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GARDENING

Patios, walkways, and plants give fresh perspective

Long winters are nothing new here and The New England Spring Flower Show, which completes its nine-day run on Sunday, has been a spring tonic for housebound garden lovers for all of 134 years.

Thousands of volunteers have contributed flower arrangements and plants, but the heroes are the exhibitors who create the illusion of spring indoor gardens with green lawns and trees that have been tricked into blooming way ahead of schedule. Because few landscape businesses can afford to expend so much effort and money annually, the exhibitors change each year and you never know quite what to expect.

This year's event could use a few more major exhibitors, but several talented landscape designers make the show worth seeing. Almost all the gardens are densely planted with uncommon specimens. Immense botanical variety has replaced the colorful but repetitious flower beds of the past. Buy the $2 plant list and take time to read the plant labels because you won't have a better opportunity to put together a gardening wish list this year.

That said, imaginative stone paving is one of the newest trends. Many gardens feature natural rock surfaces pieced together like jigsaw puzzles, the most impressive being Michael Mazur's plaza of 4,000-pound slabs for Earthworks of Leverett. Other designers played rounded river stones against squared-off granite, bluestone, and antique cobblestone for textural contrast. Karen Howard even substituted tumbled green glass from recycled wine bottles for gravel.

Another trend is the California concept of the garden as an ''outdoor living room" with terraces (that used to be called patios), fireplaces, and furnished arbors, pergolas, and garden houses. Outdoor buildings have replaced water features as the focal points of many exhibits.

Most of the best exhibits line two concentric circles near the main South Entrance. This is good news to those who just want to hit the highlights and get out in 45 minutes while other visitors wander for hours, trying to see everything.

The first great garden brackets the South Entrance. Gifted James Hohmann of Mahoney's Garden Center has designed a rustic spa-like retreat modeled after those in the Northwest with a dramatic stone path up an artificial hill to a pavilion.

If you turn left after entering the show, you can stroll the outer circle around Mahoney's with the Bartlett Tree Expert's birch woodland on your right. Mossy logs, native wild flowers and ferns unfurling amid brown fall leaves are gathered around a peaceful pond stocked with brown trout, though the subtle naturalism is undermined by a rim of pink azaleas that seems added to jazz things up.

Keeping the pond on your right, you'll come to Heimlich Nurseries' waterfall with its budding dogwood trees. This Woburn family nursery has been in the flower show every year since the 1930s, and this looks like one of their best efforts.

Next to that is the A&P Orchids' display of waxy rare specimens grown to preposterous perfection. Straight ahead is a bright-yellow snowplow that kids can sit in. It's pushing away a pile of artificial snow and winter itself while spring flowers sprout in its wake. This crowd-pleaser was designed by Tom Strangfeld, known for his past flower show designs for Weston Nurseries and now new director of horticulture for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Look inside the hollow log for the hibernating bear and consider leaving some cut-up fallen logs on your own property. As mossy landscape features, they work as well as rocks and feed the soil, too.

On the right is a charming large garden by Greener Landscaping Inc. On the left are illuminated day and night gardens by Our Home, Our World, followed by outdoor sculptor Jill Nooney's whimsical assemblage of cross sections of dead trees. Instructive plant combinations are tucked around. Next door, Wilson Farms of Lexington puts on its game face with a humorous floral tribute to the champion Red Sox and Patriots. The Fenway scoreboard replica made an appropriate backdrop for exhibiting the World Series trophy last Sunday.

Peter R. Sadeck has featured fantail pigeons in past landscapes, but this time he's brought his entire bird collection. Look right to find his black Australian swans and perky Mandarin ducks swimming freely on a pond while pheasants, pigeons, doves and quails roost in an aviary.

Turn right and continue around this beautifully planted landscape and you'll be facing the Irish Castle Garden, MassHort's blockbuster central exhibit. Designed by Jim Foster & Co. of Shrewsbury with funding by Tourism Ireland, it includes a 12-foot-high replica of an Irish castle turret planted with Irish moss. Head counterclockwise around this exhibit, and the wild-looking sweeps of brilliantly hued Irish rhododendron (not hardy here) will transform into a gorgeous formal garden of peonies and blue delphiniums framed by antique art nouveau nymphs that Foster calls ''my Irish girls."

Complete the inner circle at Bill Knight's outdoor living room garden with its massive ochre fireplace, then look behind it to find a gem of a garden by Howard Garden Designs Inc. of West Newton and Weston Nurseries of Hopkinton. Howard has designed a small space filled with choice plants and ideas for the homeowner, including three creative water features. Mazur's weighty Earthworks exhibit is at the end of this hall.

From here you can head back to the entrance, or wander at will to find your own highlights. There are two demonstration stages, constantly changing fresh flower arrangements by members of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts and others, plus exhibits on handmade flowerpots, a lecture pavilion with places to sit, Roseland Nursery's garden of blooming 2005 rose introductions, an art exhibit by members of the newly formed New England Society of Botanical Artists, and plants galore provided by amateur growers and plant societies, including a showy wall of bromeliads. A fascinating exhibit titled Central Artery Tunnel Project Surface Restoration gives a detailed preview of three new downtown parks adjacent to the North End, the Wharf District, and Chinatown. And there's a tribute to the late horticulturist Allen C. Haskell by his son David featuring a video, some of his plants, and his many flower show awards.

This year's show theme, ''A Fresh Perspective," reflects the changes at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, which has produced this year's show under the direction of a largely new staff and a new director, Thomas Herrera-Mishler.

But exhibitors do pretty much what they want, no matter what the year's theme is. So the ''fresh perspective" is most evident in new special events. These include a ''Brides & Blooms" event Saturday, 1-4 p.m., featuring a bridal fashion show and floral trends.

Today there's a St. Patrick's Day celebration from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. with step dancing, garden lecturers from Ireland, and authentic live music, sponsored by Tourism Ireland, which promotes both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, as a result of the Good Friday Agreement three years ago between the Irish Republic and Great Britain. ''It's the first nonpolitical political thing that has gotten the north and the south together," said a spokeswoman, Kathryn Hayes, ''which they haven't been able to do in 500 years, and now they're doing it through tourism!"

The New England Spring Flower Show is open today and tomorrow 10 a.m.-9 p.m, Saturday 9 a.m.-9 p.m., and Sunday 9 a.m.-6 p.m. at the Bayside Exposition Center in Dorchester. Adults are $20 weekends, $17 weekdays. Seniors 65 and older are $14 every day. Children ages 4-12 are $7. For more information, visit www.masshort.org.

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