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 BeaconHillGardenClub.org 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 BostonColumn.com.