Boston Public Garden: green en vogue

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At first glance, comparing a garden’s sensibilities to fashion trends feels like a stretch, but Margaret Dyson, Director of Historic Parks in Boston, has done her homework. She explains her analogy so well, it fits.  Her study of important gardens and landscapes shows that the notion of what’s “in” and what’s “out” in gardening is as fickle a phenomenon as what’s “hot” and what’s “not” in fashion.

In gardening, as in fashion, some of us prefer subtle hues and lines while others delight in vivid embellishments.  It’s a matter of taste.  Gardens in and around Boston have been and remain no exception to this rule of thumb, green or otherwise.

Boston’s Public Garden is one of nine verdant jewels in a chain of green spaces that stretch seven miles in and around the city. The connected oasis is referred to as the “Emerald Necklace.”

The “necklace” as a whole was influenced by famed jack-of-all-trades, Frederick Law Olmstead. His signature style was to design and heavily engineer disorganized plots into what eventually blossomed into simple naturalized meadows. By the mid-1800’s, Boston’s social elites and high minded intelligentsia considered Olmstead’s sensibilities to be haute couture.  Masterfully, he transformed waste land into wonder land.

From his office on 99 Warren Street in Brookline (now registered as a National Historic Site), Olmstead infused his horticultural adventures with urban civility. His capacity to visually articulate his noble ideals of social and political synergy was enhanced by his youthful travels throughout China, Europe and North America. The man who briefly attended Yale after graduating from Phillips-Andover matured into America’s first statesman of landscape architecture. Around our country, from the U.S capitol grounds in Washington, D.C to the campus of Stanford University in California, his enlightened view of the world is expressed by the seamless juxtaposition of urban edges with expanses of green pastures. Our “Emerald Necklace” does just that and bears witness to Olmstead’s sophisticated transformations.

Clues to Boston Public Garden’s humble beginnings lay hidden only a spades depth away from its fanciful displays of today. As Dyson explains, the Garden we enjoy now is situated on 24 acres of ancestral Native Indian land. Their camps, which predate colonial settlements, were set up along salt marshes. By necessity, part of the site was used for waste and the tradition of using parts of the marsh as a common dumping ground was continued by Colonial Bostonians. It was Olmstead’s design and engineering skill that transformed the ugly duckling dump into a pristine swan pond surrounded magically by a large green carpet.

As today’s seasonal planting beds are swapped in and out, Garden horticulturists routinely unearth clusters of oyster shells. Those shells are a tangible reminder of what Boston’s true roots looked like before the petitions of flora fashionistas restyled our city.

Once Olmstead’s master design was in place, additional restyling was soon underway.

A clash of colorful statements sprouted in Boston as Olmstead’s Public Garden was re-envisioned by civic minded Horace Grey. It is Grey who is credited with conceptualizing our Nation’s first botanical garden. It stands now as it did more than 185 years ago as an interactive garden which madly, merrily mixes horticultural tradition with exotic, playful embellishments.

Unlike the open fields of the Boston Common, the Boston Public Garden intentionally couples familiar native plantings with plants indigenous to tropical territories. Stayed vegetation of New England still plays foil to a riot of colorful seasonal flower beds and grand statuary of local significance.

The revolutionary Garden’s evolution was seen by “proper” Bostonians as garish. Some saw the bridge which spans the duck pond as a glaring eye sore worsened by tropical fronds and vivid beds of color.

Today, the Boston Public Garden welcomes visitors to wander its pathways, ride the swan boats, play on the Make Way for Ducklings statues, pause at the 9/11 Garden of Remembrance, and opine on how this Garden grows.  As Dyson points out, the Public Garden still prompts passionate debate over what is and is not in good taste.  As she sees it, heated debates are a clear sign that people love and care about this special space in the heart of the city.

The Garden invites family fun as much as personal reflection and is, like all of Olmstead’s gardens, worth a summer visit. The Parks are free and open to the public.

Diane Kilgore is a Boston-area blogger.

Also by Diane Kilgore:

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