Yesterday was the second day of the Washington Flower and Garden Show at the new Convention Center. Outside, it was cold and cruddy--perfect. Inside, it was spring-luscious and fragrant as a Kyoto teahouse garden.

Well, not exactly. There were still acres of steel girders, manufacturered air, fierce fluorescent brightness, a kind of overall Orwellian emptiness. But still: You could breathe in this place. There was oxygen, there was hope. Winter seemed licked, or nearly so. Grown men didn't exactly break down and cry at the feet of gladiola beds. Hoary spinsters didn't burst into song at the scent of blossoming dogwoods. And yet.

"Ah, this was such a wonderful idea, Flora," said an elegant grande dame holding the arm of an equally advanced companion. The two had cellophane rain hats on and had just come in from the dreck of Ninth Street. They sort of tripped along merrily now, propping one another up. The world was ripe with the promises of one more vernal equinox. Come this spring, we'll all be young--that is the perennial delusion and the joy.

"Ha, got it," an old clergyman cackled, doing a little one-two jig with his feet as he snapped a photo of a 40-foot-high blue atlas cedar. The tree was so tall it had to be held up by wires tied to a ceiling girder--but what did it matter? The thing was fresh and green and stately. Had it suddenly evoked better days and better years? Had Joyce Kilmer leaped to an old padre's mind? Whatever his inner bliss, the priest grinned to beat the band. He wore a black suit and a white beard and there was a plastic bag with a drawstring over one arm. Stuffed into the bag were all sorts of garden show literature--for nursery and landscaping companies, Cub Cadet mowers, the Hot Spring Spa.

It is the largest flower and garden show in Washington history, say its promoters, who hope for 80,000 people to ratchet through the turnstiles before the five-day run ends Sunday. The show is being put on by Thomas J. Stafford's TJS Productions of Springfield, Va. Yesterday Tom Stafford, a beefy and likable sort, sported a walkie-talkie at his mouth and a yellow rose boutonniere at his lapel. "You see those magnolias--they're just getting ready to pop," he said, nearly ready to pop himself, with pride. "We've had 'em in a greenhouse for six months. The National Arboretum took care of them. It's very scientific. I figure them to pop Friday."

What's that bed of flowers over there? a visitor idly wondered.

"Hey, don't ask me. I've got experts who know this stuff," Stafford said. He called over an expert, who identified them as a rather prosaic species of daffodils.

The daytime crowd is mostly women, Stafford said, though at night the husbands get dragged along. "Men come here, I know their mentality, they think, 'Oh, it's just flowers in a Coke bottle.' And then they smell all these wonderful smells."

At the Hot Spring Spa booth--God alone knows what exactly this had to do with a show of tulips and glads--a chirpy salesman sat on the edge of the plastic rim, tapped it soundly and said:

"This is cheaper than a swimming pool, ma'am. Gives you year-round pleasure."

"How much?" said a middle-aged woman.

"Thirty-five ninety-five--this one's on special. Got a heater, a filter. And this just isn't plastic you're looking at, ma'am. This is ROVEL, high-impact plastic. And you know what? If you got sore muscles, you can write it all off on your taxes."

"Yeah?" she said, more interested.

Everywhere your nostrils took you yesterday there seemed new visions of flowering quince and Kwanzan cherry, azaleas, the quiet dewy beauty of the variegated liriope. (Maybe you know it by its more formal name: Liriope Muscari Variegata.)

You want a 30-foot-high Japanese maple in full leaf? It's here.

"That shouldn't happen till the end of June," promoter Stafford said, referring to the tree's leafiness. "What you're looking at there should just be a stick in nature."

Miraculously, nature had been helped along.

At the Giant Food display, there was a white gazebo in the midst of the beds. "Courtesy of Giant Food. Enjoy it," Stafford said. "Friday and Saturday nights they're going to have Strolling Strings."

Up the road, in Philadelphia, there is another flower show in progress this week. Philly is the granddaddy exposition of them all, 110 years old. At that one, they'll get 300,000 people, all dreaming little dreams of spring.