Floral Oasis In the Midst Of Winter

IT'S March now, and the lily-of-the-valley pips I potted last month are starting to sprout a few embryonic blossoms. Now that the buds are in sight, I keep putting my nose up close to smell that perfect, nothing-but-lily-of-the-valley-will-do smell - but all I smell is dirt, and no lilies. At least not yet. Such is the life of a city gardener, a child of backyard rhubarb and peonies, transplanted to a world of brick walk-ups and feeble light shafts. My garden exists only on windowsills and mantlepieces, in old Bremner wafer cans and castaway teapots.

The mailman must think I have an acre or two hidden away up here. Catalogs from Smith and Hawken, White Flower Farms, Gardener's Eden - the spring editions start stacking up in my front vestibule just after New Year's, as clear a harbinger of warm breezes and daffodils as ever there was. I browse through them the way I used to browse the Sears and Roebuck Wishbook, picking one thing from each page that I'd have if money were no object. The only difference is that, back then, I could make room in my closet for another Malibu Barbie, an extra Betsy Wetsy. Space was no deterrent to my schoolgirl fantasies.

But times, and my life, have changed. Where would I possibly put that composter today? What would I do with the world't finest hedge clippers? And how much good would either be to my windowsill garden, where irises are dwarfs and tomatoes are cherries, where my entire parsley crop can't support one decent salad?

Perhaps it's the vest-pocket nature of my green thumb that entices me to flower shows, year after year. There's something surreal about all that green, all those blooms, at the tail end of winter in a sunless exposition hall - a vision so exactly the opposite of my pot-bound garden - that, try as I might, I cannot resist.

I remember my first flower show perfectly. It was the midwinter doldrums of my freshman year at Harvard. Inside, my first paperwhite bulbs were dying, victims of an overzealous radiator with a mind of its own. Outside, Harvard Square was all slushy quicksand, brown and sloppy. I was trying to cross Mass. Ave., wishing I had hip boots, waiting for a safe moment to broad jump a dingy snowbank, when I spotted a billboard on the side of a bus. ``Spring is here,'' it beckoned. ``Come see.''

So I went. I trekked from subway to shuttle bus to turnstile, and entered a world where April and August mingle, crocus and roses and chrysanthemums, all together. Eden, the way it was meant to be.

The impact is always immediate. My eyes adjust slowly from the light outside to the glimmer of purple grow lamps within. The sound of a trickling waterfall, the humid dampness on my face, the smell of earth and compost all work together to revive my winter-dead senses. Like a frost in September or a balmy day in January, a flower show in March evokes a sense of delight that can only be achieved by experiencing something out of order, ahead of schedule.

Never mind the seams in the sod. Forget the orchid that can't possibly withstand the downdraft. Ignore every sign that tells you it's too much, it can't survive, and it will be gone in a week, when a computer show moves in. Flower shows are all overblown illusion, lilies gilded by the armload. But when I'm at a flower show, I give in to the magic entirely.

I BECOME a peasant who's invaded a secret winter palace of Louis XVI, a stranger in a world where it doesn't matter if those priceless amaryllis fade away by morning - there are more, newer, better, growing off in another palatial greenhouse. As I wander by each exhibit, I itch to train wayward ivy, pinch back geraniums, roll rosemary needles between my fingers and smell their scent under my nails. I don't want just one thing from each page, I want it all.

I suppose that's the difference. Most people go to flower shows for that preview of a season yet to come. For them, the flowers are nice and all, but it's the promise of life beyond the melting snowbanks outside that keeps them coming back.

For me, it's the extravagance. Like catalogs that show wisteria dripping around ancient doorways or hillsides dense with lupine, flower shows excite my desire for gardening gluttony. They make me ponder roofdecks and greenhouse additions. I start scanning the real estate ads for listings that mention mature plantings. After a trip to a flower show, I dream of places I could live that would need a good pair of hedge clippers, and have room for a composter.

Then the bells on my lily-of-the-valley open, and I smell that springtime, junior prom, wedding-day smell. It only takes one stalk in bloom to fill my kitchen and scare away the rest of winter.

That's when I know my windowsill garden will do.

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