Buying a ticket to enter a place where people want to sell things has always been difficult for me. Commercial auto shows, boat shows andthe like leave me cold.

But then several years ago, when I discovered flower and garden shows, I softened.

A good show has more to offer than sales pitches -- although thisisn't a bad place to get an overview, compare products and prices.

I enjoy the inspiring landscape displays, chatting with plant retailers about what's in and what's out, seeing new products, and meetingrepresentatives of local garden groups and finding out what they aredoing.

The area's traditional spring Maryland Flower and Garden Show has been expanded. This year, for the first time, it has been combined with the home show to become the Maryland Home and Garden Show.And Howard County has its share of 1991 participants, poised with creative plans, plants, equipment and information.

Formerly conducted at Festival Hall in Baltimore, the new show will open Wednesday, March 6, at the state fairgrounds in Timonium. Hours will be from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily, Wednesday through Saturday.

On closing day, Sunday, March 10, the show will be open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The ticket price is $6; parking is free.

"Over 300 businesses and non-profit organizations have signed up so far for display space in the large exhibit building at the fairgrounds," says Jeff Plummer of S&L; Productions, the show's promoter.

This includes a dozen or so landscapescompanies that have signed on to 'present large indoor garden environments, complete with live grass, flowers, trees, flowing fountains, gazebos and pathways.'

Besides commercial exhibits, there will be educational displays and demonstrations, a plant marketplace and a daily schedule of garden-related information. There will also be a variety of food booths -- an improvement over the hot dog and hamburger selection at the old show, Plummer says.

The Howard County Master Gardeners, a band of trained garden experts associated with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, have spent months preparing their container gardening exhibit.

To show window boxes, hanging baskets and tubs as they would appear in peak season, the plants to fill them had to be started in December and early January.

Container adaptable varieties of cucumbers and tomatoes, Oriental vegetables -- even corn -- were sown. These, plus geraniums, nasturtiums, alyssum, herbs and more, will be shown off in containers that urban residents with little outdoor space, patio and deck owners and windowsill gardeners can make use of.

The young plants are growing well, says Trudi Louzon, who is heading the master gardeners display. The plants are now sitting in greenhouse space borrowed from both the Baltimore Association of Retarded Citizens and the Cedar Lane School's horticulture facilities. By show time there should even be a small cropof tomatoes.

The volunteers who will man the booth, all Howard County master gardeners, will have plenty of extension service literature to hand out, as well as advice on how to grow things in containers.

The Howard County Gardeners' Association has chosen to help attendees unravel the concept of IPM -- Integrated Pest Management.

Pictures -- including a mural painted by Elkridge resident Barbara Kerr-- of live plants and bugs, demonstrations and literature, will helpclarify this increasingly popular method of controlling diseases, weeds and insects detrimental to the landscape.

IPM combines old andnew practices, such as using disease-resistant plants, monitoring for insects and using natural predators, with chemical pesticides used as a last resort.

The most exciting part of the garden show for most visitors is the large, living garden displays, covering hundreds of square feet and demonstrating the latest in garden styles and plants.

It may be Timonium in March, but there you are, walking a curving pathway amid beds of fragrant roses and impatiens.

These displays represent tremendous artistic effort, careful preparation and selection of plants, time and hard work.

There is friendly competitionamong the landscapers participating, with awards going to the most creative displays in several divisions.

This year's theme asks thatthe exhibits illustrate an "environment for today's living."

Shawn Richard, who owns and operates a small landscape business called Twin Oak in the Woodbine area, has three successful Maryland Flower andGarden Show displays behind him.

His creation for this one, not completely off the drawing board, will emphasize a simple, budget-minded approach to home landscaping.

A dry stone wall and bluestone paving -- "hardscape," as Richard calls it -- will dominate the scene, with a variety of specimen plants softening the edges.

Fooling theplants into performing as if it were late spring or summer is difficult. He's a little anxious about the unusual weather this month, he says, but trusts that all will turn out well.

Ellicott City's Woodstock Farm Nursery, under owner Alice Bender, also has an experienced flower and garden show team.

Bender's tentative plan promises a little of everything. An intriguing night garden setting, an enclosed section of her display area complete with starlight, will feature silver-gray foliage plants and specimens with white flowers that stand out at night. Patio and garden lighting will show the plants to best advantage. This is all, "if it works," Bender says.

Her design also calls for a dry, desert garden display, with plants such as yucca andmahonia that demand little water. Also, there will be a garden wishing well.

A formal entry to the garden area will include a small pond surrounded with flowering bulbs and ornamental fruit trees. The specimen plants seem to be on schedule as far as the show is concerned.

"By March 6, they should be just where I want them," Bender says.

For more information about the Maryland Home and Garden Show, call 1-301-969-8585.

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