Mister Mum

Mums Field Depicting a Peacock
A view of Bill Doepkens's 2,500-chrysanthemum peacock on his Davidsonville farm. He farmed tobacco until 1992, when he decided "I didn't want to do that my whole life." (Michael Robinson-Chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 7, 2005

Behold the humble mum, workhorse of the hothouse. It is autumn's pompom, the squat, flowering plant best known for sitting vigil at Thanksgiving, for filling in at budget weddings, for standing ready, at the grocery, to bail out a remorseful son who just remembered, at 11:30 p.m., his mother's birthday.

Yet every fall, the Mum Man gives chrysanthemums their moment.

On his old family farm in Anne Arundel County, Bill Doepkens turned 1,500 of them into a sweeping, strutting rooster one year; 1,300 became an exultant sunburst another fall; 2,500 mums, planted across his "green canvas," became, this year, a paisleyed peacock's tail. Last year, a massive watering can. Two years ago, an enormous swan with cattails and a setting sun.

Each display is like a gigantic, needlepointed pillow, and each is embroidered by Doepkens, a 48-year-old farmer from Davidsonville who, for the last 11 years, has found himself in the grip of this great, flowering obsession.

"It's 'plant-by-number,' " he says, modestly playing down the creativity required to turn these mums into marvels: He sketches, plots, blueprints and color-codes, and every Memorial Day weekend sees him, a few friends and his mother, who is now 80, planting a third of an acre of mums, in an oversize grid. "We do!" he insists and shrugs, stuffing his hands into a padded denim jacket, his eyeglasses protected from the autumn rain by a New Holland trucker hat. "We plant by number."

He was born and grew up here, on the 200-acre Doepkens farm, where tobacco fields and a few milk cows for the household had sustained the family since the 1920s. Doepkens's dad, William the elder, grew up here, too, and both men attended the same tiny Davidsonville Elementary, and both had the same first-grade teacher. When Doepkens finished high school, he returned to the farm -- the only one of the five Doepkens children to do so -- to work alongside his dad "every day," says his mother, Marjorie. "He got all his education from his father, handed down."

He also got his father's looks, and "he's like his father," Marjorie Doepkens says. "If he's interested in something, he puts his full effort into it. He can't do anything halfway."

Take, for example, the bugs. In frames marching around a room off the farmhouse kitchen hang hundreds of neatly pinned insects, each carefully preserved by the father. "He was bound and determined," says his son, "to collect every bug on the farm." There are intricately colored cecropia moths; mourning cloak butterflies and others colored yellow, blue and turquoise; fiercely armored beetles ("Aren't they wild?" Doepkens asks, staring. "Like something out of a 'Star Wars' movie"); plus grasshoppers, bumblebees, wasps, praying mantises and "every generation of the 17-year locusts."

Or take the trees. When the cloverleaf was built at Route 50 and Davidsonville Road, about a quarter mile from the Doepkens farm, his father spent years in the 1960s surrounding the on- and off-ramps with tens of thousands of trees. Included were 50,000 white pines and oaks. Some of the trees he raised; others were provided by the state. In one Annapolis newspaper article, Willie Doepkens was credited with planting "more than 100,000 trees over the years."

The small forest by the road is mature now. "Every time, coming home on the highway," Bill Doepkens says, "when I see the trees, it's like, 'There's Daddy.' "

Which is where the flowers come in.

Until 1992, tobacco was the farm's main cash crop, but a stroke had sidelined Doepkens's father; the farm's longtime workers were getting old, too, and Doepkens himself suffered from nicotine poisoning: Working the fields got his clothes "covered in black tar" and made him "sick at night." He finally decided, "I didn't want to do that my whole life."

So he began shifting the farm toward flowers. He now makes his living from "sunflowers, glads, oriental lilies, zinnias, coxcomb -- bleh! You name it" as cut beauties in the summer. He sells fresh eggs from about 100 laying chickens. And in the fall he's got dig-your-own and already-dug mums, plus pumpkins, gourds, Indian popcorn and dried gomphrena and statice, and for Christmas there are apple gourds and wreaths. He raises hay on 40 acres and owns 48 head of Red Angus beef cattle.

But he's always been more than a farmer. "We know when Billy's out on the tractor because he's singing all the day long," his neighbors used to say, and today he sings tenor in the Kennedy Center's Washington Chorus. He's a man in denim overalls who articulates his greatest desire as this: "Stand back and just let me create. Don't put any restrictions on me."

Though a series of mini-strokes continued to affect his father throughout the 1990s -- and continued to affect Doepkens himself -- "We were inseparable," he says, "so it was really hard seeing him get sick" -- Willie Doepkens was still around to see Bill Doepkens's first mural, in 1995, when the sunburst spread across their back field. His mother didn't react, Doepkens says, but his father "thought it was really quite extraordinary." Not that he said much. "Dad wasn't one with a lot of words. It was just his expression when he saw it," Doepkens remembers. "He got a certain look -- I can't explain it. We communicated without talking."

His father died in the spring of 2000, at 84, and that year's mural memorialized him with an abstract design of rings and rays, and a great red heart inside a circular white background, all centered on a white cross.

His neighbors and customers had a hard time guessing what it was -- "They were thinking, 'It's a spaceship,' " he says. " 'It's Saturn' " -- so Doepkens broke his central rule. Always secretive about each year's design, he refuses to give hints (a fact Davidsonville resident Amy Galloway notes with mock sadness: Every year she, her sister and two cousins hold an annual "guessing game . . . of seeing who can figure it out first").

But that year, he finally put up a sign explaining each of the mural's symbols and how each related to his dad, and people would "come up to me and just give me a big hug," he says, tearing up. Even now, five years later, this is hard. His father, he says, "lived and breathed this farm, and he was interested in so many things. Anything fed his mind. You could ask him anything, and" -- he swallows -- "I miss it." Pausing, he turns his head away, and when he turns back, a tear has striped his cheek and halted at the edge of his mouth. He blinks and tries to smile.

* * *

This fall, for the first time ever, Doepkens went 3-D, and "it's the best we've seen," crows another of Doepkens's neighbors, Henry Stoehr. Doepkens wanted to do a peacock, but not like the NBC cliche. So he built up from the ground. Near the barn now rises a tall, regal neck and head concocted from feathery bamboo painted blue. The body is cornstalks laced onto a pipe frame. And the tail is all mum: a downhill sweep of 95 varieties of 2,500 mums total -- swirls that include yellow (official color, Erica), and red (Regina) and deep, deep maroon (Raquel).

"They are executions of just a thought," Doepkens says quietly, though he knows that, by now, they have become much more than this. They are the flower farmer's last hurrah, before the wilt of winter. Still, he doesn't mourn the mural's inevitable fade from color. In sepia-tinged death, Doepkens sees art: "It almost looks like a negative," Doepkens says, "or a silver print."

And when winter's snow arrives and dusts the murals with a whole new palette, he finds himself no longer paying so much attention.

"I got it done, and now I'm already thinking about next year," he says. "That's the problem with me."

The Doepkens men: One created a solid, sturdy grove, a spot of lasting grace. The other creates a field of color -- bright, fleeting, but recurring.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company