Six Acres of Paradise

From The Pinehurst Gazette

Just a few miles from the Southern Pines round-about heading towards Carthage, a sign on Highway #22 reads Star Ridge Aquatics, Carolina Reef Growers. Those knowledgeable make the turn, yet far too many locals with no introduction miss this local resource. Today we make the turn as the winding country road leads past homes, rolling farmland, and garage finds until another Star Ridge Aquatics sign points the way down the long driveway of Willow Oaks waving a welcome. What used to be an old tobacco field has been transformed into Star Ridge Aquatics, LLC, a locally owned and operated family business for over twenty-five years.


As the bright sunshine and billowy clouds meet to join the Carolina blue skies, our adventure begins as Joe feeds the Koi who swirl around their extra treat before the catfish surface, loads his trailer for a service call, and helps a customer choose the right plant for their water garden. With over 25 years of business flowing, the course ebbs and flows as Joe Granato, Jr., owner of Star Ridge Aquatics, remembers back to his childhood days in New Jersey shared with his parents and two older sisters. With his father’s career planted in the corporate world, the family moved to Michigan when Joe was two and returned to NJ by the time he was nine. 


In 1988, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Granato, Sr., decided to move south to a little town called Southern Pines as their adult children settled into their own careers. Meanwhile, Joe was working for a landscaper who asked, “Did you say your parents lived in North Carolina?” When Joe found out that his parents were a mere seven miles away from SCC’s acclaimed horticultural program, he made the move in 1991 to begin a year of residency. Thus the path to the Sandhills for the Granato family records a similar journey with many locals who came for a visit and never looked back. 


With all intents of moving back to NJ, Joe begins, “Once I got down here, I realized I was finally home.” At just twenty years of age, Joe managed a local restaurant and settled into the area. By the fall of 1991, Joe enrolled at SCC and founded his original business named Horticultural Concepts, which provided installation of water gardens. In order to graduate from Sandhills, a mandatory internship led him to Lilly Pons Water Gardens in Maryland, the largest water garden company in the country at the time. Joe tells, “Soon enough, owner Charles Thomas, who sponsored Victory Garden on PBS, wanted me to be head of propagation, but I declined the offer. I’ve been self-employed ever since and can’t imagine working for anyone else.” 


Upon graduating from Sandhills, Joe recalls, “I graduated from the program in May 1993, when I was 22 years old and bought this property from Sally Thomas, a real estate agent with Old South Realty. I had to wait for Jimmy Ross to get the tobacco off the field before I could establish the driveway, dig the well, and build the greenhouse. Those are the first three things I did, and I worked out of the greenhouse for the first two years.” As he remembers the early days, I wonder, “What did you want to be when you were a little boy?” Without hesitation, “A race car driver. I just wanted to drive fast.


Situated on Star Ridge Road in Carthage, the name came easy. Joe explains, “We’re on Star Ridge Road, and we’re an aquatics business, so we became Star Ridge Aquatics, LLC. Situated on the highest point in the area, we’re the last to get frost because frost always settles in the low areas. In being up high, we also enjoy a continual breeze which keeps the dew from settling and delays the frost in the winter.” Upon purchasing the property, Joe added a plant nursery and a retail location to his already established services of water garden installation.


In defining Star Ridge, Joe informs, “Star Ridge Aquatics, LLC has been helping homeowners, farmers, communities, and businesses in supplying water gardens and biological pond management for 25 years. From the design to the building, to maintaining—from start to finish—we provide the entire service for water gardens. The pond management includes biological algae controls as well as the installation of pond aeration fountains.” Quick to note, Joe always welcomes any Do-It-Yourselfers who need to buy supplies for their job. Joe offers, “If someone desires to build their own project, then they can come in here and pick my brain all they want. I’ll tell them exactly how to do it.” Eager to help in any way, Joe notes, “We don’t do general landscape design; however if someone wants to incorporate a waterfall, koi pond, or pond aeration fountain, we can meet their need.”


Never using anything that is pre-molded or pre-formed, Joe custom builds each water feature for the site designated and selects specialty plants and fish to fulfill the client’s wishes. At Star Ridge, Joe grows all of the plants, from the water lilies to the palm trees, banana trees, cactus, agave, Japanese Maples, and so much more. From plants to fish, Joe sells multiple varieties of goldfish and both butterfly and regular-fin koi. In addition, natural pond owners benefit from using the aeration fountains which serve a multi-dimensional function throughout all seasons. Joe explains, “These decorative fountains keep water surface free of debris; they de-ice by keeping the surface open during extreme cold spells, and most importantly they oxygenate the total water volume which in turn helps the fish and increases the effectiveness of the beneficial bacteria. Other benefits include clearer water, fewer algae, and an enriched fish population.”


Customers can shop Star Ridge for all products from fish food to beneficial bacteria for ponds, pumps, filters, underwater lights, PVC fittings. Joe offers, “Anything that locals need for their pond or water gardens, we have, and our warehouse holds all the big stuff from liners to filters, skimmers, and the overflow of product. We’ve got landscape contractors all over the Carolinas who buy from us as we’re the sole Easy Pro distributor in the area.”


From his years of experience, I wonder what locals would be surprised to know. Joe ponders, “First, that we even exist! We’ve been here for 25 years, and many locals have never visited our shop.” Secondly, Joe muses, “When you turn on HGTV, House Hunters, or any of those shows, all of those award-winning houses have a water feature. Many think that water features are just for the wealthy; however, the average homeowner can enjoy a water feature in their yard. Say you invest in a perennial flower garden, sure it’s pretty for a season, but its beauty is limited. However, if you invest in a water garden with waterfalls and a stream, it offers year-round beauty with a refreshing sound, movement, specialty flowers, and colorful fish. When winter brings freezing temperatures, you’ve still got the waterfall and sounds, and all of a sudden, you’ve got all the winter birds visiting from up North enjoying the water. Water gardens offer an animated, three-dimensional landscape.” 


Joe adds, “When you drive through Pinehurst, everybody’s got a patch of grass with pine straw accents and the shrubs are like little round meatballs. Locals should understand that we’re living in an area where you can do so much more than grass! For year-round enjoyment, homeowners can install a water feature that provides visual beauty and sound therapy.”


When properly-installed, water features are low maintenance. “Homeowners may spend 15 minutes a month maintaining their pond in addition to a good cleaning once a year. The rest of the time, it’s a matter of just emptying the skimmer net of leaves.” As for maintenance, Joe continues, “We have some ponds that we maintain weekly, quarterly, or annually. We fulfill the homeowner’s needs of the desired service. In addition, we stand behind our installation for a year, so if something happens, then we’ll fix it. All of the products used are top quality offering great warranties. For instance, our pumps have between a two and five-year warranty; most home improvement stores only offer a 90-day warranty. Our liners have a 20-year warranty; our filters and skimmers have lifetime warranties.”


As for the holidays fast approaching, Joe tells, “Normally it’s warm enough to host outdoor holiday parties. Truly water gardens create another level of ambiance to any outdoor party. To be able to have the sound of water and the visual beauty as part of the overall party atmosphere versus a big area of grass, there’s nothing like it.”


Water gardens and aeration fountains operate 365 days a year. Joe assures, “They don’t freeze up in the winter, and the fish are fine all winter long.” Joe encourages, “In the winter when everything goes dormant, one can still delight in the water garden which attracts wildlife. Many locals have bird feeders, yet bird feeders only attract seed-eating birds; they don’t attract birds that eat insects such as the bluebirds. All birds, whether they eat seeds or insects, need water. We put in a water feature for a photographer who photographed birds. Once the garden feature was installed, he said the species of birds that came to his yard nearly doubled.” 


Two projects most meaningful to Joe remain near and dear to the heart of our community as well. When the First Health Foundation, who raises money for the Clara McLean grounds, needed a water feature, Joe was the man chosen for the job. His handiwork provides a calming respite as the Clara McLean house offers lodging at no charge to out-of-town families who have a family member receiving medical care in the area. When First Health built the Hospice house on 15/501 by Christ Community Church, Joe built their water feature. Joe slows, “When you’re at Hospice, you know that your loved one is not doing well; you need an escape every once in a while. To be able to sit and listen to the calming waters, to find a quiet place of reflection is so important.”


Joe’s handiwork inspires so many, and I wonder, “What inspires you?” Joe smiles, “Nature. God does. God has built some beautiful things. When we build something, I want it to look like God put it there; like it was meant to be. Whenever I go to the mountains, I love finding waterfalls. I went up one year, and I kept stopping and taking pictures so that I could use the inspiration in my work.” As for Joe’s favorite part of his work? “I love building water gardens! I like to get 20 pallets of stone, tear the pallets apart, and spread the stone out like a giant puzzle. To find a large stone with great character to be designated the focal point, and then to find others stones that mimic just being carved out of the hillside—that’s the best!”


Truly Star Ridge Aquatics is a team effort as Joe’s parents, Joe, Sr. and Jane, help run the retail store and serve customers. Matt Gaskins also helps with service, installation, and maintenance. Joe remembers, “Matt came in here as a customer one-day needing supplies for his saltwater fish tank. We became friends and soon enough co-workers.”


Joe reflects over the passing of time and invites a walk through the grounds of Star Ridge Aquatics. In realizing that the established landscape grew from a cleared tobacco field, the Willow Oaks now reach the heavens with their grandeur! Under Joe’s care, the grounds have flourished. He points out the different varieties as we walk, “These are cabbage palms, needle palms. That’s a River Birch. That water feature is a kit that homeowners can do themselves.” We come to a billowing honey locust. Joe comments, “I started this tree in my propagation class.” His thoughts about the SCC program? Without hesitation, he tells, “It’s a great program for horticulture. However at the time, they didn’t teach anything on water gardening, so this is all self-taught.”

Around the corner, the water lilies smile in an array of colors from pastels to neons. Joe informs, “These lilies, flowering from middle of April to the middle of September, have more blooms than the native water lilies which don’t flower as often and run like crab grass.” 


As we near the retail store, the terrain grows the desert southwest plants, cactus, and agave. As for the cactus container gardens featured, Joe notes, “We make these containers, plant them with a cactus mix, and people enjoy them on their patios; they make great gifts.”


The first greenhouse built on the property neighbors the retail store. Joe remembers, “I put in the driveway, dug a well, and put up this greenhouse. The next year, I bought the trees, the willow oaks, and probably five years in it, I built this roof structure like a pole barn. In 1999, I closed this in and made a retail store.” Upon visiting Star Ridge, homeowners can easily turn their dreams of having a water feature into a reality as they see the products flowing, the fish swimming, and the plants growing. 


We come upon rows of palms soaking up the fresh air and sunshine. “From seed to a six-foot tall palm takes about 10 years of care,” remarks Joe. “This one is a new hardy variety.” He points to the ones with a big trunk and a blue hue. The other greenhouses offer more choices of desert southwestern plants and palms. Joe looks over his babies, “These will go into the bigger pots next year.” Truly the heart and handiwork of this master gardener are evidenced in the rows of natural beauty. 


“We offer specialties that no one else sells, for instance, you can’t go to the local garden center and find a ‘Fish Hook Barrel Cactus,” Joe tells. From yuccas to agaves, the nursery blooms with abundance all around. Joe’s dad shares the same passion as his plants from the white sweet potatoes, to green peppers and tomatoes which grow here and there. Joe exclaims, “Ever since I can remember, Dad’s been propagating azaleas and growing plants. After years in the corporate world, gardening offers a calm.” 


The chestnut trees, Bartlett pear, and crepe myrtles lead the way to another one of Joe, Sr.’s interests—pigeons, doves, and Golden pheasants. The plumage on the male pheasants entices, and the females scatter as we enter the vegetable garden. The section that grows the beautiful blackberries and blueberries lies dormant in an overgrown mass of golden branches, and the cucumbers have outgrown their trails. Plans for the next season are in the works. 


In the propagation area where Joe divides plants, nourishes plugs, and stocks plants for the future, I ask about his vision for growth. Star Ridge joined others in enduring the challenging times of the Recession, yet in spite of the setbacks, Joe hopes, “I would like to see the business grow again. Before the Recession, I grew twice as many plant varieties than I do now, and from a creative standpoint the more business you have, the more opportunities you have for creative, wholesome growth.”


We come full circle to the other side of the Willow Oaks where cacti line the tables and carnivorous pitcher plants enchant their prey. Attracted by the scent, bugs go down the tube, get trapped in the tiny hairs, and drop exhausted into the liquid of enzymes which digest them. “If you fertilize these plants, you’ll kill them.” Joe exclaims, “They survive strictly off of eating insects.” With each plant, Joe’s a walking encyclopedia of information as evidenced around each bend. From formal to natural, the water gardens flow in and out as diverse as the plant varieties available. And with each customer, Joe’s a willing resource eager to transform any dream into a reality.


From the old barn to the other side where a dirt road named “Butternut” travels alongside the nursery perimeter, from the clearing to the trees leading to the road, grows six acres of paradise. A paradise that’s growing a life’s work through both drought and abundance, through all the seasons of the Sandhills. Go, see Joe at Star Ridge Aquatics for all your water garden and pond management needs. 

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