At home and garden show, plant lovers cling to early signs of spring

Attendance at home and garden show about 60,000 over five days.

For Annie Haun of Annapolis and her mother, Jackie Dutton of Phoenix, it has been a family ritual for years: drop everything one day on the first weekend of March, meet at the Timonium Fairgrounds for the Maryland Home and Garden Show, and snap up a few harbingers of spring.

Haun found a fern in a big vase at the trade show on Sunday. Dutton scooped up a straw gardeners' visor. Both bought armfuls of pussy willows.

"I do think [winter] is done," Haun said. "I believe this is it. I hope that's not just wishful thinking."

It's hard to fault Haun's uncertainty. This has been one of the worst Maryland winters in years, with multiple major snowfalls, record-breaking cold and enough school closures to give a whole region cabin fever.

Sunday felt tropical by comparison, with temperatures reaching the low 50s by noon.

The weather likely helped boost total attendance for the five-day exhibition, which Jay Plummer of S&L Productions, the Glen Burnie company that produces it, said would probably draw a bit fewer than its usual 60,000 over two weekends, thanks to unseasonble snow and cold on three of those days.

But even the hopefuls who came Sunday in fleece vests, windbreakers and even shorts sounded only guardedly hopeful a new season was really here to stay.

For Radebaugh Florist and Greenhouse of Towson, the show is usually a time to greet old customers, meet new ones, and get the spring sales season up and running by trotting out tulips, primroses and forsythias, the kinds of early bloomers that surrounded co-owner Joe Radebaugh at the company booth.

But business was slow. The weather has left so much snow and such a deep freeze that nobody can plant anything, Radebaugh said — not even pansies, those bright bloomers that can often be planted in late February.

"I'll bet you we haven't sold two flats of pansies — that's 30 — over the [exhibition's] two weekends," he added.

Chuck Poehlman wasn't waiting that long. The owner of European Landscapes and Designs in Towson left his location for a few minutes to visit a booth specializing in pussy willows.

Poehlman, a certified professional horticulturist, doesn't merely sell historic flagstone and design outdoor spaces; he calls himself a student of the complex and evolving interplay between mankind and nature, including plants.

"We're very tied in to plants. We are plants. Look at the roots and branches," he said extending his arms and fingers upwards.

He had never owned or worked with pussy willows before, he said, but he bought them this year to help inaugurate a journey of natural healing for his wife, Maggie, who has just been diagnosed with an illness.

On his way to the show Sunday morning, he said, he could "smell the spring; the birds have a certain more uplifting call; the earth has a different feel, the sun has a brighter glow."

That struck him as fitting; pussy willows are known as "harbingers of spring," he said.

For others, the season still felt a long way off. The freeze won't thaw "for a week or two," Radebaugh said with a resigned tone.

And indeed, some gardeners said they were attending Sunday to check out the show's many house-and-home attractions, its aisles full of booths pitching closet organizers, skylights, hot tubs and foam insulation.

Christine and Jeff Mangin of Norrisville said they're usually planting by St. Patrick's Day but don't expect to start until April this year. They were at the show to look into basement waterproofing.

But they couldn't resist stopping by Radebaugh's to pick up a pot of tete-a-tetes. In Christine's hands, the tiny yellow daffodils seemed like miniature rays of hope.

"This has been an awful winter," she said. "Everyone's stir crazy. We're looking forward to spring."

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