Annual Tulip Dig set for May 23 at Sherwood Gardens

Baltimore Messenger
Thousands expected to descend on Sherwood Gardens on May 23 for the annual Tulip Dig

Nearly a century after petroleum pioneer, conservationist and art collector John Sherwood began inviting the public into his backyard each May to see blooming tulips imported from the Netherlands, several thousand people are expected to descend on Sherwood Gardens in Guilford for the 2015 Tulip Dig on Saturday, May 23.

Take it from Julia Shirley-Quirk, who did the dig last year: It's a lot of work, but a lot of fun.

The 26-year-old photographer and freelance marketing manager grew up in Howard County but had never heard about the Tulip Dig until she lived in Waverly briefly last year before moving back to England, where she was born.

After spending many sunny days in Sherwood Gardens and watching tulips bloom, Shirley-Quirk decided to go to the dig and buy bulbs to give as a Mother's Day present, "and of course keep some for my own garden," she said in an email from her home in Bristol.

"I had a blast digging up Sherwood Gardens, feeling a bit like John Sherwood himself digging in his back garden," she said. "It was such a fun experience digging in the garden with such a big and friendly part of the Baltimore community around you playing in the dirt."

People from around the region are expected to show up on Greenway from 7-11 a.m., with shovels and spades in hand, to dig up more than 60,000 bulbs at 30 cents per bulb in the 6-acre Sherwood Gardens, known as the biggest tulip garden in North America. Organizers will be handing out fliers on how to plant and grow tulips, as well as maps to guide the diggers around Sherwood Gardens' 18 color-coordinated flower beds containing tulips and other multi-colored flowers.

It's a win-win for the public and for Stratford Green, Inc., the long-established nonprofit that owns Sherwood Gardens, which includes land once known as Stratford Green before John Sherwood bought it. Stratford Green, Inc. works with the Guilford Association to maintain and raise funds for the upkeep of and improvements to the privately owned gardens for the public's enjoyment year-round. The Tulip Dig also helps educate the public and clears out the bulbs in Sherwood Gardens' 18 beds so that summer flowers can be planted.

Many of those who dig up the tulip bulbs will replant them in their own gardens this October, just as the bulbs were planted in Sherwood Gardens last October.

The Tulip Dig raises $3,000 to $6,000 a year, depending on the weather and how good the publicity is that year, said longtime Guilford resident Margaret Alton, lead organizer of the dig. The money goes to Stratford Green, Inc., which spends $120,000 a year on the gardens, including $50,000 a year from the Guilford Association, Alton said. The rest comes from donations and events like the annual dig, which raised $6,000 last year, she said.

Not that the dig needs much promotion or advertising; it seems to do fine by word of mouth, said Ann Giroux, whose house on Greenway overlooks the gardens.

"We went for a decade or more without any advertising at all," said Giroux, who has helped organize the dig in the past, including in 2013, when she chaired Guilford's centennial celebration. "People find the gardens all on their own. We had an especially big Tulip Dig for the centennial."

If you're worried about being a novice at the Tulip Dig, don't be, advises Shirley-Quick. She said she came prepared with plastic bags and a spade, but had moments of self-doubt as to what to do with the bulbs once she got them.

"I knew how to get (bulbs) out of the ground, but had no idea what to do to get them back in," she said. "Do you take the leaves off and plant them right away? Or should you leave the leaves on but still plant them now? Do you let the leaves dry and plant them in the fall? Luckily, the other tulip diggers were extremely helpful, with everyone giving advice on how to take care of my newly acquired bulbs."

But first came the hard work of unearthing them.

"It was way more tiring than I imagined, but just as fun as I had thought it would be," she said. "After about an hour and a half of digging, I ended up with 30 bulbs, a tired back caused by the tulip digger hunch, and a huge smile."

People walking through the gardens last week were well aware of the Tulip Dig. Warren Giddens, walking his Italian mastiff, Barkley, said he wouldn't be going, but that his fiance would be.

"I'm not a tulip digger," Giddens said. "I just water."

Taking people's money when they buy bulbs will be Bruce Barnett, former longtime dig organizer and volunteer tender-in-chief of Sherwood Gardens, who stepped aside from his management roles about three years ago. Now 71, the retired Johns Hopkins University physics professor still frequents Sherwood Gardens and will be a volunteer at this year's dig.

"I'm going to be there collecting money," he said.

Barnett, a longtime Guilford resident, said he is especially looking forward to this year's dig, coming on the heels of riots in Baltimore prompted by last month's death of Freddie Gray, who had been in police custody.

"It's quite a contrast seeing people enjoying themselves at Sherwood Gardens," he said.

Carrying on Barnett's work is Alton, a retired Citibank Maryland executive and a Guilford resident since 1983. She has been helping to beautify the community since the early 2000s, when she went before the Guilford Association and said she didn't like the way some of the neighborhood's parks and other "common areas" were looking.

"They needed more care," she recalled.

She ended up joining the association board and working with Ray Jenkins, then head of its parks committee. When Jenkins moved out of Guilford several years later, Alton succeeded him as committee head and led several community beautification efforts, including working with the city to survey street trees and close gaps in street canopies by planting new trees.

Alton took over Barnett's old role temporarily — or so she thought — while community leaders sought a successor to Barnett.

"We're still looking," Alton said last week, "and in the meantime I'm marshaling as best I can."

Alton, 69, is especially excited about carrying on Barnett's work and plans for the future of Sherwood Gardens, which were bequeathed to the community by John Sherwood and taken over by the Guilford Association after his death in 1965.

A master plan commissioned by Stratford Green trustees and the Guilford Association board in 2013 and prepared by Beechbrook Landscape Architecture says that Sherwood Gardens, formerly part of the estate of Baltimore Sun founder A.S. Abell in the 1800s, was "tweaked and modified" over the years and has gotten away from Frederick Law Olmsted's original landscaping vision that heled shape Guilford.

Flower beds that were intended to be winding and serpentine became too contained and some of them have been merged and redefined to be more meandering, Alton said. Landscapers also have begun rotating what is planted in the beds each year, so that it's not all tulips all the time.

"We were a little concerned a few years ago that the tulips weren't as robust," Alton said. She said research showed that, "The soil needs to rest. I think this year's tulips showed that it's working. It was just ridiculous how nice they looked."

The rotation plan has also saved money by reducing the number of bulbs organizers buy from ADR Bulbs in New York from 80,000 to about 61,000, Alton said.

The Guilford Association is also sponsoring Project Olmsted, a summer planting exhibition and competition at Sherwood Gardens from June to September, in which nine landscape architects will compete to make installations that hew most closely to Olmsted's vision. The public then can vote for their favorite exhibit at http://www.guilfordassociation.org. An awards ceremony is set for Aug. 29 and will feature family events.

Also as part of the ongoing master plan, Sherwood Gardens is less cluttered now, with some of the trees and plantings from the 1970s removed to open up its vistas.

Alton admired the view from Stratford Road and Greenway last week, as she placed a lawn sign at the intersection, announcing the Tulip Dig.

"It's like a painting," she said.

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