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Gardening grows on you after a brutal winter

Revisiting gardens is one of spring's great pleasures. After a brutal winter, every garden seems like a miracle. Recent rains, combined with some very warm days, have made for prodigious growth. Intermittent cool days have held the beauty long enough for one round of blooming plants to be enjoyed before the next breaks open.

Every morning, I rush to see my garden. Revisiting it brings daily surprise. Peonies are popping open now like can-can dancers. Three new rose bushes, planted last September, are budding, and one is showing its pink color. Nearby, artemisias look dead. A tiny bit of growth shows on one, but the other is bare. Our old mophead hydrangeas, new camellias and leucothoes are mostly bare-branched, too. Friends' mopheads have new growth emerging on tall canes, so I stay hopeful that mine will pull through.

A particular pleasure each year is planting annuals. Many feel they are a waste of money. I do not. For the price of a few dinners out, I line the beds closest to the house and fill containers by the doors with plants that re-bloom and give us color and pleasure from May to November. Some containers I replant with the same combinations every year.

But I change what lines the beds. For years, I used impatiens and vinca, the impatiens in shady spots, vinca in sunny. Two summers ago a fungus struck those impatiens. Last year I used all vinca, but they did not thrive in shade. This year I splurged on New Guinea impatiens, which are not susceptible to the fungus.

Many years, I've used pale pink annuals. This summer, without envisioning a new plan, I somehow bought more white than pink. So white is this year's motif in euphorbia, vinca, New Guinea impatiens and dusty miller. Changing things around keeps me interested as I visit the garden to check the annuals' growth.

Revisiting friends' gardens inspires me. My Homeland friend and I visit each other's gardens for suggestions on lost plants and blank spaces. I visit my sister's garden regularly, and she comes here to her childhood garden. We'll take divisions this weekend. Weekly, I go to a neighbor's garden, and she comes to mine. She has a better eye than I, but I've been gardening longer. Bouncing ideas off each other keeps our gardens moving forward.

Recently, with the Roland Park Country School Kaleidoscope program, I returned to three of the finest Baltimore gardens. First we went to that of Barbara and Jim Shea, at work on their five acres since 1995. Barbara is a self-described "plant nut." She is not, however, a higgledy-piggledy one. Well-designed, diverse garden rooms ring her house. The soil is black from years of organic practices and composted leaves of the Garrison Forest tree canopy.

Her perennial border is 10 feet deep, so there's plenty of room to divide and repeat, seed and acquire new plants. Her woodland gardens expand every year. Her prized conifer collection has matured to a stately presence by a pond and waterfall. I could have stayed by that pond all day.

Always at Amy and Chuck Newhall's garden, as I pass through the boxwood-lined gates, I feel as if I have fallen into another world. Fifty-four garden rooms cover the five acres this couple completely regraded 30 years ago. They installed 2,000 trees, 4,000 rhododendrons and 65,000 ferns.

Examples of how a well-established garden is never finished were the dozens of new ferns ready to be planted throughout the gardens. About three dozen marigold plants had also caught Amy's eye, even though she said she had no idea why she bought them or where they might fit into this garden of cool colors, greens and white.

All gardeners suffer from what might be called "seasonal exuberance."

Finally came the Silbers' garden masterpiece, a garden I've visited so many times I cannot count. Developed over 50 years by Jean and the late Sidney Silber, this garden covers 10 acres. Always in design and horticultural, their garden rivals Winterthur and the great European gardens, but with the modern twist of contemporary sculpture, Sidney's and others'. Hundreds of rhododendrons, some 50 years old and 8 to 10 feet high, were in full bloom. Late afternoon sun made their blossoms glow like magic orbs.

My own Catawba white rhododendrons, which the Silbers suggested and even tended, looked more endearing this morning when I revisited them.

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