Life hasn't always been a bed of roses for nursery owners Albert and Rose Behnke. There have been some dry periods for the Eden they created in Beltsville 56 years ago.

Members of well-to-do families in their native Germany, they came separately to the United States to travel in the 1920s and met on the boat trip home. Later they returned to this country, married and settled down outside Washington.

With $3,000 from his father, a prosperous nurseryman in northern Germany, Behnke opened his own flower business in Beltsville in 1930.

"It was the driest year on record. I lost everything," he said.

During the Great Depression the Behnkes lived with their three young children in a drafty tar paper shack without electricity or indoor plumbing, making do with oil lamps and well water from a neighbor. The World War II years were not much better, what with gasoline rationing and all, they recall.

But today, Behnke Nurseries is the biggest operation of its kind in Maryland and among the largest in the country, industry experts say. It employs 227 people and last year grossed $6.3 million.

There's so much going on, it takes a computer to keep track of it all. The Behnkes' son Roland says the computer is used so much it's hard to get time on it.

In addition to the Behnkes' 10.8-acre retail outlet on Rte. 1 in Beltsville, there is an 80-acre tree farm in Largo and a seven-acre "Trial Gardens" in Burtonsville.

The Burtonsville garden is open to what the sign off Rte. 198 describes as "responsible visitors." It is also the back yard of the two-story brick home the Behnkes built 20 years ago.

There's nothing for sale there: Visitors come just to gaze at the greenery or to ask Albert Behnke, who can often be found gardening, a question or two.

"You sell roses here?" a recent visitor wanted to know. No, Behnke explained, they only try out flowers in their Burtonsville garden. The man asked about herbicides, which Behnke said he uses "quite a bit" to keep the place pretty.

The bloom is off the tulips, which lasted much longer this year because of a cool spring, but the pansies are still flowering and, in a week or two, a profusion of roses promises to paint the Behnke yard a rich red.

Behnke, 80, rises before dawn each day to work in his garden.

"I get up at four o'clock. I can't wait to get out there," he said.

"To him, it's his whole life, plants," said Rose Behnke, an African violet specialist herself.

Over the years, the Behnkes have regularly sent gifts of flowers to presidents' wives, and Rose Behnke keeps a scrapbook with thank-you notes sent by White House occupants from Bess Truman through Nancy Reagan.

She cherishes, especially, a letter from Mrs. Truman, who carefully shepherded a Behnke camellia plant with her on the train home to Indepedence, Mo., after her husband left office. "There will be no danger of exposure or breakage," she assured the Behnkes.

The nursery remains largely a family business, which today draws some third-generation customers. The older people remember when Behnke's Beltsville facility had resident swans and two small ponds, filled in and paved in the 1960s for a 368-car parking lot.

The Behnkes plan to provide parking for 900 cars and a 30-acre garden center at Largo, which now has a small retail outlet, and to upgrade some of the old greenhouses that were built in Beltsville 40 years ago.

Albert, chairman of the board, usually stops by the Beltsville nursery at least once a day. Roland, 53, a retired Air Force pilot, is president. Sonja Festerling, 52, a Behnke daughter, is in charge of advertising. Last year she spent $105,000 on television, radio, billboards and newspapers.

It's a far cry from the old days," she said. "Our father put us out on U.S. 1 with a sign, and we used to wave bouquets of flowers" to get people to stop. "You can't do that in this day and age," she said.

Behnke's still has its signs, however, a source of occasional conflict with the county.

In return for free flowers, Albert Behnke said, the Riverdale Baptist Church in Largo allows Behnke's to park its movable sign near the church on Rte. 202. "The county said we can't do that, that it makes the church a commercial enterprise," he said. "We sneak [it] out and pay the fine."