Gardens that seem to sing arias with voices so tender and lush KNEE-DEEP IN BEAUTY

June 19, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

LILYPONS -- In this era of stress -- at home, at work, everywhere -- Charles Thomas sells tranquillity.

"We all have hectic lives. We yearn to have a beautiful place of peace and tranquillity and a garden like this is it," said Mr. Thomas.

Water lilies, like exotic jewels -- red, yellow, white, blue, pink -- dot his ponds; a darting goldfish flashes a metallic glint; a sunbathing frog grunts and dives off a broad green-bronze lily pad to hide among the green rushes, furry cattails and violet water iris.

Gardening and the endless fascination of light and wind playing on water rank high on any relaxation list. Once thought to be a privilege only the wealthy or endowed botanical gardens could afford, water gardening has become a popular pastime, helped in part by Lilypons Water Gardens, a multimillion-dollar Frederick County company.

Founded 75 years ago, the company has become a national leader in aquatic gardening.

Thanks to new technology in plastics, rubber and fiberglass, a few hundred dollars can now produce a water garden. Even something as small as a half-barrel can become a miniature water garden.

"The hobby is magnetic. It sucks you in," said Donna Amico, a bio-chemist. She and her husband, Paul, a nuclear engineer, discovered Lilypons five years ago when they decided the hill in their yard "was just perfect for a waterfall."

"The reason we wanted the waterfall was for the sound of water. It's peaceful and it makes other sounds, like traffic, recede into the background," she said.

They began with a small pond, but now have the largest pre-formed pond Lilypons sells sitting at the base of a waterfall that cascades 12 feet down several levels.

Joan Bussiere, a native of Korea, and her husband, James, built a garden in which a small pond flows into a larger one with Oriental-style plantings and motifs. The result is not only beautiful and restful, "it's kind of fun," she said.

Besides offering the beauty of water, Mr. Thomas said, said the ** ponds form "an ecologically balanced system" where aquatic plants, fish, frogs and snails complement each other.

The advances in pond construction contributed to dramatic changes in the business itself. For more than 60 years, Three Springs Fisheries, as the business was called, sold Koi, the imperial carp of Japan that look like large goldfish and display a rainbow of colors, and untold millions of goldfish as pets and as food for other fish. Goldfish were a popular novelty in the 1920s and 1930s.

"During the Depression, they were the cheapest pets anyone could have," Mr. Thomas said.

Despite its emphasis on fish, however, Three Springs became a leading supplier of water lilies, lotus and myriad other aquatic plants. Family members developed and patented several varieties.

Hundreds of connected ponds dotted the 275-acre tract, which is fed by Bennett's Creek, a tributary of the nearby Monocacy River.

When Mr. Thomas took charge in the 1970s, following his grandfather, father and uncle, he launched a major reorganization, closing scores of fish ponds to focus on aquatic plants and changing the name to Lilypons Water Gardens.

In 1979, the first year after the change, an increase in plant revenues more than offset the fishery reduction, he said. They now ship more than 1,000 parcels a day throughout the world and have added branches in Texas and California, he said.

The name change recalled the company's early history.

George Leicester Thomas, the company's founder, was a businessman who owned acres of farmland and kept goldfish as a hobby. In 1917, he decided to turn his hobby into a business by converting part of his Three Springs Farm to ponds. He added water lilies for color.

Business flourished and in 1925 he bought the tract that remains the seat of operations. The new ponds provided room to experiment with waterlilies and other aquatic plants. The elder Mr. Thomas developed several new strains but gave away his plants to friends and casual visitors.

Then it occurred to him that the plants might be marketable. He published his first-mail order catalog in 1930. By 1934 business was so brisk that the U.S. Post Office asked him to open his own branch.

But what to call it?

An opera lover, the company founder admired Lily Pons, the French soprano who made a spectacular debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1931 and starred in movies. He hit on the perfect play on words: Lily Pons-lily ponds. When he

proposed naming the post office for her, the singer accepted his tribute.

Postal officials insisted on one word, however, so on June 20, 1936, Miss Pons arrived at the water gardens to a welcome led by Gov. Harry W. Nice and dedicated the Lilypons Post Office. The event is commemorated annually.

For many years before her death in 1976, Miss Pons sent her Christmas cards to have them postmarked. The branch no longer exists officially, having been switched to nearby Buckeystown. Unofficially, it is alive and well, and mail addressed to Lilypons, Md. 21717, arrives regularly, Charles Thomas said.

The soprano's autographed picture has a place of honor outside Mr. Thomas' office. And he is proud of another photo, one of her holding the infant Charles Thomas in her arms on that memorable day in 1936.

With time out for college and Army service, Mr. Thomas, now 56, has spent his entire life in his family's business at Lilypons. He said he and couldn't have found a better career had he looked for one.

"They say I'm a workaholic, but how can that be when I have so much fun," he said.

LILY PONS DAYS

The event: Lilypons Water Gardens' annual Lily Pons Days festival tomorrow and Sunday.

Things to do: Explore the water gardens; participate in canoe and paddle boat rides and carriage rides; hear lectures on water gardening.

How to get there: Follow Interstate 70 to Exit 54 at Frederick. Turn right onto Route 85 South. Three miles after Buckeystown, look for Lilypons Road on the left. Entrance one mile on left. Admission and parking free.

Where to call: (301) 428-0686 or (301) 662-2230.

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