Getting their hands dirty

The Baltimore Sun

A week ago, Bill Snell and Lew Shipp were awaiting what they hoped to be the last blast of winter, hunkered down in their Columbia homes, unable to pursue their respective outdoor passions - gardening and golf.

"I was laying in supplies," Snell recalled yesterday with a hearty laugh. "I made sure I had toilet paper, bread, milk and everything."

The toilet paper might not be gone, but the snow - nearly a foot in some places around the state - is. With temperatures in the area reaching a balmy 76 degrees, according to the National Weather Service, Snell and Shipp and thousands of others in the region were able to participate in activities they hadn't experienced in months.

Snell was deep in dirt planting onions at the Elkhorn Community Garden on Oakland Mills Road, one of three operated by the Columbia Association and encompassing more than 300 plots. Snell was later joined by regulars Bob Orazi and John Prewitt, as well as relative newcomer Mickey Webb.

"It's a little early [in the planting season], but some things you over-winter, like spinach," said Snell, 60, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's animal and plant inspection service. "It's already a green, it just has to grow now. If the weather stays warm, it will grow really fast."

Like most serious gardeners, Snell said the benefits are twofold.

"I think we save a lot of money this way, but I think we eat better, it's more flavorful stuff, and it's fresher," Snell said. "There's a lot of satisfaction in growing your own."

Aside from saving money and eating more healthful food, Prewitt, 85, still comes down to his favorite gardening spot for another reason despite having moved years ago to Ellicott City.

"The fellowship is an important part of the attraction to gardening," he said.

So are the memories.

Orazi, 70, started gardening as a 10-year-old child growing tomatoes, fava beans and peas with his father back home in Woonsocket, R.I.; Prewitt was forced by his father to garden in their hometown of Williamsburg, Ohio, as a means of survival during the height of the Depression.

A licensed Master Gardener who works for the University of Maryland's Home and Garden Information Center, Orazi will volunteer two hours every other Saturday this spring to "help people get started."

Orazi, a former golf course superintendent who helped build Hunt Valley Golf Club in Timonium, said that it is easy to spot a newcomer to gardening. It is not unlike picking out novices on the driving range.

"They usually show up with brand new tools," he joked.

Like the untouched wheelbarrow sitting outside Webb's expansive plot. A former summer event planner at the University of Maryland who now works as one of the directors of the Baltimore Convention Center, Webb said that being cooped up in a Columbia apartment prompted him to try something outdoors.

Driving past the Elkhorn Community Garden four years ago, Webb was taken back to his Tennessee roots. "Being in a small rural area, we had massive gardens," he said. "My grandparents used to put an acre and a half of just sweet potato."

Starting with one of the 25-by-20-foot plots, Webb is now up to three. "I've got a lot of work, but I will have some friends of mine at the University of Maryland trade out some work for some food," Webb said.

While the gardeners were not yet out in force yesterday, the golfers were.

A few miles away, at Hobbits Glen Golf Club, the parking lot was filled, and nearly 150 players had signed up for tee times, making it as busy an afternoon as at the height of the golf season.

"I'm not sure that down a foot it's even thawed yet," said Shipp, a furniture sales representative who lives in Columbia. "I'm going to dig up a lot of day lilies and give them to my church, and they're not going to be able to plant them until the end of March."

On the way from her home in Northern Virginia, Brenda Weisberg had stopped by her mother's home in Silver Spring and even got in a little - very little - gardening before joining her sister-in-law for golf.

"I think I pulled four weeds while the dog was out," Weisberg said.

Shipp surveyed the not-yet green fairways and thought back to last week's snowstorm.

"It's hard to believe that it was just a week ago, given the fact that none of it's here now," Shipp said.

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