Forget about robins, the real harbinger of spring is shoveling mulch into flower beds.

Mary Stuart has been out in her yard for weeks now, raking and reseeding the grass, dividing hostas, replenishing the soil and putting mulch in the beds.

"Spring is wonderful if you're a gardener," she says, looking out on her shady yard in Ten Hills that she has adorned with azaleas, holly, Asiatic hybrid lilies and hostas.

This time of year, the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service 24-hour telephone line is logging 1,500 to 2,000 calls a week from gardeners wanting information on everything from how to rid their lawn of gnats to answers on why their yards turned yellow.

"It's incredible," says Jon H. Traunfeld, a regional specialist with the extension service.

Although no one keeps track of how many gardeners there are in Maryland, an estimated 32 million Americans grow vegetables. "And it's definitely on the increase," Traunfeld says.

This year, the gardening season began around Easter, sending gardeners flocking to local nurseries.

"People are tired of being inside and are ready to go out and play," says Carrie Engel, the greenhouse manager at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville.

First came the gardeners buying trees, shrubs, perennial flowers, mulch and grass seed. With a sunny, warm Saturday this past weekend, more gardeners got up their courage to buy tender annuals and vegetables, even though the last frost date for the area isn't until May 15.

Gardening fulfills the primal urge to dig in the dirt and watch things grow. "We get wrapped up in technology, but we like to get our hands dirty," Engel says.

"More people find it relieves their stress," says Rosemary Easley, who has worked 20 years at Garland's Garden Center in Catonsville.

Stuart is one determined to spread the gospel of gardening. The University of Maryland Baltimore County professor has recruited her children and their friends to help with gardening projects in the neighborhood, including sprucing up the yard of a vacant house next door.

Yesterday morning, Stuart strolled through Ten Hills praising her neighbors' azaleas, pointing out wild violets and admiring flowering dogwood.

Gardening is a popular hobby in this West Baltimore community. Stuart and her neighbors have been passing around a book on landscaping tips and are planning to build a path to meander through the gardens of several houses on the block.

As she walks past, one neighbor shouts out to her, "Mary, I've got to ask you about some plants."

Another neighbor pauses from building a patio bench to discuss his plans for new bedding walls.

"A lot of what's wonderful about gardening is the way it builds a sense of community," she says.

Several homeowners in the area are hoping to pass on their enthusiasm to a younger generation by launching a work program to give teens jobs in landscaping and planting.

"It teaches the teen-agers good values and good skills," Stuart says. "It's a way of putting the principles I believe in to work in my own back yard."

Stuart's first experience in gardening was in helping her mother. "I remember helping, but I don't remember liking it," she says.

But after she and her family moved into a house in Hunting Ridge, she began gardening on her own. Inspired by gardens she had seen in England, her first job in that house was to dig a front flower bed which she filled with roses, day lilies and tulips.

"I learned by trial and error," Stuart says. "Gardening is a great opportunity to learn from your mistakes."

Six years ago, Stuart and her family moved into Ten Hills, providing her with a more challenging task of how to beautify a yard shaded by towering trees and a rambling house. She chose to develop a natural-looking landscape, relying on azaleas, hostas and hollies, intermingled with impatiens, foxglove and pansies.

During the winter, Stuart reads gardening magazines and makes her plans. In spring, she executes those plans, allowing herself a $1,000 budget. From the first warm days of spring until Memorial Day, she toils in her yard, eschewing most fancy tools and relying on shovels, a wheelbarrow, a rake and gardening gloves.

The earliest days of the season are spent raking and reseeding the yard. Now is the time for mulching, dividing hostas and planting perennial flowers.

Almost always there is a project to undertake. Last year, Stuart dug up a chunk of her front yard to build a flower bed accented with a goldfish pond. This year, she wants to plant a fern garden under the shade of a pine tree in the front and create a garden of deciduous azaleas in the back.

Her teen-age children, Andrew, Jesse and Elisa Austell, do much of the work.

"There are times when they don't want to help, but they earn money and they can look at a garden and say, 'I've done that.' "

Stuart's husband, Samuel Austell, doesn't share his wife's enthusiasm, "But he's always been a good sport," she says.

After Memorial Day, most of the hard labor is finished and Stuart devotes her time to watering her garden and enjoying the sight of her flowers growing while she rests on her front porch.

For the time being, however, work in her own yard has been set aside so that she might bring order to the yard next door. The long-vacant house was recently renovated, but the yard was in shambles.

Stuart and other neighbors donated flowers and shrubs, and Stuart put her children to work planting. She hopes that the transformation will encourage someone to buy the home.

"I didn't want them to see it like it was and say, 'Oh, how much work,' but instead say, 'What a pretty garden this could be.' "

Planting schedule

The University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service recommends the following planting schedule:

Trees, shrubs can be planted anytime, although spring and fall are best.

Perennial flowers can be planted now until hot weather.

Hardy herbs -- parsley, rosemary, lavender and thyme -- can be planted now.

Fruit plants can be planted now.

Cool season vegetables -- lettuce, peas, broccoli, beans, cauliflower, cabbage and corn -- can be planted now until May 1.

Tender vegetables -- tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash and egg plant -- May 15 to June 1, although tomatoes can be planted until June 15.

Annual flowers can be planted after May 15, although neighborhoods from Baltimore City to the south and east can plant after May 1.

For more information, contact the Cooperative Extension Service, 1-800-342-2507.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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