Drivers rolling down Boston’s Boylston Street are sometimes surprised to see — amid the concrete and high-rises — a splash of lush green, a pergola covered in purple blossoms, and bright-red rows of tomatoes, heavy on the vine. This seven-acre plot is The Richard D. Parker Memorial Victory Gardens, better known as Fenway Gardens.The names stems from the neighborhood in which it’s located (along with neighboring Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox). It’s the last of the nation’s original victory gardens, created during World War II across the United States.
When the war created food shortages here in the wake of shipments to the armed forces, President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged Americans to grow their own food. The government, schools, and businesses such as seed companies worked together to help find land and to teach people how to garden.
Today, Fenway Gardens is thriving, with 535 15-by-25-foot gardens and 325 gardeners who pay just $30 per plot annually ($15 for seniors). According to former Fenway Garden Society president Carmen Musto, the popularity of gardening is booming among people of all ages — from those in their college years to octogenarians. Carmen has been gardening here since 1990, and his particular passion is fruit trees. Amid his plot’s bushes and flowers are cherry, apple, peach, and pear trees — and no vegetables.
Local restaurateur Leo Romero began gardening here in 1991. He had moved back to the city after 10 years in Calais, Vermont, where he ran The White House inn and restaurant. He missed the inn’s gardens, and he found this plot, a short walk from his restaurant on Gloucester Street, Casa Romero. “I’ve got one of the choicest spots, on the highest point. It’s well drained and I can start gardening early in the season. It has sun and good shade from a large crab apple tree,” he says.
His herb garden includes sage, thyme, lovage, oregano, marjoram, basil, rosemary, germander, and rue, plus lavender, which he uses in the restaurant’s salads and lavender sorbet. At home, he keeps some by his bed for inducing relaxation.
Leo is known for his flowers — from spring daffodils to the last mums of fall, most destined for his restaurant or his home. His favorites include peonies, lilacs, lilies, tulips, dahlias, roses, and irises. He comes here as often as he can to work the garden and experience the peace of the place.
“I go work out as early as possible and then come here,” he says. “Sometimes I just come and sit. Yesterday, I took a nap in the garden. I lie right down on the ground and look at the sky and count the shapes of the clouds. I even come in the winter and start cleaning the garden as early as I can.”
When the Red Sox are playing, retired Houghton Mifflin editor Joan Murphy plans her garden trek accordingly to avoid the traffic. “I take the subway or bus,” she says. She’s been gardening here in the same plot since 1980, and she plants so many vegetables that she rarely has to shop for them in the summer.
“I think it’s nice to have a little backyard like this when you live in the city,” she says, “even if that little backyard is a bus ride from home.”
She built her own raised-bed plots and grows green beans, golden beets, carrots, green peppers, onions, parsley, chives, spinach, lettuce, peas, summer squash, zucchini, and tomatoes, including ‘Better Girl’, plum, and a tiny yellow variety. She also grows lovage, which she likes to add to her tomato sauce; at the end of the season, she makes enough sauce to freeze.
Phyllis Hanes knows a lot about food. Raised in Kennebunkport, Maine, she learned all about gardening from her mother, and as a Girl Scout always entered her prize carrots in competition. She later became a food writer for the Christian Science Monitor and has traveled the globe writing about how food relates to culture. Today she is retired, but she still serves as a judge for the James Beard Foundation awards and remains an avid gardener.
Phyllis has been gardening in Fenway Gardens since 1970, when Richard Parker himself was the supervisor. “When I first started gardening here, I was doing food testing and cooking, and there were a lot of things I could not find in the markets — so I began growing them,” she says.
Her preference is to grow from seed, and she likes to choose unusual items, such as Chinese artichoke, cardoon, arugula, okra, sorrel, lemon grass, and an Egyptian salad and soup green called molukhiya (Corchorus olitorius). “People say, ‘Why from seed?’ and I say, ‘Why not?’ We old-timers see how the younger new people come in and have instant gardens with their six packs and soil. We prepare our soil, mark off the sections with string and pegs…. I like to grow plants from seed; I think they grow better — and I know where they come from,” she adds.
She gets many of her seeds from mail-order companies such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds, based in Maine. She believes that New England-produced seeds do better in this climate.
In addition to her greens, herbs, and vegetables such as carrots, yellow beets, and yellow pear tomatoes, Phyllis also fills her two plots with an abundance of flowers, including pink, red, and white peonies that were left by the previous gardener.
Fellow gardener Arthur Rose has had his same plot for more than 30 years. At 86, he’s as passionate about and attentive to his garden as he was when he started. He grows rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, Swiss chard, peppers, and peas.
He rotates plantings in two plots, and in a good year, when he has too many raspberries to eat himself, he makes jam. “During summer, I rarely see a vegetable counter,” he says.
When he isn’t tending his plants (like Phyllis, he grows only from seed), Arthur likes to go to his garden and read the paper under a shady tree or catch up with fellow gardeners on their crops. “I just like being there,” he says. “I have water trays around the garden for the birds, and I watch them. I look up, and there are the trees and the Prudential Center in the distance. I don’t know what I would do if I weren’t going to garden every day.”
To learn more about the Fenway Garden Society and The Richard D. Parker Memorial Victory Gardens, call 617-267-6650 or visit fenwayvictorygardens.com