Digging Spring

At Baltimore Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Druid Hill Park, everyone is getting out the garden gloves and preparing for a season of blooms.

March 19, 2001|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

As March blusters outside the greenhouse, four children huddle over tiny cuttings of Cuban oregano. They pour water into an ashy-colored growing medium, poke at it with fingers and pens, giggle. Directing their efforts is a tiny woman with hair the color of dark rich potting soil and a face furrowed in concentration.

Kate Blom is the greenhouse supervisor here at the Baltimore Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Druid Hill Park. This time of year she's mostly waking things up, getting tulips and other spring bulbs ready for the annual spring show. For the past month, however, she's also been introducing Renay Battle, Tukoria Bette and Barbara Scofield to the world of green and growing things. Today the Westside Elementary School students will plant broccoli and nasturtium as well as transplant tomato seedlings. Along the way, they will also spend time spilling water, horsing around and learning painful lessons about cactus.

Things are as they should be, Blom says. The horticulturist knows that cultivation takes time -- and that each plant has its own way of growing. Her role is merely to plant seeds in these children from the Kids on the Hill after-school program. Already the girls have become proprietary about their projects, and they remember what she told them last time about what roots do. She can see their curiosity stirring, sending out shoots. This week they even persuaded a boy, Lamaar Dedmon, to join them.

For Blom, it's one more sign of spring, of new growth. This is high production time for plants and the people who take care of them. The conservatory's annual feast of lilies, tulips and other spring flowers -- scheduled for April 7 through 22 -- is less than a month away. The cold-storage shed has shelf upon shelf of shoots from potted bulbs waiting to be moved into the warmth and light of the conservatory. Weeks ago, Blom awakened the bulbs by planting them. Now it's time for the next stage, the home stretch into blooming.

First into the light will come the tulips, which take the longest to bloom, then the daffodils, then the hyacinths, which flower most quickly of all. The horticulturist has planned this public banquet so the plants will flower together.

It's her second spring at the conservatory. This time last year, Blom barely managed to ready the elegant 19th-century Palm House, which underwent extensive lead abatement, for the spring show with the help of dozens of staff and volunteers. That event was her first major flower display.

Her career has been circuitous, she says. One decision has watered the next, directing her along unexpected paths. Blom embraced the world of horticulture only after 21 years of selling real estate ads for the Washington Post. Heeding the urge for change, she apprenticed in a nursery, took gardening courses and worked with a horticultural therapist at Sheppard Pratt. Then she traveled up and down the East Coast, studying dozens of gardens. She worked as head propagator at Bluemount Nurseries in Monkton, helping to develop 25,000 plants a week.

In 1999, she came to Druid Hill Park to tend its greenhouses and keep watch over Baltimore's last conservatory. Since then, she has helped take care of tropical plants and desert gardens, worried about orchids and Ponderosa lemon trees.

And she has dedicated herself to strengthening the city institution not only as a horticultural center but also as a place where volunteers can rediscover the rewards of the soil and kids can watch life take shape.

Spring at the conservatory is about adjusting plant diets, keeping a lookout for new buds and pruning to accelerate growth. It emphasizes the conservatory's sense of mission.

Chris Jeschke, a staff member for 27 years, describes the work as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The plants give oxygen to the humans, he explains, and the humans return the favor with carbon dioxide. His workplace is about the interdependence of living things, he says. It's about celebrating life's connections as much as its diversity.

And it's always about the next season.

In her mind, Blom is already thinking about the design puzzle of the summer flower beds of the botanical gardens. What arrangement of ageratums, begonias, coleuses, celosias, geraniums, fuchsia, French marigolds will look most appealing, most soothing, to a heat-parched city? Part of her duty in March is to dream the colors of August.

The other part is entwined in the lengthening tendrils of light and warmth -- and the possibilities they bring. Inside the greenhouse, Blom shows off plans for the conservatory expansion, construction she hopes will begin this summer. Outside, shivering, she picks through a clump of dead stalks to find the green tips of spring pushing up, millimeter by millimeter. Just over the hill at the Baltimore Zoo, you can hear birds calling, strong and eager.

"Spring is here," the horticulturist says. "Everyone's getting happy, including the people."

A new beginning

The Spring Flower Show is scheduled for April 7 through 22 at the Conservatory in Druid Hill Park near Gwynn Falls Parkway and McCulloh Street. Those interested in volunteering to help with the conservatory's many different activities should call 410-367-3800.

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