting. The shadow from the bill of homeowner David Geiger’s red cap masks his eyes, but the broad smile is evident. He’s proud of the landscape he’s carved out of the three-and-a-half-acre grounds surrounding his Chilmark home.

David is an artist and a scientist, utilizing both sides of his brain to design his extensive gardens. He creates flower beds not only with the aesthetics of shape and texture in mind, but also with an ecological sensibility. His artistic eye allows David to envision a plot from all angles and then sculpt a landscape using foliage, rock, and water as his media. As a seasoned expert in plant life, he knows which vegetation will flourish in certain soils or lighting. And his passion cultivates success, as his constant attention and experimentation ensure that the gardens will continue to bloom, season after season, and year after year.

A graduate of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in plant science, David works part time in plant propagation and sales at Heather Gardens in West Tisbury. He also creates art: three-dimensional sculptures in glass and other materials. His current project is a series of unique miniature glass houses (many of which can be seen at the Gossamer Gallery in Chilmark) that often reveal surprises. One piece may appear perfectly normal on the face, but horribly charred on the back. Another may have a color or form buried deep inside. Still another may have a section chewed out. Clearly, this is the work of an artist who realizes – and exploits – the concept that there is a back story to just about everything in life. And this is an understanding that is crucial when it comes to working with land.

David’s interest in landscaping began in his early teens, while growing up in Blasdell, New York. “My brothers would have to mow the lawns, and I was in charge of the gardens. We had a lot of trees in our yard and there were certain things I wanted to grow that were shade plants, so I would make a bed that would connect three or four trees together. That would make it easier to mow, and would give me a patch where I could put some things in.”

His grandfather was another influence. “He also liked gardening,” David says. “There are certain plants that I see now where I automatically think of him.”

The connections that David made as an adolescent can be seen on a large scale around the home that he shares with his spouse, John Lamb, a physician specializing in internal medicine at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital in Oak Bluffs. They moved here together from a lake-side house in Ithaca about six years ago. Because they both love waterfowl, their first choice was to live by a body of water. “When we were moving here, we knew we could not afford waterfront, so we bought land and decided to put in water.”

What David ultimately designed was an ecosystem that integrated a large pond, a water garden, and a small brook. The first two attract waterfowl for the couple’s bird-watching contentment, while the brook has a more sonorous benefit. Because it runs beneath the walkway between the main house and the bedroom suite, the soft burble of moving water carries inside. “It helps us to sleep,” John asserts. “It’s a pleasant noise to wake up to in the middle of the night, to hear the calming babbling of it, and, in the morning, waking up to it is very pleasant.”

Establishing this water world wasn’t easy. David had originally envisioned a clay-lined pond, but he found while going through the permitting process that the construction could create some long-term problems. “Strangely,” he recalls, “if you have a clay-lined pond, even if you’ve made it yourself, they [the town conservation commission] can decide to designate it a wetlands, which impacts what you can do in terms of building, clearing – anything.” So he decided to use a black butyl rubber lining. “It basically disappears.” He indicates the shore of the pond. “And there are rocks and things along the edges.”

Other concerns were correctly calculating the land elevations on an almost totally wooded lot, finding skilled stonemasons and other subcontractors, and making sure that the dimensions of the pond, brook, and water garden were adequate for attracting birds and other fauna. David ended up doing a lot of the digging himself and worked cheek-by-jowl with the masons to build the water structures and stone walls.

While the water features are the true stars of the home’s surroundings, other gardens and elements play strong supporting roles. A hidden sunken greenhouse peeks out from the side of the house. A sculptural wooden spiral encloses the outside shower. A fenced-in vegetable and herb garden covers ground in the backyard, and, for a bit of comedy, a scarecrow with the face of Fletcher, David and John’s Boston terrier, keeps a proprietary watch over it all. Stone walls separate the parking area from the rest of the homestead, and gardens large and small pop up everywhere. Nothing seems accidental. Everything ties in. And it all looks great from any angle.

David’s background as a plant scientist plays heavily into the choice of flora. His first consideration is the state of the soil – sandy, loamy, clay, acidic, alkali, dry, or wet. “You might want this lavender with that purple, and it may be aesthetically pleasing,” he explains, “but it won’t last if one likes sandy, loose soil and the other needs a lot of water.” For that reason, he frequently chooses plants and shrubs that are native to the Island, and considers what foliage attracts birds and insects. Texture and height also play a role – he is, after all, a sculptor.

Because he and John live on-Island year-round, he carefully considers what blooms when. “It’s different than if you’re a summer person – you might just want flowers in July and August when you’re here. For me, since I live here, in March and April, the bulbs start blooming. In late fall and early winter, I still have stuff coming in.

“In the garden where the shrubs are,” he continues, “in the early spring, my forsythia come in, then there’s one of the native types of rhododendron, then there’s another shrub that comes in, and then there’s a later species of rhododendron that comes in. It’s like each one is succeeding the other so it becomes a constant flush of color. One is receding while another is coming on.” Consequently, his gardens remain in full bloom all seasons except deep winter – but that season is not without its beauty. “For winter, that’s a matter of picking things that have structural interest. When you cut the perennials down, you still want shrubs and trees that have interesting bark and branches. So there’s interest all year long, just in a different way.”

Surprisingly – especially with David’s art background – a perfect blending of hues and shades isn’t a major concern. “I’m obviously concerned with color, but I don’t tend to be somebody that’s as picky about it,” he says. “I very much like things as you see them in nature. Nature always looks beautiful, but it’s not color-coordinated.”

Upkeep is more of a consideration. The pond and water garden need to be monitored for algae. And, of course, there’s weeding. The pump is turned off in late fall and the fish descend to the bottom of the pond for their winter nap. The turtles hibernate. The brook quiets and silence settles in.

Come spring, David begins again at the work he loves, propagating plants at Heather Gardens and tending to his own. And, in a nod to David’s adolescence, John mows the lawn.

David Geiger’s ten steps to creating a water feature

There are many considerations when it comes to building a water feature. For instance, what you want there, such as fish, frogs, snails, oxygenating plants, or bubblers; and what you don’t want – like a mosquito breeding ground or an algae bowl. Maintenance, winter care, and safety issues with children are also factors. And think about upkeep time and cost and what is practical for you and your property. If you decide not to hire a professional to build your pond, here are some basic instructions:

1. Determine your pond’s location with an eye toward the light: at least a half-day of sun.

2. Decide if you would rather have a clay or rubber lining, and order the correct size of liners, pumps, filters, and other equipment. A good pond supply shop or website will be able to help with dimensions.

3. Make sure there is an efficient way to run electricity to the site for pumps, lights, and other features.

4. Dig the hole deep enough to allow fish to overwinter and, if you plan to set potted plants along the edges, create rock ledges to accommodate them. If you’re using a rubber liner, make sure there are no rocks or sticks that might poke through it.

5. Lay out the liner so it’s as smooth as possible before situating the pumps, filters, and other equipment.

6. Fill the pond with water and cut the edges of the liner to fit. Mask and secure the above-ground edges of the liner with rocks or soil.

7. Place the water plants, including oxygenating plants and floaters (available at several Island nurseries and Little Leona’s Pet Supplies off State Road in West Tisbury). Marginals – plants that grow in shallow water or wet soil – should line the edges, and submerged plants should be placed in the deeper areas.

8. Add fish, frogs, snails, turtles, and other small creatures (Little Leona’s is a well-stocked on-Island source for these). The creatures will help keep water-breeding mosquitoes to a minimum. Get a supply of appropriate pet food too.

9. Naturalize the pond by surrounding it with plants that suit your overall landscape design.

10. Enjoy!