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Downtown View: City Gardening Opportunities Everywhere

Spring is definitely here so downtown residents’ inclinations turn to gardening. Digging in dirt, planting flowers, doing a bit of pruning and scooping up the winter’s detritus, all on a sunny day, is satisfying after hugging the fire all winter.

Back Bay’s magnolias and Beacon Hill’s pears are gone, but they provided weeks of enjoyment before the redbuds, cherries and crabapples put on a show. As I write this the Public Garden and the banks of the Charles are full of blossoms. Hope for cool temperatures so flowers stay longer on the trees.

It might be a surprise to country folk how much gardening city dwellers do. Charlestown gardeners gather within shouting distance of Sullivan Square, creating a lovely hillside garden entry to that neighborhood.

The Friends of the North End Parks poked 10,000 daffodil bulbs in the ground last fall. Like the magnolias, they are gone now, but they were fabulous, peeking out under the shrubs in the Greenway’s north sections. North Enders are also working on improving Copp’s Hill and other open spaces.

Then there’s the Rose Brigade, supervised by China Altman, who recently received an award for leading her secateur-armed soldiers to tend the Public Garden’s rose beds.

I recently dug a bit of dirt at Codman Island, the plot of land that Beacon Hill’s leaders persuaded the city to install in the intersection of Beacon and Charles streets after Mayor Kevin White reversed the direction of Charles Street in 1982. They wanted to make it difficult for a subsequent mayor to return Charles Street to its old crammed status at evening rush hour. It’s worked so far.

Four Beacon Hill Garden Club members and one Suffolk student, ranging in age from 19 to 90, cleaned it up. But gardening in the city is nothing like gardening in the country or even a Brookline yard.

For one, you work within inches of speeding cars. How did the Friends of the North End Parks survive when they stood in traffic lanes to plant their bulbs?

Gardening in the city unearths strange things. At Codman Island we found broken headlights, bottles, plastic bumper pieces, springs—evidence of the drunk or delirious drivers who each year bang into the island and take out a bollard or a tree. Sometimes you find a condom but what gardeners fear most are finding rats.

It’s not bird song you hear. Cars, trucks, vans, planes, trash trucks, tow trucks, motorcycles—this is one noisy city.

While we were on the island, a truck stopped. Naturally, this being Boston, drivers behind impatiently laid on their horns. But who cared? The door sign said “Boston Parks.” They had seen us working. They handed us several large trash bags to help in our efforts.

That is typical of the cooperation between the Parks Department and citizens. Boston’s parks are historic and beautiful, but maintenance has long been a problem because of inadequate funding. Friends groups formed, however, and many parks have been transformed. The Friends of the Public Garden, which also helps care for the Common and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, was the first, established a half century ago. Also wonderfully effective have been The Esplanade Association and several playground friends.

The friends groups donate money and manpower to maintenance, but even more, they have given a jolt of power and enthusiasm to park employees. These critical maintenance people now know someone is watching—that’s the cynical view. But the more realistic view is that these employees, who couldn’t have taken care of the parks on their own, now have support and volunteers who make their jobs more effective and enjoyable.

Private gardens add enjoyment too, especially along Back Bay’s streets and in Charlestown. Private hidden gardens are viewable mostly through tours. The first is the Tour of the Hidden Gardens of Beacon Hill, taking place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. this Thursday. Tickets are $35 ahead of time from or $40 on tour day from tables on Charles Street. Charlestown’s private gardens will open to the public on June 15 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The $20 tickets are sold on tour day at the intersection of Main and Bunker Hill streets. The Garden Club of the Back Bay hasn’t had a tour for a few years. Instead you can attend the club’s 50th anniversary party on June 4 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Old South Church for a ticket price of $150 and up. Proceeds from these events benefit horticultural, environmental and conservation efforts.

If you don’t have a garden, you can grow something in your window box, plant a tree pit or help out in one of the playgrounds or parks.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at


3 Replies to “Downtown View: City Gardening Opportunities Everywhere

  1. Dear Ms Taylor,
    You are cordially invited to visit one of the hidden treasures of the City of Boston’s parks. Christopher Columbus Park is located on the Waterfront, next to the Marriott Long Wharf. The ‘friend’s’ organization for this Park is named simply, Friends of Christopher Columbus Park. It’s one of the best-run, fiscally well-managed and incredibly community-oriented of all the groups in Boston.
    Our amazing trellis, which is lit with blue lights throughout the Winter and maintained by FOCCP and the City, is one of the 10 most kissable spots in Boston. This year we will be putting up a whole new set of lights to the tune of at least $40,000.00. FOCCP pays for that through donations from neighbors and corporate sponsors.
    Although our Rose garden may not be huge, each of our 3 blooming times are always spectacular! Our small band of FOCCP Horticulture volunteers (Hotties) maintain it as they do the Crescent Garden, which is near the statue of Christopher Columbus.
    Our playground area is for the 10 and under group and lovingly cared for by the FOCCP and the parents in the area. It has one of the few remaining sandboxes in the City and the children LOVE it.
    Throughout the Spring, Summer & Fall the FOCCP sponsors events for all ages.
    Please feel free to check our web-site at and our Face Book page, Friends of Christopher Columbus Park to read about our activities and see the Park in bloom and in action. You’ll love it, I’m certain.
    We are having our monthly meeting tonight, Tuesday May 14th, at 6:30 at the Pilot House on Atlantic Ave. behind the Starbucks. You are welcome to join us, see us in action with all invited at-large City Councilors when we address the homeless situation in the Park, and learn more about our all-volunteer organization.
    Respectfully submitted,
    Meredith Piscitelli

    1. Not only do I know about this garden, but I’m a member of a garden group that has just given CCPark some $$$ to do a bit of work. More than 35 years ago, my own children played in the park and in the last few years my grandchildren have played there too. And I even remember when the rose garden went in. I didn’t mention it just because I ran out of room. It has a slight reference when i mentioned the playgrounds.
      But I’d argue that it is not very hidden. In fact, the Greenway has now made it wonderfully visible to all.
      Thank you for the invitations. Sometime I might go to a meeting of your group. I go to lots of meetings in the North End it seems. Karen

  2. Thank you for your response, Karen. You must be a member of the Blossom Fund. Your donation is greatly appreciated by FOCCP. Plans are moving right along. Many thanks.
    You are so right; with the demolition of the overhead Central Artery, our little jewel is now more accessible to all and a pleasant pathway to the Waterfront.
    We do have a bit of a problem with corporate sponsorship and fund-raising, since many people think we’re a part of the Greenway and feel if they have donated to that group, C.C. Park is included. Not true.
    Between the 2 groups, we keep the Waterfront area a vital and active place for our North End/Waterfront neighborhood and thousands of visitors.
    It’s an exciting area and community to live in and be a part of.

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