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The interactive gardens of Star Ridge Aquatics

By Amberly Glitz Weber   •   Photographs by John Gessner


Photos Above: Star Ridge Aquatics

In the cool of the morning, as the sun rises over the neighboring crop field and before the dew has burned away in the heat, a misty veil settles around Star Ridge Aquatics. The traffic sounds fade into the background as you roll onto a groomed gravel drive that carries you from Star Ridge Road to the center of the property. It circles an Ohio buckeye tree standing well over 40 feet tall with a beautifully rounded canopy. A rare find so far south, it’s likely the only buckeye tree for miles and miles, yet the transplant has put down deep roots and thrived in its unique habitat.

The same can be said for the man who planted it, Joe Granato. A tall man with a determined expression, Granato founded the aquaponic garden store Star Ridge Aquatics over 30 years ago. A transplant himself, he moved to Moore County in 1990 at age 19, following his parents when new employment brought them south. At the suggestion of a landscaping foreman, the young man looked into the horticultural program at Sandhills Community College.

At the time, SCC’s program was ranked second in the nation, and the Hillside Stream exhibit in the botanical gardens was mid-construction. As a student, Granato participated in the build, which remains a distinctive feature of the 27-acre estate. At the end of the program, he undertook an apprenticeship in a Maryland aquaponics nursery, where he was offered a job.

But Granato wanted to open his own nursery back in North Carolina. After a lengthy search for the perfect property, in 1993 he settled on 6 acres in Carthage, and Star Ridge Aquatics was born.


Photos Above: Gary & Sue Howell

Though his skills were honed at SCC, Granato has always had a love for water and the outdoors. “Growing up, he was always outside, bugs crawling all over him,” his mother, Jane Granato, says. “His dad did azaleas and rhododendrons as a hobby. But aquaponics — that was all Joe. In eighth grade he’d design gardens for people and he’d put fountains and water gardens in, which was not common. He was well ahead of the times.”

When Granato opened Star Ridge there was only one other aquatic nursery in North Carolina. It’s not hyperbole to say he was a pioneer in the industry. “In the early ’90s we had 10 or 12 nurseries doing azaleas, rhododendrons, crape myrtles. I wanted to do something different, and water, aquariums, fish, that was always something I liked,” Granato says.

“In a regular garden, there’s no noise, no movement, it’s not interactive,” he adds. An aquaponic garden proffers the babbling sounds of a mountain brook set against underwater uplighting. The gardens are unique, constantly changing, and moving. Waterfalls that rush in summer develop ice on the sides in winter, contrasted by a heated pond.

Granato’s granite demeanor softens, his face lights up and his voice changes as he talks about this special place. Like the constant-motion gardens he designs, Granato is always moving on to the next project. Walking around the property, he shares his plans for the future.

Photo Above: Gary & Sue Howell

“I’m trying to make this more of a destination,” he says. “People travel hours to come here to buy plants and fish, but not everyone has a water garden.” The population influx to Moore County has brought a sharp rise in customers. Granato has been busy diversifying, adding farm fresh eggs, local produce and pick-your-own gardens. Kiwi, muscadine grapes, blueberries, blackberries, tomatoes, pomegranates, peppers and his own honeybee hives grow in harmony on the property. The Farm at Star Ridge was officially branded in 2020, but this year was the first for peak harvests.

“Our blackberries did well this past summer,” he says, pointing out new growth on a biennial cane. One hundred amber jars of honey were bottled, along with homemade jellies put up by Joe’s wife, Rebekah. With the various U-pick fields cycling across the seasons, there’s a draw to visit throughout the year. Families come for the blueberries, too, but once there it’s impossible not to stop and ogle the colorful fish darting playfully around their sale ponds, or the lilies opening into brightly colored blooms.

Many of Granato’s earliest aquaponic gardening clients are now selling their homes or moving to retirement communities, and the still-intact ponds become a feature of the sale. “We do a quality job that lasts,” he says, and new homeowners are eager to continue to care for and improve their backyard aquatic garden.

“The younger clientele is social, they want to create a beautiful, interesting conversation piece with sound, for gathering,” he says. And an aquaponic garden is not simply a conversation piece. “It’s soothing, it’s relaxing. Many people view their fish as pets. When you come out to your pond, your fish swim up to you. They come over to be fed.”


Even the humblest of gardeners can imagine being greeted by the welcoming sights and sounds of water trickling through a fountain in their backyard, though for the working stiffs there never seems to be enough daylight hours left to enjoy your hard work. Turns out, there’s a lily for that. Night bloomers, grown in shades of pink, red and white, open at 6 p.m. and close between 8 – 9 a.m. the next morning. Suddenly the scales tip toward a backyard pond and you’re picking out koi colors. For those intrigued by the concept, Granato recently completed a design in the FirstHealth Cancer Center Healing Garden, where a visit to the public space can inspire you to incorporate water into your own serene escape.

Newlyweds Gary and Sue Howell were first introduced to Granato’s designs at a friend’s home, where they had installed a fountain, sans pond. Avid gardeners themselves, the two knew it was a concept that would enhance their current design. “Sue and I are both lovers of flowers and gardens, and we justified the expenditure — which is not inconsequential — because we used to travel a lot,” says Gary. “Now we stay home, enjoying the pond and toddies.”

A retired design engineer, Gary had a number of ideas about the new construction, but he’s adamant the completed design was all Joe’s. He mentions Granato’s skill in combining personal requests, such as the Howells’ desire for a walkway and patio, and crafting them into something truly unique. “There’s a considerable amount of labor that goes into this. It’s very strenuous. There’s no way to design these ponds and waterfalls without placing it all by hand,” Gary says.

After a backhoe and excavator finished the initial stage of clearing, “Joe came in, arranging these rocks of 50-100 pounds himself. He is an artist,” Sue says. “I just like seeing all the nature together, the rocks and the water — the fish have added something unexpected.”

Gary agrees, admitting that their goldfish “have become our critters; we named them and talk to them.” His favorite part, though, is auditory: “There’s something so soothing about the natural sound of the waterfall.”

After three decades in business, Granato says “it’s been fun, it’s been enjoyable,” and he has a lot more planned, from his koi fish and exotic lilies to 7,500 pounds of grapes. “I just need more land,” he says. When he bought this property it was “nothing more than a tobacco field. No trees, no buildings.” Now, standing in the cool shade of towering oaks and the unexpected buckeye, it’s incredible to see what one man’s drive can accomplish.  PS

Aberdeen resident Amberly Glitz Weber is an Army veteran and freelance writer. She’s grateful for every minute spent out of doors, rain or shine.