A Rosy View Of May Mornings

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Don't waste these spring mornings. It will be hazy, hot and humid in Baltimore before long. There is no reason to linger in bed no matter how good the covers feel.

The dawning hour in springtime is the right hour for a long walk. While pacing across the Cedar Avenue Bridge en route to Druid Hill Park the other day, I realized this is the precise time of the calendar to take the time and smell the roses.

I was off and running. Forget the formal gardens. I found poker-hot splashes of exuberant Baltimore color where I least expected them.

This little exercise in May madness can involve walking along the down-and-occasionally-dirty alleys of Baltimore. Other times I have taken off for the byways of Ten Hills or Roland Park. The latter neighborhood has well-marked backyard paths for walking.

Over the years I have visited some of the great gardens of France, Spain and England. And yet, for the sheer pleasure of flower-looking, I've often been just as satisfied along a Highlandtown back alley, where some truly glorious roses bloom.

The kitchen-window roses pop out at me. The climbing varieties, which nail themselves to old arbors, back porches and garages, are almost passionately beautiful.

These are gaudy fountains of color -- the velvety dark reds, the candy-box pinks, the yellows edged with a trace of salmon.

Sometimes the most untamed and unruly backyard gardens put on the most dazzling displays.

I guess that's the reason I've never really gotten too worked up over the fabled Philadelphia Flower Show and its cousins in other cities. The flower shows are artificial. We just don't live like that.

Give me a row of Peace, Queen Elizabeth or Chrysler Imperial roses tucked in around plastic garbage cans, an outdoor barbecue grill, a stored canoe and a wash line of soggy overalls.

My May walks aren't too planned or structured. I just take the route of the sanitation workers and hope I won't be disappointed. I'm usually not, if I keep at it.

I've seen columbine in back yards far prettier than any in the pages of garden catalogs. One patient Maryland Avenue person has constructed a shrine to the Virgin Mary using clamshells, roses and clematis. It is a remarkable piece of folk art and a remarkable piece of gardening, too.

In other spots I've seen great clumps of pinkish foxglove and purple dame's rocket.

The alleys themselves are patchworks of paving materials. Some are smooth concrete. Many are brick. Whatever covers the surface of the ground, the effect is informal. And talk about inducing memories. What Baltimore child didn't prefer an alley to a playground?

After a while on my walks, it becomes hard not to start imagining the type of person who resides in the rowhouses beyond the gardens. I think of the gardens as a reflection of the personalities who created them.

Does a neatly tended garden mean its master or mistress has never missed a credit-card payment? Does an obsessively tended garden mean the gardener is not someone you'd vacation with? Does a Dog Patch-type garden indicate all sorts of sloppy habits inside the house? Does it all mean anything at all?

Should alley-walkers keep their random thoughts to themselves and just be satisfied with a perfect May morning? Vegetate on that one.

It is nice to think that people take the time and expend the effort to tend a garden. In this world where everybody seems to be chasing the clock or not getting around to something, praise the people who take time for flowers.

Now, a few words about danger. The saints always seem to protect the early-morning alley-walkers from harm. I once ran into a foul-tempered chow on a walk. I'm thankful that he remained on his side of a strong mesh fence. Then again, dogs are supposed to guard back yards.

I've learned with in my alley-walking that it's best to smile and wave at people you meet. Even if you don't know them, you might make them think you do.

A few days ago I walked into a Charles Street book shop and found myself forking over $7 for a glossy magazine featuring the gardens of England and Ireland. Its pages were filled with photographic perfection.

I looked over this glossy publication for an hour and then, in a burst of impulsiveness, got on the phone and wound up spending $26 for three nepeta (catmint) plants from a Connecticut mail-order house.

I later found the same three plants here in Baltimore for $12. But on balance, my time and effort would have been better spent tracking down the roses on a walk. They're the ones that seem to bloom best next to the garbage sacks.

Pub Date: 5/05/96

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