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City's unusually cool spring warms the flower gardener


You can see it in the poison ivy, the hollyhocks and the roses.

The same cool spring that has stunted the crab catch, chilled Ocean City and delayed farmers' crops has been a blessing to the backyard gardener. There's virtually no neighborhood in Baltimore that isn't showing the sunset orange of a day lily or a geranium's nail-polish red.

Baltimore's climate is not always the most hospitable to gardening. Flowers -- unlike crabs and vegetables -- like it cool. Under normal conditions, by the last week in June, the city has been treated to several broiling sessions in the high 90s. It's not unusual for Baltimore to get a dose of blossom-wilting weather in early April. Some lawns brown out by July 4.

This year proved the welcome exception. The spring and the first few days of summer were more like late October. It remained uniformly cool, much to the delight of the perennial gardener.

The roses never looked healthier, plump and full of scent and color. Climbers, trained on wood lattices or wrapped around the posts of back porches, exploded in old-fashioned neighborhoods such as Irvington, Gardenville and Mount Washington.

The spring also coaxed out garden perfumes. Our basswood trees, which the city planted in prodigious numbers about 20 years ago, are now in yellow flower. Their overly sweet smell combines with nights of high humidity to create a fragrance that can be described only as cheap perfume. Don't change it. It's as much a part of a Baltimore summer as is the aroma of steamed hard crabs.

The smell of vanilla and baby powder seemed to float over the corner of Homewood and Guilford terraces in the Oakenshawe neighborhood in North Baltimore, just a few blocks above Union Memorial Hospital.

With a little detection, and the help of a gardening book, the source was discovered to be a pot of purple heliotrope. The gardener said the scent reminded him of an old-fashioned barbershop. It was a perfect description.

This garden was filled with lilies, phlox, yarrow, astilbe, lupines and even a rare plant named for this state, a Spigelia Marilandica, whose crimson and yellowish-cream star-shaped flowers contrast handsomely with its dark green foliage.

Purple is a big color this time of year. Banks along highways are often covered with invading crown vetch. It resembles the sweet pea, which would be abundant this time of year even if the weather were not so conducive to explosive growth.

The chilly spring heated up the growth of poison ivy. Watch out! It's everywhere. Clumps have been spotted even in the Inner Harbor.

The crows' raucous, strident cawing is resounding all over town. jTC Last summer, they built rookeries in Northwest Baltimore, much to the annoyance of anyone who was not deaf and who valued sanity.

Now these flying amplifiers are nesting in Patterson Park and Charles Village.

And one more sure sign that it has been a chilly second quarter of the year: On a hot Baltimore night, the city's sidewalks are usually a circus of scrambling water bugs, those large roaches that seem to like hot, moist spots.

This year, these crawling armies seem to have taken a vacation to some state where it's more hot and humid.

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