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Class of '97 shows its stuff, and the gardener is so proud

Throughout a wet winter and a spring that's been so cool only a gardener could be happy, I've been anticipating this week of the year.

This is the time when I cut the season's first roses, the ones that mix so well with the patch of pink coral bells.

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This is the time when much of what I planted last spring and fall, and many other Mays and Octobers ago, bursts out in vivid colors.

This is graduation day for my garden.

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There's been a lot of preliminary work and a couple of false starts. I think back to March 23, a fine and sunny Palm Sunday. The yard was full of yellow daffodils and a few very early tulips. I was gazing out the kitchen window, surveying the scene, when an alley rat popped through a drain pipe and meandered through the beds. For the next few days, my rodent friend spent his spring vacation in the drain. He even popped out again when friends called the day before Easter.

After a tormenting winter, the return of color is a welcome as an unexpected federal tax refund. Over these years, I've improvised a flower-bed strategy to accommodate Baltimore's weather, a tip that I'll share.

I've found that a garden that puts on an early show in April and May is a device that extends the blooming season nicely. It is also a way around the worst heat of late July and August, when even the best gardens look as if they've been run under a lighted blowtorch.

Before the heat and humidity set in, my beds are full of forget-me-nots, whose vivid blue blooms look like little puffs of azure confetti. Another great find is springtime phlox, which spreads like crazy and supplies great color in late April.

And if there isn't torrential rain to bend then down, foxglove will stand straight and tall and provide another dividend of an early spring garden.

Of course, every party has a few crashers. Spiderwort is mine. It arrives punctually, along with the roses and the coral bells, a low, stalky plant many would consider an invasive weed. I say I'm going to get rid the stuff, but it's much more tenacious than the rat. Spiderwort always returns.

As a child we called this little monster Widow's Tear, a Victorian-sounding name that I never understood, until I visited Ladew Topiary Gardens in Baltimore County last year and was educated by guide Nancy Boyce.

She, too, referred to this violet-colored bloom by that old-fashioned nickname. But she quoted an aunt who supplied a plausible explanation. This is a plant whose bloom pops open during periods of sunlight -- like the widow who starts crying only when there's an audience present to take pity on her plight.

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I bet spiderwort would grow in a section of my garden I call Death Valley. Nothing prospers in this one corner; only a few things struggle on. It's a place I've tried some of the toughest, meanest plants. Most disappear. Others make a pathetic go of it, but obviously are not happy.

My mother's garden had a Death Valley, too, a sunny place intersected by a frail wire fence. But she knew why its soil was infertile. She once used the fence to dry an old blanket she'd cleaned with some chemical brew she mixed up to get rid of black tar spots that appeared when the throw was taken on a picnic. The chemicals dripped down and ruined the soil.

The damaged site was on the property line and vexed a neighbor who also gardened. She told him how it had happened, and the two of them continued to try to make the spot work. They both died before anything flourished there.

Ironically, my Death Valley is just a few feet from my best producing rose bush, the Queen Elizabeth, whose clear pink blooms are the signal that one phase of the spring garden is ending and another beginning.

When this rose blooms, it means the lilies, day lilies, white hydrangea, daisies and larkspur aren't far behind. My mood improves and I arrive at work late. I hate to leave my little corner of "June Is Bustin' Out All Over."

This show continues until August, when the heat and drought drive out the delicate colors. The weeds thrive under these conditions. I start rearranging my geranium pots to hide the bald spots.

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And I look back with envy on the first week of June.

Pub Date: 6/01/97



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