Secret garden blooms in fall

Davidsonville farmer plants memorial

October 22, 2006|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,Special to The Sun

Every year, Bill Doepkens steps out of his clodhoppers and into his artist's smock to surprise his friends and neighbors with a floral wonder: his one-of-a-kind chrysanthemum mural.

Composed of all 85 varieties of mums raised on his family's Davidsonville farm, what he calls his "field art" is spread across a third of an acre. Over the past decade, his creations have included a hummingbird, a rooster, a horse and a swan.

The 11th annual incarnation is among his most personal.

Similar to one he designed to honor his father in 2000, the mural of 2,500 flowers features a big golden heart with a lavender cross in the center. The heart is banked by two full-bloom roses made of mums. A white light spreads out from the cross, and Doepkens gave it a 3-D effect with a flying dove.

"I call it `My Mother's Golden Heart' in honor of my mom, who passed away in February," says Doepkens.

Keeping with tradition, the design had been a secret until the blooms began to unfold earlier this month. Doepkens figures that after all the planning and installation, he deserves to have a little fun, too.

In early spring, he lays out his grand design on grid paper, deciding where each flower variety with its subtle color differentiation will appear.

Then, using bamboo grown on the farm and yards of string, Doepkens lays out a grid on the ground and assigns each variety a number. In May, several friends help Doepkens plant the thousands of tiny cuttings.

While the mums grow unnoticed throughout the summer, he goes about running the farm, raising beef cattle, hens and peacocks ("for fun," he said).

Flowers are the cash crop.

In his spare time, he has had one-man photography shows in Annapolis and Baltimore, lends his tenor to the Washington Chorus and does floral design, juggling orders for his dried floral arrangements for weddings and special events throughout the year.

But his favorite artistic expression is his field art.

Over the years, the experiments in color, texture and timing have grown increasingly intricate. Last year the mural took the form of a large butterfly, and Doepkens used early-season blooming mums to represent a butterfly's pupa stage. Mid-season-blooming mums produced the wings and late-blooming mums completed the picture.

"[In the spring] I think about when they bloom and the shapes and the 15 shades of purple," Doepkens said, "but it's even pretty when they all die. The leaf shape and shades of brown are like looking at a negative."

The best view of the mural is from a small airplane. But since acquiring a plane is easier said than done, Doepkens says the next-best view is from Rossback Road, running along a ridge next to the farm at the intersection of Routes 50 and 424.

Brenda Jackson of Davidsonville said she and her neighbors near the farm take turns guessing what the mural design will be. This year, Doepkens outdid himself by honoring his mother, who "was the farm," Jackson said.

"It made such a wonderful, simple connection," she said. "I was in awe."

The explosion of color mingling with the nostalgic setting of the rolling countryside captures the charm of a Currier & Ives print, except this landscape comes with the rich aromas of farm animals and tilled earth.

The farm was established in 1922 by his grandparents, Heinrich and Elisabeth Doepkens, who settled on property that was once part of the 600-acre Middle Plantation.

The 200-acre farm was passed on to Bill's parents, William and Marjorie Doepkens, then to Bill, who never married.

In the autumn, Doepkens Farm is decorated with pumpkins, gourds, corn and wheat. The trim white farmhouse overlooks a rainbow of potted mums and a field of "U-dig" mums for the shovel-wielding and budget-conscious.

The Farm Shop is filled with pumpkins and gourds of every size and stripe. Bunches of dried flowers hang from the beams, and Doepkens' beautiful handmade dried hydrangea wreaths and tabletop arrangements crowd the shelves and walls.

Most of Doepkens' help is part-time except for Mollie, the farm dog, who decided long ago that chasing after the farm tractor would be her job.

Tom Gautheir, Doepkens' cousin from Milwaukee, is helping in the shop selling eggs, peacock feathers and SUV loads of chrysanthemums in varieties with such names as "Regina," a red daisy mum; "Regal Cherry," a dark lavender, and "Marjorie," a beautiful purple.

When mum season is over, sometime around the end of this month, the farm closes for three weeks before opening a Christmas shop.

For more information about Doepkens Farm, call 410-721-2739.

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