A garden blooms in Brooklyn Park Flowers: In the middle of winter, one gardener brightens the chill with vivid color. Of course, she has a secret.

January 04, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Neat rows of beautiful purple, pink and yellow pansies bloom in the back yard. Bright-red poinsettias line the front lawn of the red-brick house on Brooklyn Park's Ninth Avenue.

In the dead of winter, it's a pretty bizarre sight.

Neighbors "ooh" and "ahh" and wonder what the secret is. It's fairly simple. The springtime aesthetics of Gertrude Rhoades' January garden have synthetic roots.

Every fall for about eight years, after the cold has killed the last of her garden's summer flowers, Rhoades plants cloth pansies and poinsettias in their place. She digs them up in the spring when it gets warm enough to plant real flowers again.

"Everybody around here thinks they're real because they don't come over and touch them," said Rhoades, who has lived in Brooklyn Park for 54 years. "They say, 'Man, it must cost you a fortune.' "

Rhoades said she got the idea from a winter trip to Williamsburg, Va., eight years ago when she noticed healthy-looking flowers growing outside some stores.

"I said, 'Are these fresh flowers?' and went over to touch them and then said, 'Gee, I'm going to do that,' " she said. She hunted down cloth pansies in discount stores the moment she returned to Brooklyn Park.

Gardening experts say Rhoades' winter beautification is highly unusual. Sara Epp, who takes gardening calls at the Alexandria, Va.-based American Horticultural Society, said she has never heard of people planting fake flowers but was intrigued by the idea.

"Most gardeners tend to say winter is the time for rest," Epp said. "Some of the serious ones, they need the time to look through catalogs and see what they're going to plant next year."

Doug Harris, director of education at the Burlington, Vt.-based National Gardening Association, said he has heard of only a few people who share Rhoades' practice. Harris, whose association has 250,000 members, said most people who plant fake flowers do it in cemeteries rather than in private gardens.

"It's not something that I would do," Harris said. "We would just encourage using real plants because the link between people and plants and the Earth is really important."

Rhoades, however, has plenty of evidence of her connection to her garden. She brightened with pride as she whipped out the stack of pictures of her garden that she keeps handy. Lovingly, she went through them, pointing out the commanding rows of tall scarlet sage and the pretty periwinkles, zinnias and begonias that form a showcase circle in her backyard when it's warm.

When Rhoades was growing up in Curtis Bay, she said, her family's garden wasn't big.

"It was a rowhouse, and we didn't have much of a yard, but my mother had roses," she said. "I said, 'Gee, when I get married, I'm going to have my own yard and I'm going to plant flowers, but no, I don't want roses.' They're too much trouble."

She began gardening at age 8, watching her mother plant, spray and tend to her roses and gradually helping. She picked up gardening books whenever she had to go to the library for school.

Gardening "gets your mind off the world," she said. "It's good for high blood pressure. It gives me satisfaction in what I'm doing and knowing the neighbors really like it."

Woody Bowen, vice president of the Olde Brooklyn Park Improvement Association, said he loves passing Rhoades' home during cold weather.

"The lady is a blessing," said Bowen, who lives a few blocks away. "It makes you feel good when you drive by and see those flowers in the dead of winter. I'd like to live in the South, where you can grow flowers all year round. But I'll take them as they come."

Rhoades is pleased when she gets comments from appreciative neighbors, but she still professes to be "not too happy" with her cloth flowers.

"My summer garden is much better," she said.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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