An eastern Iowa couple carves out a life and a business amid gardens, salvaged-wood buildings, and ponds brimming with colorful koi.
Rural homeowners, gardeners, and entrepreneurs Greg and Martha Bickal have carved out a beautiful life in the rolling countryside near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Their 1937 Sears kit house (remodeled by Greg) is surrounded by a cluster of outbuildings interconnected with gardens. The focal point of the property is a 25-by-45-foot pond, where the colorful Japanese koi for which Bickal Koi Farm is named swirl in blue waters. This busy acre of land reflects the Bickals’ passion for raising fish and flowers and is a lesson in sweat equity and smart salvaging.
The fieldstones that edge the koi pond, for example, were laboriously collected by Greg. “I didn’t have a truck at the time, so I’d pick up small numbers,” he says. These rock-collection missions added up, and now tons of stone encircle the pond as well as the gardens. Greg’s construction know-how and salvager’s sensibility also resulted in two custom outbuildings. A millhouse (with waterwheel) started out housing a koi pond filtration system but has since been converted—by popular demand from nieces and nephews—into a playhouse.
That and his toolshed were made from wood he salvaged from a demolished local barn. Nestled among swaying grasses and tall pines, the gently graying wood blends quietly into the natural landscape. The Bickals planted most of the trees on the property, including stately blue firs and soft arborvitae.
The toolshed mimics the style of an outhouse, a necessary outbuilding on most old farmsteads. Reclaimed barn timber made constructing the shed economical.
“I build the superstructures,” says Greg, “and Martha”—the green thumb of the family—“pretties them up.” Martha’s gardens radiate out from each building. “I don’t like grass,” she says with a laugh. So every chance she gets, she expands her beds outward from Greg’s structures and pond, adding mounds of hostas, sweeps of orange, red, and pink lilies; lush stands of ferns; and hanging pots of petunias and geraniums. Cool shaded areas are favorite growing spots of hostas. Martha added splashes of light to the dark areas of the garden by choosing variegated-leaf varieties.
“I like butterflies and birds,” Martha says. To attract the most species, she plants nectar-rich flowers in both sunny and shaded spaces in the yard, where the birds have their choice of vintage and new birdhouses (many which Greg’s dad built). She uses weathered statuary, birdhouses, and wooden chairs to create vignettes amid the hosta mounds. The sandy, well-draining soil of the Bickals’ backyard and the shade from trees above makes Martha’s hostas very happy. Greg’s aunt, a master gardener and hosta fan, provides the plants; her favorites include ‘Golden Tiara’, ‘Yellow Boa’, and ‘Sum and Substance’.
Greg runs his business from the property, too. He keeps about 130 koi as breeding stock. Most measure 18 to 30 inches long, and his oldest koi is 22 years old. At any given time, he has between 4,000 and 5,000 koi for sale. Most are less than 2 years old and average 2 to 14 inches long.
Colorful koi paddle languidly in the farm pond. These Japanese fish can grow up to 4 feet in length. Moving water in a koi pond keeps it clean, helping to reduce unsightly algae growth. Koi (the word is Japanese for carp) add playful movement and color to water gardens.
Koi come in cool colors, with splashes and speckles, making each one unique. Colors include orange, red, white, black, and metallic hues. Their colors intensify as they grow older. Koi are extremely long-lived, with an average lifespan of 25 to 35 years. They are coldblooded and can stay outdoors all winter as long as they are in water at least 3 feet deep and a bubbler or heater keeps the pond’s surface unfrozen.
The fish need highly oxygenated, filtered water. Greg’s pond water goes through a large filtration system, which removes toxins that can affect koi health. The wastewater fertilizes his tomato plants.
An eye-catching gazebo creates a focal point at the farm’s highest elevation. An iron arbor serves as an entry to the structure. The gazebo offers the best view of the pond and gardens. Flanked by twin recirculating streams, the pathway features mounds of variegated hostas, salvia, and black taro root with fieldstone edging.
Scattered throughout the gardens at Bickal Koi Farm are objects that reflect Greg’s love of water and related objects. “We collect anything water related—
windmills, rusted hand pumps, buckets—and they go into the landscape,” He says. Greg found an old windmill near his home, moved it to the property, and restored it. This iconic farm structure’s giant fan head once again turns in the wind. Rusted windmill hand pumps serve as garden ornaments.
A former chicken house, now housing koi, is surrounded by islands of flowers and foliage. Nectar-rich annuals and perennials attract butterflies and hummingbirds.
The Bickals’ outdoor decorating style is quiet and low-key. They let nature—trees, flowers, water, sky, and swimming koi—determine the color palette. “We try not to overwhelm things,” says Greg.
© Caruth Studio