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Ledyard - The hardware half of Holdridge Home & Garden Showplace shows signs of a winter wearing out its welcome: picked-over shelves of salt spreaders, hand warmers, portable propane heaters, heavy-duty gloves. Two lonely packs of ice-gripping shoe attachments are left. The salt is long gone.
But next door: Spring, not a moment too soon.
Inside the greenhouse, the thermostat was set to 58 degrees, but Monday afternoon's sunshine bumped it up another 12 - so warm that the vent fans were whirring. Tables were lush with palms, ficus and orchids. Outside, plowed parking-lot snow piled up 20 feet high; inside, looking up, the ice pack audibly cracked under the sun's heat, crumbling violently down the slants of the corrugated roof.
A small spread of coffee, muffins and cookies and neat rows of tables and chairs were meant for donors to a Presidents Day blood drive, canceled last-minute because of a faulty Red Cross bus.
"We said, well, there's no sense in wasting it," said store manager Tom Shaffer.
So the donor recovery area became an impromptu celebration of spring's imminence - a reminder that while 31 days may seem like a lifetime outdoors, in here, they've already flown by.
"It's like walking into a tropical paradise," Shaffer said. "People walk in and breathe a sigh of relief."
Deb Figarsky, 57, of Narragansett, R.I., made the trip over to help her sister - whose green thumb doesn't extend to indoor plants - repot her rubber trees. Ramona Greenwood, 56, a second-grade teacher from Griswold enjoying her fifth day off in a row, also picked up a pair of bonsai shears and a single packet of picotee blue morning glory seeds - the latter, with its image of a single deep-indigo bloom, to put on optimistic display.
"It's gloom and doom out there, so we came to brighten our day," Figarsky said.
Shaffer said that within a couple of weeks, shipments of hundreds of fruit trees will start to come in, hard as it may be to picture them populating the white wasteland that is the neighboring nursery. And shortly after that, Holdridge's will host its annual flower show - the official winter sendoff.
"In our world we're starting to gear up for spring already," he said.
This time of year, business usually shifts over to the hardware department. But the winter doldrums are starting to pay off in the greenhouse, Shaffer said. The harder and longer the winter, he said, the busier it starts to get. More hours of light add up and raise hopes.
And then there are the regulars who come in without a shopping list, Shaffer said, just to chat and thaw.
"They say, 'We just needed to come in and see some color,'" he said.
Lisa Hilbert, 56, and Doug Gebhard, 55, of Mystic, came to replenish her birdseed stock and entertain dreams of a new grill.
Gebhard, a biologist, insisted that the snow of a "true winter" like this one is good for the spinach he plants every St. Patrick's Day - advice handed down from his farmer great-grandparents.
Hilbert, a job coach for people with disabilities, sticks to her birds and her flowers, while Gebhard plants the vegetables.
"And everything she asks me to do in the flower garden," he added.
John Tierney, 81 and his wife, Laurel, 80, came from Old Lyme looking for black oil sunflower birdseed.
"It's nice to have birds around," Laurel Tierney said. "It gives us something to look at besides the snow."
The couple has been purchasing supplies here for decades for her garden, where she grows tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, leeks, oregano and parsley. Now that her husband is retired from his engineering job at Electric Boat, he helps turn over the dirt.
On Monday, too, he was simply along for the ride, and happily.
"It's just something to do on a winter day," he said.