Backyard aquatic garden Ponds: An Ashburton couple creates an urban preserve for 100 koi, providing a sanctuary for the fish and the neighborhood.

November 15, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

The koi fish of Ashburton are settling in. Winter's coming, and the next meal is in May.

The 100 gold, platinum, orange, white, red, black and blue

swimmers got their last lettuce and Cheerios from George and Barbara Bess at the end of last month. They will soon drift to warmer bottom waters 4 feet deep and hibernate while ice forms over them.

They live in an unexpected urban preserve of six ponds, seven waterfalls and 20 species of plants. The Bess back yard at 3506 Liberty Heights Ave. is about 40 feet by 50 feet, slightly smaller than half a basketball court but of considerably more beautiful.

Among the dozen aquatic gardens in the Northwest Baltimore community -- a growing backyard trend -- the Bess ponds at the corner of Liberty Heights Avenue and Cedardale Road are The Great Lakes of Ashburton.

"When my sister Clara Anthony and I saw them the first time, we were amazed at the variety and beauty in a small space," said Anna Curry, another Ashburton resident. The sisters have since put in their own pond, and Curry helped found an Ashburton pond owners' club.

Children call Mr. Bess "the fish man." The Bess grandchildren, Joelle, 3, and Nigel, 2 --the children of George Jr. and Kara Bess -- come every day to ogle the brilliantly colored fish. A favorite Joelle greeting is: "Let's feed the fish, Pa Pa." Schools send classes. The gurgling waters, driven by pumps and waterfalls, soothe pedestrians.

"We've never lost a fish to the winter cold," said Mrs. Bess, referring to the six years she has been helping her husband run their garden. It began when the Besses retired in 1991. She was a city high school English teacher. He was an administrator at Baltimore City Community College.

"We developed this partly for the children," said Mr. Bess. "But when classes want to come, we tell the schools that the students must do more than look. They must learn about the fish and plants. We give them a lesson plan."

Besides offering the detailed plan, the Besses like to tell the story of koi, which may cost from $3 to $20,000 for a top specimen. Quality fish that are 4 to 8 inches long cost between $25 and $75, Mr. Bess said.

Koi and goldfish are different species of carp. The fish will grow only as large as their containers comfortably allow them. The biggest animal in the Bess pond is 26 inches long, but koi can grow up to 3 feet.

Japanese rice paddies were originally two-crop places; koi were bred to be eaten. There are scores of different types of koi, now raised to be seen in brilliant colors.

They are hardy, eat wheat-germ pellets and similar tidbits, need little maintenance and winter outdoors as long as their water keeps moving and doesn't freeze solid. Safe vinyl liners for home ponds have widened their popularity.

An average backyard fish pond 5 feet to 7 feet in diameter with fish costs between $1,400 and $2,500, Mr. Bess said. More elaborate ponds can cost $65,000.

Curry and Beatrice Scott, who had earlier built her own koi pond, founded Urban PondScapers, which has 13 members with ponds. The National Aquarium at Baltimore is a partner of the club. It checks water quality and offers space for members to meet and periodic speakers.

"Ponding has many benefits," said Curry, the group's president and retired director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Neighborhood ecology is enriched, property values may improve, children learn.

"We thought a PondScapers club would make a statement about city living with its reputation of crime and poverty," she said. "We hope to influence others to beautify their neighborhoods."

The two grown Bess sons, George Jr. and Michael, are among those who routinely pop over to enjoy the ponds. Both have homes in the neighborhood.

Creating the ponds and environment was like eating peanuts, said George Bess. He couldn't stop.

"I wanted a little fish pond. I started with goldfish -- shubunkin, rabunken, then lionheads, then black moors. Then I got koi -- kahaku -- and needed more space to do more. We added a pond.

"Then I wanted a stream. Another pond. Then I didn't have enough water falling. Another pond.

"We got other fish -- German orfe -- and catfish. The catfish were too aggressive and had to go.

"Then I wanted space to handle the overflow of plants and enhance the water filtration system. Another pond."

This went on for several years, with the technical expertise of the garden designer and friend, Sylvester Carr, of nearby Arlington.

Now besides the aquatic life including eight types of koi, there are three filtration tanks, lilies, flowering yucca, yellow iris, anacheris, water hyacinths, lotus, Parrott's feather, bamboo, ferns, Pickerel Rush, arrowhead cattails and other plants, a gazebo, wooden walkways, a fence and a welcome mat for everyone.

"That's it," said George Bess.

"End of story," said Barbara Bess.

Don't count on it.

Pub Date: 11/15/97

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