Retiring horticulturist leaves his legacy across city


Gerard Moudry has been Baltimore's chief horticulturist for so long that he not only knows what plants and flowers lie beneath the January ice at Cylburn Arboretum, but he remembers what lived there decades ago.

He knows nearly every tree and shrub on Cylburn's 167 acres by name, having selected hundreds of them for planting, protected them from disease and weeds, pruned them and marveled at them. Like a 70-foot Atlas cedar -- he grew it from seed four decades ago.

Cylburn's trees, along with generations of flower beds in parks, the Inner Harbor and at City Hall, will be Mr. Moudry's legacy to Baltimore when he retires this month after 42 years with the city parks -- including 35 as chief horticulturist. The robust magnolias, the exotic raisin tree and his favorite, the goldenrain tree that blooms yellow in August, are among the contributions likely to outlive some of those made by the seven mayors he has served.

Those who work with Mr. Moudry say he has an encyclopedic knowledge of plants -- and an unusual efficiency for a bureaucrat.

"You can ask him any question about this place, the flowers, trees, and he has an answer and he'll show it to you," says T. Audrey Sawyer, president of the Cylburn Arboretum Association, private group that helps the city maintain the North Baltimore arboretum and pays for many of the trees.

"You can give him three or four leaves and he'll identify a plant. He's fabulous, a wonderful man," she adds.

Mr. Moudry, who knows the contours of the arboretum grounds as well as most people know their back yards, also is a man of few words, understating his love of nature and his reasons for retiring at age 69.

Asked why he loves trees so much, he says simply: "There's a lot of beauty in trees whether they're in and out of bloom. . . . It makes the picture complete."

Of his decision to retire Jan. 28, he says, "You've got to move sometime. I want a little rest, I guess."

His simple talk is deceptive. He knows both the Latin and common names of the trees, shrubs and flowers at Cylburn -- and how to spell them.

"He's a first-class horticulturist, especially when it comes to urban things. He really knows his business," says Calvin P. Buikema, parks superintendent and Mr. Moudry's boss. "You never have to say, 'Jerry, it's time to plant the tulips or trim the trees or plant the cannas.' He's never needed any direction from me," said Mr. Buikema, who has begun to search for Mr. Moudry's replacement through newspaper ads.

And as a boss, "He's probably the greatest," says Howard Sewell, horticulture maintenance supervisor, who has worked for Moudry for 28 years. "All he asks you to do is get to work on time and do the job to the best of your ability."

Hands-on approach

Mr. Moudry, in charge of the horticulture division's $1 million-a-year operation, doesn't like fancy titles. "Everybody is a laborer," he likes to say.

He still likes to get his hands dirty -- planting some of the trees himself at Cylburn and pruning old yews outside his office with a chain saw. He's also been known to fix a broken toilet in the parks office.

His untidy office at Cylburn was once a sitting room at the old mansion, deeded to the city -- along with the arboretum's land -- in 1943.

The old fireplace is now littered with tools for attaching name tags to trees. A huge map of Baltimore from 1977 -- tacked on the wall behind his desk -- is so faded, the street names are almost illegible. Yellow and black push pins mark 30 black-eyed Susan beds -- no longer existing -- that his crews planted when William Donald Schaefer was mayor in the 1980s.

"Mayor Schaefer loved black-eyed Susans," says Mr. Moudry, who is wearing an old sweater under an old sports coat and has a large ring of keys hanging from his belt. But even those hardy perennials, the state flower, needed watering. Staff cutbacks forced Mr. Moudry to let the beds die.

"You make do with what you have. We are what we are," he says of the city's budget limitations, which have forced him to cut his staff from 60 in the 1960s to 28 today.

When he retires, Mr. Moudry also will leave behind a few hundred BTC books about landscaping, plant propagation, seed inventory, insects, palms, magnolias, weeds and soils. He bought most of the books, which line his office shelves, at used bookstores to save money.

A manual Olympia typewriter -- still used to write memos to other city officials -- sits by the shelves where he keeps photos of his two daughters -- Teresa Krebs, 36, a Baltimore County police officer, and Roberta Moudry, 34, a Cornell University graduate student in the history of architecture and urban studies.

Mr. Moudry lives with his wife, Agnes, at their home in Carney, where he describes his garden only as "a collection of plants."

He grew up in Hamilton, graduated from City College in 1943. After serving in World War II, he got his bachelor of science degree in flora culture and ornamental horticulture at the University of Maryland College Park in 1950.

After working for a few local flower growers, he landed his city job in 1951, growing tropical plants in the Druid Hill Park conservatory when Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. was mayor. Seven years later, Mr. Moudry became chief horticulturist under a newly formed horticulture division of the bureau of parks.

Today, his tour of the city's public gardens is a journey through Baltimore's horticultural history.

Mr. Moudry knows what's there and what used to be there. He also knows what flowers grew in city parks decades earlier -- the picture postcards he collects date to the early part of this century.

Behind Cylburn mansion, where snow and ice cover empty flower beds, he shows a visitor where the annual flowers are displayed each summer, and the holly hedge grows where Norway spruce used to line the garden.

Spring has begun

In the six greenhouses on Cylburn's grounds, spring has already begun. Mr. Moudry shows off 1,000 Easter lily bulbs peering an inch above their pots; 5,000 ivy cuttings to be planted downtown in spring; and 1,000 pots of Pennisetum, an ornamental grass.

He is especially proud of 5,000 to 10,000 cuttings of several colorful plants -- red, pink, yellow, green and white -- used in Inner Harbor beds to make designs and spell words out of the foliage.

From the greenhouses, he drives in his city-issued station wagon to muddy Camp Small, off Cold Spring Lane and the Jones Falls Expressway, where leaf piles the length of a city block are being recycled from city streets. The leaves are composted into

organic matter for flower beds and gardens -- a program Mr. Moudry started in 1965.

Back at the arboretum, he scans dozens of the trees he picked to grow there. Even on a gray day, he admires the leafless trees -- the European beech planted in the 1960s, hybrid chestnuts from the 1970s and an assortment of maples and magnolias.

When he leaves his city job, Mr. Moudry won't be away from Cylburn for long. He plans to work at the arboretum as a volunteer once a week to help the facility's association attach name tags to thousands of trees, and to prune shrubs and trees he hasn't gotten to on the job.

Mr. Moudry says he has no plans to travel or start hobbies.

But he'll continue to enjoy his one hobby -- gardening. "I'm not saying I've got greater things to do. I'm going to keep living, I hope."

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