Fast approaching the moment flower-lovers live for all year, the city's Sherwood Gardens -- and its 80,000 tulips -- is about to become a rhapsody in bloom.
"If there's a password for this garden, it's welcome," Lois Jones, a 72-year-old resident of Guilford, told 10 women from the Mount Royal garden club Tuesday as she led them past rounded beds of color that resembled splashes on an artist's palette.
The latest flower fashions from the Netherlands, 37 kinds, are in this urban arcadia in North Baltimore.
Like gardens of lore and literature, this one has a story, secrets and a life that nobody knows completely.
It started in the 1920s as a labor of one man's love, and now is beloved not only by Guilford neighbors whose dues largely support the $70,000 annual budget, but also by city residents and tourists who make it a point to see it "fair lovely in the spring," to borrow from the children's classic "The Secret Garden."
"I've met people from dozens of other countries," Mary Ellen Whitman, 57, of Guilford said during a stroll.
One day in the life of the garden this week, a college sophomore sat under a tree studying, three small girls frolicked and played hide-and-seek and a boy walked around in a Batman costume: "He thinks he's the real thing," said Marianne Walsh of her 3-year-old son, Aidan.
Meanwhile, a retired schoolteacher walked her German shepherd, Max; a family of four picnicked on bagels; and seven biologists from a research lab on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus talked about chromosomes over lunch.
'A European garden'
"I feel like I'm in a European garden," said Jackie Williams, 56, taking care of two children. "The nice thing about Baltimore for me as a [native] New Yorker is that you can be in the heart of the city, a short walk from Charles Street, and be in another world."
Such scenes and interludes are John Sherwood's gift to the life of the city, three decades after the oil-company owner's death at age 94 in 1965.
Part of the garden once belonged to Sherwood's brick-mansion estate overlooking Guilford Park. Jones, a member of the Guilford Association's garden committee, tells the legend of how the garden became public: "One afternoon, his gardener came to him and said, 'There must be 100 people wandering around your garden.' Mr. Sherwood said, 'They're not harming anything. Let them look.' "
That "was the beginning of the tradition of welcome," she said.
The absence of fences, barriers and rude interruptions in the landscape is part of the charm, say many who go there. In 1967, Sherwood's heirs added to the 4 acres of Guilford Park by selling 3 acres to the Guilford Association to keep his garden going.
"It's very nicely integrated" between private and public property, said Rowland Morrow, 73, the lawyer who heads the garden committee and helps make the tough tulip decisions every year.
He said the city contributes $12,000 annually to the upkeep, and corporate sponsors give $8,000. Neighborhood dues and fund raising make up the remaining $50,000. "Sunday in the Park," a family fun fair, will take place from noon to 4 p.m. May 4.
Fresh bulbs are planted every fall "to guarantee a spectacular bloom," said Morrow. The public is invited to a "Tulip Dig" every spring, this year the morning of May 24. For $1 per five bulbs, people may bring shovels and dig up bulbs.
After tulip season, the casual cheer of annuals takes over. "It used to be the tulips lay barren all summer," said Hopkins physics Professor Bruce Barnett, 53, who walks through on his way to work. "I thought that was kind of ugly."
So in 1990, he started the adopt-a-plot program, which invites gardeners to plant whatever flowers they wish. The program seeks more volunteers for this summer.
A spot on the list
New tulips are planted every year, except in one small but special bed that "stays the same," Jones said. That one has the Sherwood Garden Tulip, named for the gardens and on the official "classified list of tulips" in the Netherlands since 1990.
The Sherwood tulip's deep pink practically does a dance in the distance from all angles of the park, and it has the only perfectly round bed in the gardens, at the end of the formal French allee, alley in English, that makes up a long green path.
As if to add to the magic, a hand-lettered sign beckons visitors to "Come see my parrots and birds" and points to a home across the street with a sun porch with 40 cockateels swinging and chirping.
The "birdman" of Guilford, as Dr. Ed Johnston, 72, has become known, often parades his pet macaw Margaret, whose feathers are a brilliant blue, through the gardens on weekends.
Touches of Sherwood's spirit grace the grounds beneath the weeping cherries, dogwoods and horse-chestnut trees. His favorite color was white, Jones explained, which is why there are wavy borders of narcissi and bell-like snowflakes.
The 'bridal stone'
Remaining in plain view is a small stone, known as the "bridal stone," where brides who were Sherwood family friends stood for wedding portraits.
"We tried to keep him here," said Jones, who with "the garden's guardian angel," Anne Hopkins, oversaw restoration of the garden in the 1980s. "His [gardens] were formal; he didn't sow wildflower seeds."
Pub Date: 4/25/97