The water whisperer

Margy Rochlin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

Last July, before interior designer and garden enthusiast Thomas Schoos could move into his West Hollywood space, Thomas Schoos Design Studio, 23 truckloads of garbage had to be removed from the backyard. "Hoarders" is what he called the former tenants, owners of a rare bird shop who left behind a quartet of little houses jammed to capacity with wigs, paperwork and 40 years' worth of thingamajigs deemed too precious to throw away. "I kept waiting for the body to appear," says Schoos. "I'm telling you, it was really spooky." Within less than five months, though, Schoos had converted the 6,000-square-foot parcel into a sort of pan-Asian tropical environment. Amid a shadowy jungle of staghorn ferns, bamboo, climbing vines and flowering orchids, there are thatched-roof huts, fire pits, a wet bar, two hyacinth macaws, a pair of Eclectus parrots and a turaco--what Schoos calls a "wild chicken from Africa."

But what insulates you most from the reality that 20 steps away is a heavily trafficked stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard are the various Schoos-devised water elements: H20 gently percolates inside an ancient stone pickle jar and surges from the bellies of a pair of fierce-looking Chinese warrior statues and slithers down the face of a tall, thin wall of textured concrete. In place of the urban noise is an orchestra of gurgling, splashing, trickling and spraying. The way Schoos explains it, the effect is like aural legerdemain. "Water is like a cushion to the ear," he says. "It's a neutralizer, a muffler; it filters out a lot of disturbances."

He can talk about the attributes of his clear liquid friend for hours. "Before you were born, in the womb, you float in a bubble of water. I think that's the reason every human responds to it," says Schoos, who includes on his client list Ashlee Simpson, Ellen DeGeneres and Courteney Cox, as well as the restaurants Table 8, TAO and Wilshire. He's lived in L.A. for a decade but still carries vestiges of his birthplace of Neuerburg, Germany, with him--from a light accent to a tendency to punctuate his sentences with onomatopoeias such as shrop! and schwop-de-bop! The case he makes for water's mood-altering capabilities is so persuasive that he might as well be talking about prescription pills. "The sound of a rushing river can pump up your adrenaline or a trickle can be very calming, tranquil. Feel rain on your skin, and it's refreshing. Lay in a bath, and you feel rejuvenated. I never met anybody that was not somehow in love with the subject of water."

Schoos' garden, which he uses to host special events and which recently appeared in an episode of the reality TV show "Workout," is like an outdoor exhibit hall for water's various applications, big and small. Schoos knows he won't be winning any water-conservation prizes soon, but he places his level of environmental awareness several miles above, say, a golf course. "It's not like I'm growing acres of green grass in the middle of the desert. That's a big waste," he says, adding that evaporation notwithstanding, water elements are just circulating the same gallons over and over. "So is it water-cautious? No. Is it completely nuts? Not either."

Get him to take you on a speed-tour of the property--Schoos walks as fast as he talks--and he'll toss out references to capillary motion or mosquito fish, the guppy-like swimmers that help keep the West Nile virus at bay by eating insect larvae. Though he doesn't expect anyone to attempt his largest undertaking--by the back fence he's built a 40-by-35-foot lagoon stocked with blooming water lilies, slider turtles and koi the size of torpedoes--Schoos insists that rigging your own water element is something anyone can finesse. Take empty gardening pots or wooden half-barrels, he suggests, then go to your local garden center to buy a plastic pond liner, some water lilies and an inexpensive submersible utility pump.

"You put a rubber liner into the pot, put the power head in there so it bubbles the water. Put in some water plants. You suddenly have a little green environment. Hummingbirds and beetles come to drink! You've created an oasis for the little critters! When you have a party, you float candles on top. It's romantic. If you'd like to have it inside, you just grab it with two people and--schwop-de-bop!--you move it. That's why I am so drawn to [water]--it's so adaptable it's endless."

Schoos' can-do spirit was so infectious that I decided to give it a try. I went to the local hardware store and bought four feet of half-inch plastic tubing for $1.19 and an energy-efficient Pondmaster pump. In my yard, I found an empty Ali Baba-esque glazed cistern that I lugged onto my wooden deck. I filled it up, dropped in the pump and plugged it in. Schwop-de-bop, water bubbled up through the tubing and spilled back musically into the vessel. While I'm not saying I'd just built the world's most beautiful garden fountain, Schoos' claims were true. It's pretty easy.

A couple of days later I describe my experiment to him over the phone. "Right on!" Schoos says supportively. I wonder aloud to him why I found the process so gratifying. His theory is that you're never too old to play with water. "It's like going to the ponds to fish for some tadpoles. Or to tap around in the little puddles after the rain," says Schoos. "It brings everyone back to their childhood."

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