Demi Fortuna's life was exciting even before landing in his current position as director of product information with Atlantic Water Gardens.
Stony Brook, New York has always been home to Fortuna. That's where he was raised, went to school, and attended college. "I don't think people realize how lovely it is here," he says.
Fortuna’s mother was an assistant professor at the State University of New York (SUNY), Stony Brook. She seems to have had a bit of wanderlust. She loved to travel, and Demi and his younger brother got the chance to see the world. His mother’s salary as an assistant professor was enough to cover most of the expenses, but he and his brother helped pay their own way.
“We would save for the trips by mowing lawns; that’s how I got into landscaping. Working to get to these wonderful places just added to the sense of accomplishment. It was dreamlike, really. No one gets to do these things.”
His mom’s sink-or-swim approach to life was contagious. “She had the travel bug and she gave it to us. I spent my thirteenth year in Italy,” Fortuna said. “We didn’t speak a word of Italian, but she threw us right into Italian public school; we were terrified. But after we left, we missed it so much that we went back three years later. I did a semester in France, and the rest of the year in high school in Tuscany.”
Along with his brother Davin, he started a landscaping business when he was only 12 years old. They called it Strawberry Fields Lawn and Garden Care, after the Beatles’ song. “We were absolutely enamored with the Beatles; they were pretty much the only albums in my mom’s house,” he says.
Even after his early foray into the business, Fortuna wasn’t sold on landscaping as a career. He recalls his first years of college, when he had concentrations in English, biology, geology, philosophy, and history. “I liked school, the process of school, much more than I liked the idea of getting a degree and getting out again,” he said.
As a result, he took a long time to graduate, but enjoyed every second of the learning process. “It wasn’t as important to graduate as it was to study with the professors I wanted to study under,” he said. Going to school at night, he took a number of odd jobs, including selling knives and working in an appliance store. “That’s when I figured out that I wanted to be outside, and working with my hands.”
He went back into landscaping full-time after Hurricane Gloria hit the East Coast in October of 1985. Although his first six months consisted of nothing but cutting trees and clearing debris from the storm, he eventually found his calling and what he still does today: ponds. “The first call we got in the spring that wasn’t for tree clearing or cleanup was from a lady who had moved into a new subdivision. She wanted to have a northwestern Connecticut-look landscape in her front yard, like the Berkshires,” he recalls. It took a lot of persistence to get his boss to let him do the job.
The subdivision developer had made quite a mess, stripping out the topsoil, mounding the subsoil and tossing it into huge piles. “I was very enthusiastic about the job, but my boss said, ‘Forget it.’ But I kept pushing. He finally agreed, on one condition: I’d do the estimate and I’d do the work only if we got paid, and made a profit. If all those things actually happened, I would get paid. If not, it would come out of my salary.”
Fortuna was 24 at the time, fresh out of college and full of enthusiasm. It didn’t take him long to realize that he might have bitten off a little more than he could chew. “We overbuilt the pond she wanted, because I was terrified of it leaking. I didn’t know how to make the edges nice, so we took this beautiful moss rock from Pennsylvania—all covered with lichens and moss—and we stuck it like jagged teeth all the way around; it was hideous.”
Fortuna wasn’t deterred; he was going to give the customer what she wanted. Next, he set out to build a waterfall and stream. At a local farm auction, he bought an old irrigation pump that had been used to water fields. “I said, ‘Wow that sounds like a good pump. Do you think it will do waterfalls?’” He bought the pump then searched for the 15hp electric motor they said it needed.
“I finally found a motor, hooked up the pump and fired it all up; it was spectacular. There were literally 40,000 gallons an hour rushing over this mound of moss rock. The customers were duly impressed. They were even more impressed when they got their electric bill, which was $600 more than the month before.” Fortuna ultimately replaced the pump with a swimming pool pump. After installing sod, building a deck around the pool and adding plants around the house, he did end up making a profit.
“Once you do a pond like that, especially in the mid ’80s, it becomes a calling card.” He quickly figured out that referrals were the key to business. “We tried to do unique jobs for our customers that would completely captivate them.”
Building off of this first project, Fortuna started August Moon Designs in 1990, with the goal of one day building ponds exclusively. “We did everything we could so I could afford to keep building ponds,” he said. “And I had learned from my first disaster that my customers had to be able to afford them, too, so I started thinking about how to lower operating costs.”
Fortuna began experimenting with setting up large, low-maintenance ponds without skimmers or filters. He developed bottom drains to make cleanings easier, multiple pump setups to maximize efficiency, and natural filtration sys- tems which would later become known as ‘active bog filtration.’ “Reducing maintenance and operating costs were strong selling points,” he adds.
Fortuna still lives in Stony Brook with his wife, Susan. She’s an advocate for troubled teens, specialneeds kids, and immigration reform. When Susan got cancer in 2005, he cut back on his pond building. “We met while she was being treated for cancer, and we realized about nine or ten months later that we wanted a relationship.”
A good friend and neighbor, Mike Danner, offered Fortuna a position on the equipment manufacturing side of the business. While his title was officially product manager, he ended up being responsible for education and support. “We set up a seminar program—eight-hour seminars on every aspect of water gardening— for contractors at dealer locations all over the country, as well as Canada. The dealers were as appreciative of the support as the contractors,” he recalls. “We weren’t focused solely on product; we were more interested in getting people the information they needed to build sustainably and responsibly.”
His sons, Edwin, 25, and Eliott, 27, currently work with him at August Moon Designs. “When the boys decided to come on-board, we were able to start doing some of the larger projects that I had put aside.” The help from his sons allows him to focus on education and skill-building, his specialties. “I’ve been writing for years now about proper selection of pumps and proper selection of plumbing, to get your pumps to work the way they should.”
Fortuna is grateful for the way things have worked out. “I get to bring the boys with me on the bigger builds. We’ve really been blessed. Last year, we had projects in Austin, Texas, at the Irrigation Association show, a pond-free waterfall in Oklahoma, builds in the Carolinas and Ohio—it’s been great.” They even built a pond for a TV show on Animal Planet. In addition to working together, he gets to share the same love for travel with his sons that his mother shared with him.
Jeff Weemhoff has a sales representative company that represents Atlantic Water Gardens. “I met Demi more than 20 years ago, when he was working for Danner,” said Weemhoff. “He was tough to compete against. He’s as good a person as you’d want to meet.”
When Fortuna went to work for Atlantic Water Gardens, Weemhoff had an opportunity to work closer with him. “He’s personable, good-hearted, has great ethics and is a great pond builder,” said Weemhoff. “Having the opportunity to know this man better makes working with him a pleasure.”
Fortuna has high hopes for the future of ponds.
“Although water features are important, my heart is in ponds.
That’s where I started and where I see things returning, slowly. The backyard oasis and outdoor living rooms have sustained us for the last seven to eight years, but the pendulum is swinging back.”
He offers the current boom in aquaponics as an example of renewed interest. “People are starting to think about sustainability, rainwater harvesting, going organic. Aquaponics fits right in.
Cleaning your pond by running the water through the vegetable garden—what’s not to like? Ponds are starting to be considered part of the garden again.”
Demi Fortuna has been building ponds since 1986. He’s made his fair share of mistakes along the way, but more importantly, he was able to learn from those mistakes and share his insights with others in the pond market. Twenty-eight years of pond building, developing new techniques and teaching anyone who would listen to him have earned Fortuna the respect of the market.
For these reasons and more, Irrigation