Water world: Homeowners transform back yard into oasis

Mark Lehman and Diana Chamberlain’s yard, tucked off a quaint Old West Lawrence brick sidewalk, is one of the more unique outdoor spaces in town.

When entering, your feet tread upon a concrete fish with a green marble eye built into the sidewalk that greets visitors to this eclectic space.

The sounds of toads “singing” in a guttural harmony can be heard just slightly over the four-foot cascading waterfall. Splashing in the pool of crystal clear water are dozens of fancy goldfish swimming and frolicking underneath the Monet-inspired wooden bridge. That same pond, with its abundant fish population, is also teaming with an incredible array of plants, from a giant pale yellow water lily in full bloom to huge iris and lotus plants. This is the first glimpse into a water oasis affectionately named Madilily Gardens.

“A lot of the flowers you’ll see are of the lily family,” Chamberlain said of the origin of the unusual name. “We have hostas, day lilies, orientals, asiatics, callas and waterlilies.”

There is not a lot about this garden that is “usual.” Some of the more unusual attractions are a hot pink bidet that has been converted into a water feature with a pink flamingo spitting into the bowl, a sheep’s trough that is now a pleasant place for waterlilies to establish their roots and claw-footed bathtubs that have been turned into water features. There is an old milk kettle that now houses a chocolate mint plant, a stone bench that was constructed from the original stone of the only commercial building to survive Quantrill’s Raid, the House Building, now Francis Sporting Goods and the former Brown Bear Brewery.

Water accents

To further accent the water features, Lehman and Chamberlain have installed a plethora of wood structures, such as trellises, arbors and the Monet-inspired bridge, all of which have been constructed by Lehman in his woodshop.

Lehman had always wanted a water garden, and the perfect opportunity came when he had to dig up the front yard in order to repair the main waterline to the house. That is when the passion began. In search of a water garden education and a place to exchange ideas, he came across the Sunflower Water Garden Society in their first year of existence at the Douglas County 4-H Fairgrounds Garden Show. He has been a member ever since. Chamberlain and Lehman are now board members for the society.

As Chamberlain describes it, the Sunflower Water Garden Society is “a group that is committed to educating about water gardening, gardening and conservation efforts, and we particularly try to focus on educating kids.”

Mark Lehman and Diana Chamberlain have transformed their yard into a water garden. The water garden will be featured Saturday and June 27 at the Sunflower Water Garden Society's Water Garden Tour.

Chamberlain is an environmental technician who tests the water quality for Kansas. Her career has definitely leaked into the yard.

“I see a lot of wildflowers traveling throughout the state,” she said. “I dig them up and transplant them here into the garden.”

Their garden really is a lesson in conservation, plants, animals and especially imagination.

The multitude of water features has brought a variety of animals to the yard. One year, a blue heron took up residence and ate all the fish. They have had raccoons, dragonflies and a huge array of birds use the watering hole. Those birds, along with the mosquito fish, keep the pesky mosquito population to a fraction of the average yard.

Environmental savvy

Saturday: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.June 27: Noon-4 p.m.Tickets: $10 per person.Tickets available at: Clinton Parkway Nursery, 4900 Clinton Parkway; Sunrise Garden Center, 15th and New York streets; Water’s Edge, 847 Ind.; Earl May Nursery and Garden Center, 3200 Iowa.To join: Membership fee for the Sunflower Water Garden Society is $12 for individuals, $18 household membership.

To keep all the critters happy, Chamberlain said, “We use no insecticides; we are very aware of the environment and try to keep everything very natural. The natural beauty is incredible. Seeing the process of birth to adulthood in many of the species is wonderful. We just let it feed our souls.”

Lehman and Chamberlain continue the tour of this unique garden by following the stone path that bends in and out of various nooks and crannies, eventually coming to the elevated rose garden, which is a bounty of color and scents. There are two bog gardens, one of which serves as a natural filter for the giant koi pond, and both are filled with fabulous water plants, such as thalias, lotus, cannas, and calla lilies. A fragrant herb garden is laden with a wide assortment of plants which Chamberlain, who dabbles in massage, uses to concoct her own homemade massage oils from lavender, sage and rosemary.

Lily pads big and small grow in the water pond fed by a waterfall at the home of Mark Lehman and Diana Chamberlain in Old West Lawrence.

Lehman and Chamberlain’s labor of love is abundantly clear by the well-worn hands that have created every water feature, laid every stone and transplanted a hundred plants until they found that perfect spot. There are projects under way: a new path being built, a new water feature coming to life and upkeep to thriving plants.

For people contemplating starting their own water garden, Chamberlain said, “You want the water sound to be coming toward your house and facing you. It brings the energy into the house instead of moving away from the house.”

Lehman’s response to getting that first water garden flowing: “Just get started; you can start as small as a tub or a whiskey barrel, just get going.” Another great way to get going and create some inspiration is to participate in the annual Sunflower Water Garden Societies’ tour, where Lehman and Chamberlain’s garden oasis will be on display as well as a wide variety of similarly spectacular water gardens in our area.