WATER ON REQUEST : Installing ponds, modest or otherwise, to soothe the soul also lets hobbyists nurture plants that aren't suitable for dry land.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Visitors to the 1995 Orange County Fair marveled at the Thunder Bay Lagoon, where simulated lightning, thunder and rainfall depicted a tropical rain forest. A cascading waterfall poured into a waterlily-filled lagoon, surrounded by lush tropical plantings.

Now, back to reality.

More modest water gardens can be enjoyed in Orange County back yards with just a little expenditure of time and effort. There, waterlilies can bloom spring through fall, vividly colored goldfish can splash about, and the soothing sounds of water gently cascading over a manufactured waterfall can provide a focal point for the garden and an oasis of peace and tranquillity.

Water gardening also provides the opportunity to tend plants that aren't suitable for dry land. It also unveils an entirely new ecosystem.

"I love nature, and understanding the process of creating a balanced pond brings me closer to understanding the world," said Ben Plonski, a co-owner of Laguna Koi Ponds in Laguna Beach.

Plonski and his partners, Jay Thayer and Greg Zuccolotto, provided the waterlilies for Thunder Bay Lagoon. Their firm also installed two smaller demonstration water gardens, stocked with lilies, water plants and fish.

For people who'd like to try a water garden but don't want to invest considerable sums, Plonski recommends installing a small pond using a plastic liner or preformed fiberglass shell. These types of ponds will accommodate waterlilies and goldfish.

A plastic or fiberglass pond cannot, however, handle koi (Japanese carp). Since koi eat plants and scour the pond bottom in their quest for food, to house them adequately you'll need a cement pond at least five feet deep, filtration systems and protection for the plants.

City permits are required for koi ponds because most cities categorize them as swimming pools. Perimeter fencing is also required.

But a water garden doesn't need to be any deeper than 18 inches, so permits aren't required, nor is special fencing, Plonski said. "Instead of koi, which shouldn't be housed in a lily pond, we recommend goldfish to add color and interest and help maintain the pond's balance."

Goldfish, plain or fancy, help maintain pond balance by eating algae as well as mosquito larvae. Whenever water and sunlight are combined, algae are present. There are hundreds of different kinds of algae, ranging from microscopic to giant, such as seaweed.

Water gardens are subject to both the free-swimming types of algae that make the water look green and the filamentous types that grow, hair-like, along the sides of ponds and plant containers. A certain amount of algae is necessary, but too much makes the water murky, and the water garden becomes sick.

The correct amount of algae is maintained by adding aquatic plants that not only are visually pleasing but also consume nutrients in the water that would otherwise be consumed by the algae. They also shade the pond surface with their foliage, depriving algae of needed sunlight.

"There should be at least 50% coverage of the pond surface by aquatic foliage," said Jon Rasmussen, owner of the Pond Co. in San Gabriel. "Balancing a pond is both an art and science, and it sometimes involves trial and error because the pond changes as the fish and plants grow."

There are some simple steps to take in the planning and creation of a water garden.

"First, decide why you want a water garden," advises Bill Uber, owner of Van Ness Water Gardens in Upland. "Do you want a waterfall? How much time are you willing to spend in maintenance?"

He recommends that novices keep it simple by installing a small pond.

Plonski agrees. "You can have a lovely water pond using a 10-foot-by-10-foot liner, which results in a 5-foot-by-5-foot pond. It will hold several waterlilies, oxygenating grasses, three or four goldfish and a few other aquatic plants."

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Going With the Flow

Building a pond or waterfall can cost as little as $100 for a kit--saving the thousands it could cost for professional installation. Before beginning, carefully consider the location: Select one that gets five to eight hours of sunlight daily. Don't place the pond under overhanging trees, where leaves and debris can foul the water, or at the low end of the property, where it will fill with rain or irrigation runoff that can deposit dirt or chemicals from fertilizer or pesticides into the pond (it'll kill the fish).

A) PLANTS: Marginals plants help camouflage the edges of the pool and act as a transition between land and water. Submerged plants oxygenate water and provide protection and food for fish. Grassy aquatic plants cleanse the water by removing mineral salts. Floating plants such as lilies, which enjoy sunlight, can shade water below the leaf pad, reducing algae growth and adding color to water surface.

B) LIGHTING: Conceal lights whenever possible. For plants and features above water, point lights downward, creating a strong reflection. Underwater lighting is best for fountain jets and overhanging rocks and ledges. Consider a spotlight on fountains and sculptures.

C) EDGING MATERIALS: Good choices for borders include brick, slate, rock or flagstone, which can withstand constant dampness. Create a formal border by using symmetrical, manufactured materials such as brick or pavers or an informal border using natural materials such as rock or wood.

D) DOCKS: These create spots for fish to hide from predators such as large birds and cats.

E) FOUNTAIN JETS: Easy to install, they often come with built-in pump and lights.

F) FISH: Fish add color and motion to a pond and control unwanted algae and insects. Avoid overcrowding fish; generally, have one six-inch fish for every 30 gallons of water. Too many fish in a small pond can eliminate the small animals that control algae.

G) FILTERS: A well-designed pond can rely on natural processes to filter water. Those who want crystal-clear water will want to add a mechanical filter, which removes dissolved minerals that promote algae growth.

H) POND LINERS

* Concrete is difficult to form and expensive, but it's durable and can support heavy weights.

* PVC liner is inexpensive and easy to install and conforms to any shape.

* Preformed fiberglass shells are the easiest to install and require no maintenance but come in limited shapes and sizes.

I) RECYCLING PUMP: These move water through fountains, waterfalls and filters. They can be submerged or placed aboveground in an enclosure. They are rated in gallons per minute; you should choose a pump that can move the entire volume of your pond in two hours.

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Building a Basic Pond

Garden kits make it possible to build a pond in a day. After selecting a location, outline the shape of your pond using a hose or heavy rope and begin digging a hole 18 inches deep. While excavating, put a 2-foot-by-4-foot plank across the rim and use a bubble leveler to ensure that the hole is level, particularly at the top.

1. Create different levels inside the pond. Fish benefit from a shallow area for feeding on insects and a deep area for security and cooler water. Use the excavated soil to rim the hole four to six inches. to prevent debris from washing into it.

2. Line the excavation with sand, newspapers, or commercial pond liner to prevent sharp objects from piercing liner. Place PVC liner loosely over pond, holding it in place with bricks. Begin slowly filling with water. The liner will conform to the shape of the pond as it is weighed down by water.

3. Finish the construction by placing flagstone or other decorative stone around the pond perimeter to camouflage the liner edge. Add plants and fish after letting pond age one week.

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Local Inspirations

Noguchi Gardens

633 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa.

Admission: Free.

Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Features: Stream, tumbling waterfall, large fountain.

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Cal State Fullerton Arboretum

1900 Associated Road, Fullerton.

(714) 773-2011.

Admission: Free, donation requested.

Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.

Features: Waterfall, stream, two large duck ponds.

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Sherman Gardens & Library

2647 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. (714) 673-2261.

Admission: $2, free on Mondays.

Hours: Daily, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Features: Two waterfalls, koi pond, three fountains, two small rock waterfalls.

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Environmental Nature Center

1601 W. 16th St., Newport Beach. (714) 645-8489.

Admission: Free.

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Features: Long mountain stream, several ponds, redwoods.

Sources: "Gardening With Water," James van Sweden; "The Water Gardener," Anthony Archer-Wills

Researched by SCOTT M. BROWN / Los Angeles Times and KAREN DARDICK / For The Times

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More on Ponds

Here is a sampling of water-pond retailers that sell liners, preformed ponds, filtration systems, fish and water plants--including lilies. They also offer pond design, construction and maintenance:

* Laguna Koi Ponds

20452 Laguna Canyon Road

Laguna Beach, CA 92651

(714) 494-5107

A free, 54-page catalogue is available on request.

* The Pond Co.

San Gabriel

(800) 440-9099

By appointment only.

* Van Ness Water Gardens

2460 N. Euclid Ave.

Upland, CA 91784

(909) 982-2425

A 55-page color catalogue is available for $4. Owner Bill Uber has written "Water Gardening Basics" ($28.75) that contains valuable information for building and maintaining a water garden.

* Tetra Co., one of the leading manufacturers of pond liners, offers "Tetra Pond Video for a Successful Garden Pond" ($20), available at most garden centers and nurseries.

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