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Tulips and Hula-Hoops: early rites of spring

Was that a primrose winking at us from behind the garden statuary?

We turned a corner to find out and stepped into flowering springtime. Scarlet tulips, sunny daffodils, and grape hyacinths clustered around a velveteen lawn. Along a fence hung with ivy planters, vibrant red azaleas and fuchsia rhododendrons formed a stunning backdrop for a delicate pink dogwood.

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We looked at our boots, and then at the happy pansy faces that lined the garden walk. Was it all a wonderful ruse? Or was spring really on its way?

''People shovel snow out of their driveways to get here, and when they walk in the door they still can't believe it,'' says Paul Parent, general manager of Kennedy's Country Gardens in Scituate, Mass. ''The weekend we opened the garden, the grass had grown so much, we had to mow it. That really freaked people out -- to come in out of a snowstorm and hear a lawn mower going.''

For the second year in a row, Mr. Parent's flowering shrubs and bulbs are drawing winter-weary gardners by the hundreds. Timed to provide a promise of spring in the middle of dreary March, the 1,000-square-foot greenhouse display takes months of careful planning: Sod is cut in the fall, vegetables are started from seed in mid-December, and bulbs are added six weeks before opening day, Valentine's Day.

Why go to all the trouble? ''It gives our customers hope,'' says Mr. Parent. ''We're telling them that it may be snowing outside, but inside it's spring!''

In blustery Chicago, hand-wrapped silk flowers apparently are just as comforting. ''People come in all day long to pick iris and jonquils out of our showroom pots,'' says Nan Brody of the Advance Fixture Mart, a retail outlet for such seasonal decorations as plastic-foam eggs, plastic rabbits, and paper lanterns. ''We have lattices covered with flowers and grapevine baskets full of flowers, and somehow it makes people feel good just to look at them.''

Entrepreneurs in not-so-snowbound southern California are equally concerned with keeping up the spirits of their community. Wham-O, the company that gave America the Frisbee (also known as the Pluto Platter) at the height of Russia's sputnik triumphs in 1957, is celebrating spring 1982 with another old favorite: the Hula-Hoop. This year's model differs significantly from the 1958 original, however. It's peppermint striped and peppermint scented, with small pellets of peppermint rosin rolled into each hoop.

''Every so often, when people get into a depressed funk, we feel it's time to bring back the Hula-Hoop to brighten their days,'' says Wham-O's Goldie Norton. ''We do what we can for the state of the world.''

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Nor are Californians the only ones with cheer to spare. Across the street from San Antonio's historic Fort Sam Houston, where Geronimo once was held prisoner, the National Bank of Fort Sam Houston is captivating its customers with an unexpected seasonal bonus. It has just helped one depositor publish ''The Wild Blue Yonder: Songs of the Air Force,'' featuring some 661 ballads, many dating back to World War I. A reception in honor of the book, held in the bank lobby near an oil painting of the first military flight west of the Appalachians, drew crowds of new and old customers, including one who hadn't been inside the bank since 1928.

If green is the color of a banker's springtime fancies, it's also the most popular shade in T-shirts this spring. ''We're having a run on green,'' says Paul Katz of Atlanta's T-Shirtery. The winter's big seller, ''I survived snow jam 1982,'' still is holding its own in the market, but Mr. Katz expects sales of shirts with jogging, baseball, and suntan lotion slogans to pick up this month.

For the cabinbound outdoor enthusiast who may be spending the month of March cocooned in down vests and mail-order catalogs, Washington's Eddie Bauer has a spring listing guaranteed to set trail boots tapping: a nine pound, 78-inch by 46-inch, backpackable, inflatable ''Hike Boat.'' It might accommodate two ''smallish'' people, says Bauer's Nancy Hunter, but is designed for one camper -- without dog.

A final goodbye to winter? Some say it with snow in the Crested Butte, Colo., Slauschink Festival, April 2-4. A traditional rite of coming spring in the Rockies, the festival draws thousands of contenders each year for the pole, paddle, and peddle marathon. To say that it's a race down a mountain and across a puddle hardly does justice to the spirit of the celebration.

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