Tiptoeing through a rite of spring

Baltimoreans buy an estimated 20,000 tulip bulbs at annual Sherwood Gardens dig

May 27, 2007|BY A SUN REPORTER

John Payne arrived at 6:30 a.m. - half an hour early - to set up, only to gaze upon the "Sooners," who were already filling plastic bags, wagons and buckets with tulip bulbs.

The early birds have become as much a tradition as the annual excavation in Sherwood Gardens in Baltimore.

"A lot of these are repeat people," said Payne, a volunteer with the Guilford Association, which sponsors the dig. "They start coming at dawn."

By 7 a.m. yesterday, the formal start of the dig, people had paid Payne for more than 125 bulbs they had removed. And he was only one of several people strategically stationed in Sherwood to assist the public.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption accompanying an article in Sunday's Maryland section incorrectly reported the location of Sherwood Gardens in North Baltimore. It is in Guilford.

It was anticipated that up to 20,000 bulbs would be removed yesterday from the community garden in northern Baltimore. And while that is a lot, it represents only a fraction of the estimated 70,000 tulip bulbs planted there annually.

David Fidler has been removing bulbs from Sherwood and transplanting them at his Baltimore home for more years than he can recall. Gardening, he said yesterday, is "very relaxing, and it's mindless. The results come fairly quickly if you keep at it."

A friend, Linda Phelps, said the fruits of yesterday's work would not be obvious for nearly a year.

"First, I will lay them out in my garage," she said. "When the leaves turn yellow and fall off, I will place the bulbs in a pair of pantyhose until they dry."

They will be planted in October or November, Phelps said, and bloom next spring, beginning around mid-April.

"I've done this several years," said Joseph King of Baltimore, as he removed the last of the Rosy Wings, which were among the five dozens bulbs he excavated yesterday. "I'm sort of in replacement mode now - if some don't come up, I come back and get some more."

He jokingly characterized gardening as an "old man's disease," and said he has been the beneficiary of several disappointments.

But, King predicted, "I'll get it right sooner or later."

Sherwood Gardens covers about 7.5 acres, and in the spring it explodes into a kaleidoscope of colors as the tulips and azaleas bloom.

Each Saturday before Memorial Day, after the flowers have faded, the Guilford Association sponsors the dig, said Bruce Barnett, a professor of physics at the Johns Hopkins University and the head of the association's tulip committee.

People come bearing shovels and gloves and are permitted to remove as many tulips as desired, at 25 cents a bulb.

"Typically, we bring in between $3,000 and $4,000," Barnett said. "But it costs us $17,000 to $18,000 to buy the new ones, so we're not making money."

But making money is not the idea. The organization is intent on maintaining Sherwood Gardens, founded in 1927 by John W. Sherwood, a petroleum pioneer and conservationist, as a beautiful and inviting place, Barnett said.

In 1989, the organization supported Barnett's suggestion of forming an "adopt a plot" program, by which a person plants annuals that bloom in the summer and tulip bulbs in the fall, and weeds and waters them when necessary.

Although Sherwood's reputation has hinged on the tulip, Barnett said it would be only a memory by the time yesterday's dig ends at noon.

"At 11:59, it's a flower," he said. "At 12, it's a weed."

Until next spring, with the collective bloom of tens of thousands of tulips.

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