Ashburton's aquatic garden


George T. Bess Sr. and his wife, Barbara, are accustomed to visitors from the schools of Baltimore showing up at their Ashburton home.

The house is interesting enough, a dwelling built in the 1920s that originally was the headquarters for a builder of Ashburton homes, and later a doctor's residence. But it's the koi and shubunkin and catfish and goldfish that really stop traffic.

Not to mention the vegetation -- yucca, ajuga and the like.

"I just wanted a pond," said Mr. Bess, 69, a retired professor and administrator at Baltimore City Community College.

TC What began as a small pond four years ago has been enlarged three times into a 1,200-square-foot aquatic garden with 125 or so fish swimming in a group of ponds a few dozen feet from the four lanes of Liberty Heights Avenue.

Originally, there was just a yard that separated the driveway from the house when the Besses moved to Baltimore in 1964 from Atlanta, where Mr. Bess was working for the Urban League. In 1968, he joined the community college staff, and Mrs. Bess worked as a high school English teacher for Baltimore. They raised sons George Jr. and Michael in a three-bedroom, one-story home that was constantly evolving.

They decided to stay in Ashburton after looking for homes elsewhere. "We were looking at $300,000 and $400,000 homes. We decided to do what we needed to do right here," he said.

The master suite bathroom has been completely remodeled and now features a whirlpool ("for my back," Mr. Bess says). What began as a deck is now an enclosed sun room. The kitchen has been enlarged and remodeled.

The garden was built with the help of neighbors Clarence Hatcher and Edward Fox, who helped Mr. Bess dig the holes for the ponds. Sylvester Carr, a friend and aquatic garden designer, was the consultant on the project and installed the rubber liners. Wooden bridges crisscross the water, permitting close-up gawking at the fish. A complex filtration system recycles water with a boost from an elaborate set of pumps.

The garden is really an ecosystem designed to simulate the variety of conditions found in nature. In the koi pond, the fish -- domesticated carp that grow up to 2 feet long -- flutter through waterlilies, lotus, irises and pickerel rush.

Floating in the biological filter tanks are water hyacinths and anacharis. In the bog area are anacharis and arrowhead cattails. Around the ponds are bamboo, irises, ferns, verbena, hobstra and, of course, the yucca and ajuga.

The fish, ordered from Japan through a distributor in Thurmont, head for the deepest part of the pond during the winter and hibernate.

"We stop feeding them around the latter part of September," Mr. Bess said.

Despite subzero temperatures and as much as eight inches of ice covering the ponds, "We've never lost any fish to the weather."

In their basement, there is a much smaller version of the outside garden that provides company in the winter.

They have considerable company in their hobby. Water gardening is one of the fastest-growing pastimes in the United States, according to Karla Sperling, president of the National Pond Society and publisher, with her husband, of Pondscapes magazine in Acworth, Ga.

Eight million households installed pumps and ponds and other water garden features in 1992, according to a National Garden Association/Gallup Poll.

Most of the hobbyists are over 45, she said.

The Besses, reflecting their long-standing careers in education, have developed a curriculum guide for a lesson on aquatic gardens and have invited schools to bring students for visits.

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