There was a time in Boston’s Back Bay and Beacon Hill when the tiny brick-walled spaces behind homes were unadorned places that held drying laundry, extra coal, and outhouses. The spaces remain, but when the doors swing open today, you will likely find a plethora of annuals, perennials, flowering trees, and evergreens that provide homeowners with an oasis of color and peace. They are private little spaces in which to read or picnic and escape the city. And once a year, these secret gardens welcome the curious gardening public, thanks to the work of The Garden Club of the Back Bay and The Beacon Hill Garden Club.
Margaret Pokorny, a longtime Back Bay gardener and former president of the club, says her secret garden was once a paved parking area for six cars. Her goal was to create a shady, cool cocoon outside her kitchen with an all-white theme that would blossom in sequence. First to bloom is a Yoshino cherry tree, second is a Carolina silver bell, third is a Japanese snowbell, fourth is a Korean Evodia tree, and last is a European weeping birch.
Among her other plantings are hydrangea and a flowering Akebia quinata (chocolate vine), as well as clematis, cherry laurel (an evergreen with a white flower), ferns, hostas, European ginger, azaleas, ground covers, and a perennial geranium. “I’ve planted enough for seven acres,” laughs Margaret.
Her trees are quite large now, so she has infused the garden with shade-tolerant plants and boxwoods and created raised beds for flowers. A fountain adds a pleasant sound within the space. Since Margaret’s kitchen, dining room, and bedroom look out on the garden, it’s important that it be visually interesting. Leaf and flower textures, paving patterns, and the shapes, levels, and angles of the beds all contribute to the view. For even more color, texture, and drama, she has trained a wisteria vine to climb the fire escape balcony.
Two doors down from Margaret is the very large secret garden of Stella Trafford, who has been tending her garden for more than 30 years on what was once a coal-delivery yard. There are several planted flower beds, an arbor, and a shaded seating area.
For the past 18 years, Stella has worked with local landscape gardener Susan Juretschke, whom she met when both were taking classes in Cambridge in the Radcliffe Seminars program (now the Landscape Institute of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum).
Says Susan of Stella’s landscape, “It’s very informal plantings held together by strong structure in the garden — the layouts of the beds and the brick work. So even in winter it looks nice. I call it Stella’s wild garden.”
In designing the flower beds, the pair worked out specific color themes. “One bed is pink and blue, another is yellow and orange, and another long bed along the fence is the lily bed with orange, yellow, and blue,” Susan says. “Spring is most spectacular here.”
Plants include lilacs, burning bush, holly, dwarf hinoki cypress, a mulberry tree, wisteria, forsythia, climbing hydrangea, Cimicifuga (bugbane), col-umbines (all colors and varieties that reseed themselves throughout the garden beds), the low-growing version of Jacob’s ladder, monkshood, plumbago, and late-blooming pink chrysanthemums. There is also woodland phlox, whose pale-blue color sets off everything in the early-spring garden. There are also some surprises, including a coffee tree, a papaya tree, and a date palm, all growing in pots. These are brought inside for the winter.
On Beacon Hill, Betsy McMeel has been tending her shade garden for 32 years. The plot is L-shaped because a room was added onto the original house about 100 years ago. Old clothesline hooks still embedded in the brick walls are perfect for securing her whimsical iron animal art.
Like Margaret Pokorny, Betsy prefers a white-flowering palette. Her plantings include holly and verbena bushes, white geraniums, a miniature birch tree, and borders of white impatiens. Her 30-plus-year-old hydrangea climbs over the garden wall, ornamental ginger serves as ground cover, and purple violets add visual interest to what she describes as a very low-maintenance garden.
When Paula O’Keefe began gardening on Beacon Hill 38 years ago, she had a disaster that opened her eyes to the differences between city and country gardening. She planted 100 tulip bulbs close to the walls of her brick home; in winter, the radiant heat fooled the bulbs into thinking it was spring. They came up in February and died in the cold.
Paula has since learned that hot red bricks will also cause the soil to dry out faster — even in a shade garden — and says city gardeners need to plan accordingly. She has opted for fewer flowers and more greenery, such as boxwoods and ivy. To break up the sea of red brick, she uses window boxes and tubs with colorful flowers and a watering system.
“It’s simple, elegant, and looks cool,” she says.
Visit glorious gardens in every New England state. See “Editors’ Choice.”