Herb festival's 1-year hiatus a bummer for green thumb

April 24, 2004|By Rob Kasper

LIKE A LOT of people who spend weekends in the dirt, I went into a mild state of panic when I heard the news that after 17 years of providing plants and gardening information for the area's soiled masses, the Baltimore Herb Festival was taking a year off.

Where, I wondered, was I going to buy those extra heirloom tomatoes, that Vietnamese cilantro, the bug-repelling pepper plants that I usually snagged at the Memorial Day weekend festival in Leakin Park?

This is a problem because I am a superstitious planter. I prefer to do the same thing, in the same way, at the same time of year. For years my routine has been to arrive at Leakin Park in West Baltimore early on Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend and to buy vegetation the way Imelda Marcos buys shoes, by the wagonload.

My wife would load up on flowers and ferns, and decorative garden fixtures. Feeling that you can never have too many tomato plants, I would snag a few extras. I might not have room for them in the garden or they might duplicate ones in the ground, but show me a well-turned-out tomato plant, and I am just a gardener who can't say no.

So when I questioned Seymour Ponemone, head of the Baltimore Herb Festival board, about the news, I was plaintive, spurting out something like, "Say it isn't so, Seymour!" But Ponemone, along with several other members of the board, confirmed that there will be no herb festival this year.

Ponemone and his associates told me they are taking a year off, because, to put it bluntly, the festival has been getting bigger and the folks running it are not getting any younger. The daylong, rain-or-shine event, which began almost 20 years ago as an afternoon gathering among a handful of gardeners, had grown to a festival that drew 3,000 people and some 60 vendors. It had become, they said, too much for them to handle.

Ponemone sent a letter to members of the "Herb Festival Family" stating that "after much agonizing over the decision, we regret to announce there will be no festival in 2004."

The letter also issued a call for volunteers willing to help organize a festival for 2005. "We'd like to rebuild our board membership with a new generation of enthusiastic folks, create a mutually satisfying relationship with the current Department of Parks and Recreation."

(Ponemone said volunteers can contact him by e-mail at sjponemone@msn.com.)

Stalwart herbalists I spoke with said they may be out of action this year but are confident they will bounce back, stronger than dandelions, next spring.

"We are taking a year off to regroup," said Diane Rogers, the herb festival's publicity chair. She likened the herb festival pause to the one-year hiatus, in 1996, taken by the organizers of Baltimore's Flower Mart. It, too, needed an influx of younger volunteers, she said, and got it resurrecting itself in 1997.

"We have had the same personnel running the show for the last 20 years or so," said Jane Lewis, an Herb Festival board member, adding "none of us were infants when we started."

Speaking for the Department of Parks, Simone McDowell said, "We love to have [the festival] in Leakin Park. We will welcome them back." McDowell said that, like any group using a city park, the herb festival gets a use permit from the department. Running the event is the responsibility of the organizers, she said.

Meanwhile, I started searching for other sources of heirloom tomato plants, strange-colored peppers, herbs, as well as native flora and fauna.

I realize that retail garden centers have oceans of plants. But buying your plants at a big garden center is like buying your coffee beans at a discount grocery barn. You miss the personal touch, the feeling that these plants have been grown especially for you, fulfilling your many gardening needs. Some might call this belief hokum, or a word that begins with "bull." But I remind them that the latter can be a fertilizer and gardening depends on it.

Scott Williams, who with his wife, Lucinda Sebastian, sells fresh lettuce and other produce grown on their Carroll County farm at area farmers markets, told me some vegetable seedlings and potted herbs had shown up at the Saturday morning market at East 33rd and Barclay streets in Baltimore's Waverly neighborhood. (That market is open year-round; others throughout the state open next month and in June.)

Some plants will be sold at Cylburn Arboretum (4915 Greenspring Ave.) on Market Day, May 8, a day that area nonprofit groups set up booths and sell crafts on the grounds. In addition, more plants and herbs will be on sale at Cylburn on June 6, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., said Cylburn's Jane Baldwin. Some of the vendors who have sold plants at the Herb Festival have agreed to be at the June 6 event, she said.

Up in Harford County, plant lovers can buy stock at the Darlington Herb Festival from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 5. Waiting until June to buy tomato plants requires patience, a quality that is hard to come by when you are itching to get your crops in the ground. Nonetheless, I will probably snag a few plants in June. It will get me out of my usual gardening rhythm. But it will also give me another tool every gardener values, an excuse to pull out if the crop fails.

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