Nurturing the spring

Rebirth: Nursery owner has her hands full as eager gardeners pop out in the warming weather.

April 07, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

The first thing you notice about Betty Baldwin is her hands. They are large, with long, sturdy fingers capable of great tenderness, raw strength and everything in between. These hands are fast, too. Baldwin's nimble fingers can plant almost 7,000 seedlings in a good day. It takes her less than 90 seconds to break 15 "plugs" from a flat, distribute them among market packs and drive in the plastic stakes that identify them.

And, at day's end, Baldwin's hands are very, very dirty. Potting mix is caked under the blunt-cut nails and embedded in the smallest crevices. She swears by a stiff brush and Noxzema for cleaning, as do all the "girls" who work for her, women with hands as fast and capable as Baldwin's.

"Other people may tell you different," she said serenely, her hands never idle. "But I've found that's what works for me."

Spend a day at Betty's Gardens in Baltimore County as it prepares for the busiest season of the year and you will learn all manner of things about what works for Baldwin, whose family has farmed this land bordering Providence Road for five generations.

You will learn, for example, that the "Mother's Day" rule about when to put out plants is a good yardstick, but by no means absolute. Baldwin figures Towson, a few miles to the south, is at least 10 days further into the season, while Jacksonville, to the north, is at least two weeks behind.

You will learn what keeps deer away: nothing. (The deer so dote on hot peppers that Baldwin has taken to planting them around the sweet corn.) You will learn that folks in these parts prefer Big Boy, Celebrity and Sweet 100 tomatoes. That cilantro is one of the trickier herbs. That a label saying a plant needs "full sun" means about six hours a day. That impatiens are this area's perennial annual, always in demand.

"There are other shade flowers you can plant that do as well," said Baldwin, 63. "But nothing else gives you so much oomph."

Tucked away

Few customers find this 20-year-old business by accident. It sits back from the road, with only a small wooden sign to announce its existence. The weekend road closures in the park around Loch Raven Reservoir make it unlikely that "Betty's Gardens" will be discovered on a Sunday drive.

Those who do stumble on it quickly learn that it is not, nor does it pretend to be, an all-purpose gardening center. Betty's Gardens does not sell tools. It doesn't even sell mulch or potting mix. (The brand that Baldwin uses is a soil-free mix developed by a Cornell University professor, a combination of peat, vermiculite and white perlite that is, as worker Kathleen McGuire observed, "much too expensive to be called dirt.")

Single subject

What they sell at Betty's Gardens are plants. Pansies, petunias, geraniums, snapdragons, hydrangeas. Dill, basil, fennel. Tomatoes, in about 10 varieties, from the tried-and-true to a few new ones just to keep things interesting. Cut flowers, for those who can't or won't grow their own.

Baldwin and her first cousin, Pauline Burns - one of the part-timers here since she retired from the Baltimore County Board of Education in 1986 - roamed the nearby woods as children. When they had no money, they made their own wreaths with what they could find. They remember when there were only 10 houses between here and Towson. Their grandfather sold his vegetables and flowers from a truck.

"She was a frustrated sandbox kid," Burns said, by way of explaining how her cousin ended up in the nursery business.

But, inevitable as it may seem, Baldwin did other things before she opened her own nursery. She worked as a head cashier at Acme. She had a job with the state Department of Natural Resources as a smoke-spotter. She spent her days in a tower, watching for forest fires. She loved the job, and was never lonely: A radio kept her in contact with co-workers.

As the woods thinned from development, the need for smoke- spotters waned. Her then-boyfriend, Maurice Baldwin, said: "Didn't you say you would plant chrysanthemums if you ever had time?" She agreed it was a good idea. He showed up the next night with 2,000 chrysanthemum slips, and Betty's Gardens was born. The two later married, but Baldwin died in January a year ago, just a month after their 13th anniversary.

The business inspired by his chrysanthemum slips lives on. Betty's Gardens expanded into floral designs; that "sideline" did 137 weddings last year. The customers tend to be perennials, who bring their own pots, with instructions to "just do what you did last year."

Stu Wilson, a Timonium-area gardener, started going to Betty's Gardens in 1993, after her husband died and she wanted to buy daisies for his grave. Now she buys many of her plants there, including planters for the church she attends.

"She's just so nice," she said of Baldwin. "Everybody there is."

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