Sunday, April 30, 2000

Her flowers power people

From Ireland with love for gardening, Mary Margaret Rochford had nerve to try

        She's surrounded by flowers, but Mary Margaret Rochford says it's not about flowers.

        Oh? This from the president of the Cincinnati Horticultural Society. This from the founder and director of the annual Cincinnati Flower Show. This from a woman wearing a pair of flowered pantyhose?

        What is it about?

[photo] Mary Margaret Rochford
(Enquirer photo)
| ZOOM |
        “It's about bringing people together, families, buses of tour groups, strangers, all bonding over flowers.”

        Flowers indeed. In its 11-year life, the Flower Show has grown into the largest tented flower show in the country. Ms. Rochford has been its only director.

        “It's large, yes, but you know what matters more? Reaction. We get 200 exhibitors who do 50 to 100 shows all over. They know a good show and they say we're one of the best. That's the measure of how far we've come.”

        She's also far from her roots: The oldest of nine children, she grew up in a two-room 15- by 20-foot house in rural Ireland.

        “I would say we were poor but privileged. Wonderful parents, aunts, uncles. We learned to entertain ourselves with poetry, dance, I even learned flute. Not many material goods, but I consider it a truly privileged life.

        “Today, I realize the incredible beauty of the place. But as a teen-ager, I couldn't wait to come to America.”

        Which she did in 1961, moving to suburban Glendale to live with an aunt and study at UC. Now, 40 years later, the Irish brogue is still thick and the rural background is, well, showing.

        Ms. Rochford, 58 going on 22, lives on a farm east of Batavia with husband Fred, her Great White Pyrenees Maurice, horses, geese, a muskrat — “we see it darting through our pond” — and 30 chickens arriving any day.

        “They're exotic pure breeds with beautiful feathers. We're building coops.”

        You mean Fred is? “No, me. I'm no Frank Lloyd Wright, but I know my way around a hammer.”

        Got that old Martha Stewart gene in gear, "eh? “Sometimes. I have a green house and a cold frame so I grow my own salads. It's my stress buster.”

        There's plenty of stress to bust right now, because the six weeks before the show are “around the clock — 24/7, hectic all the time. It's details. Tents, tables, chairs, getting exhibitors parking, lining up locations. It adds up.

        “People always tell me the flower show's a week long, then ask, "What do you do the rest of the year.'

        “Someday, somebody's going to ask me that and the next day I'm going to be wanted for social battery.”

        Getting a little riled, are we? How about 10 fill-in-the blanks if we promise they won't be too rude?

        Build a better show and the world will ...

        I would say learn to share by sharing the joys of gardening. I was raised in a tradition of charity work. My mother had no time, but she gave anyway. I'd like to see more sharing here.

        I'm determined, someday this show will be ...

        How do I phrase this? Have more of a national impact. I've heard people say they consider this the Chelsea (Flower Show) of America, but I never say it. Chelsea's a tradition, our role model. There could never be another Chelsea.

        No. 1 on my Flower Show wish list ...

        Weather. Trite, but true.

        I would like ______ to come to the show because ...

        Ohhhh, there are so many. Probably the President. Whoever's in office, I'm not particular. And I don't want him for us, but to create an awareness of gardening. I'd also like someone to give us a couple million so I can quit budget worrying.

        This is going to surprise people this year ...

        The Pringles Dream Garden. It's a garden for the 23rd century. Big surprise.

        My proudest moment since all this began ...

        There are a few, but No. 1 was getting the endorsement of the Royal Horticultural Society. Such a tribute to a show that started from nothing. We were people without enormous wealth or power. But we did it. We had the nerve to try.

        If I knew in 1990 what I know now ...

        I'd do the same. No regrets. All my sins have been sins of commission, and I'd commit them again. If I rubbed some the wrong way along the way, it's because I felt I was making the best decision at the time.

        One thing I learned doing this ...

        The main things are that you can't count on the weather and that gardening is an endless learning process. You never master it. I'll still be learning the day I'm carried to Spring Grove.

        Most people don't really understand ...

        The incredible number of details. We have volunteers, and the new ones always end up saying, "I had no idea.'

        I'd like to forget ...

        I've forgotten. One of my blessings is when bad experiences come around, I have the ability to forget them completely. A psychiatrist would say I'm burying them. Maybe. But I've had a wonderful life. The Cincinnati Flower Show is in Ault Park; 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; $11, $3 for children.


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