Walking through the Fenway in Boston on the way to a Red Sox game or local attraction, the Fenway Victory Gardens could provide an unexpected detour. The massive seven and a half acre plot of land celebrating 75 years sits in the middle of the Fenway neighborhood and is something to behold. It’s even more magical because every plot has its own story and its own vegetation that attract tourists. But they’ve had to keep up and adapt with changes in the last few years.
Started in 1942 as an actual “Victory Garden”, the plots of land were designed to give the people of Boston a purpose in war time. They’re called victory gardens because people felt a boost in morale when growing vegetables for the city. Theodore Roosevelt was the brain behind these gardens. The Boston Victory Gardens are the oldest of their kind. As former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wickard said, “A Victory Garden is like a share in an airplane factory. It helps win the War and it pays dividends too.”
From North Dakota, to Indiana, and right back to people who grew up here, the Gardens are a smorgasbord of people with the one common goal, to keep the gardens thriving and alive in the middle of a bustling and industrialized city.
The Fenway gardens are in their 75th year as a public park. In talking to many members, as well as the Vice President of the park, Elizabeth Bertolozzi, it seems as if the gardens have never been stronger. With new regulations in security and heightened tolerance, the gardens are “sort of like a big business now,” as one member put it.
Bertolozzi says that the gardens are in a good place for now, and that new members keep rolling in every year.
When asked about what has kept the Gardens going for 75 years and what can happen to preserve it Bertolozzi said, “I certainly think that there’s an extraordinary interest in having this kind of space in the middle of a city, so I do think we still have that interest. We have people who want to grow local and who want to be able to effect change or feel like they’re making some contribution to the pollinators,” said Bertolizzi.
Bertolozzi is in her fourth year as a plot member and says that her plot is mainly for her own consumption, as well as her beloved butterflies. She said she grows plants such as parsley to attract caterpillars. She then takes the caterpillars and brings them home to raise them as butterflies. With much enthusiasm, Bertolizzi she shared pictures of the growth of the caterpillars and how they come to be beautiful butterflies.
These Gardens are also a tourist attraction for many people coming into the city. “I talk to people who walk through here and their first question to me as they cut up the aisle to up to Fenway is, “’What is this?’”, said Bertolozzi.
It is a bit of a strange sight for many. With some plots unkempt and some carefully tended to, it can be hard to understand exactly what is going on in the gardens. Some members are less diligent than others, resulting in less appealing plots. “When people see abandoned gardens or gardens that aren’t being taken care of, I think what ends up happening is people don’t like to walk in those area, especially in the city,” said Bertolozzi.
The Gardens also have planned events such as their coffee hours, which Boston Mayor Marty Walsh attended, movie nights, FensFest on September 9th, and of course, a 75th anniversary party event which has yet to receive a date.
Being the oldest remaining Victory Gardens in the country, there is a lot of character built into every plot. According to Bertolozzi, this is a draw for incoming tourists and members of the Fenway community. “They see that there are a lot of different people working in the community, and everyone says the same thing which is, ‘We wish we had something like this down in Chicago, or down in Florida.'”
She said that some cities do have public gardens, but the Fenway Gardens are a massive seven and a half acres, making the space vast and filled with character and meaning.
Individual members are understandably passionate about their plots. Some garden for vegetables, some grow flowers, but as Bertolozzi said, “I think there’s space for people to do whatever they want to do here.”
There are many reforms in place such as Muddy River Phase II which will begin soon which includes drudging of the Muddy River and removal of phragmites will help to stop flooding in some plots and also some security changes.
If you’d like a plot, the waiting list doesn’t take too long, but you must be a Boston resident.
Recently, members talked about how they think the gardens have been so successful for so long, why they plant, and what they think could be done to make the gardens last for another 75 years, or more…
Marguerite, who goes by “Sharkey,”, has been a member for four years with her sister Alison Moppett. Hailing from Wellesley, Massachusetts, the two like to spend days at their plot to plant and harvest produce like tomatoes and potatoes, but also to relax. With a full outdoor dining room table, a “zen” garden with a fish pond, and a copious amount of seating, this plot was one of the most practical in the lot.
“This is our production side, and this is all for relaxation”, said Alison, waving her hand across the two distinct areas. “We like when the concerts come through to Fenway, we listened to a whole Billy Joel set sitting right here.” Joined by their dogs, one named Tucker, they use the gardens for food production as well as a place to sit enjoy their time in the city.
Philip Bibb, from Southern Indiana, has now had his plot for over 20 years. Actually, he has three plots. Being a long tenured member has its perks. Bibb was granted extra plots near Boylston Street and has certainly made the most of them. He says it’s, “prime real estate.” Partnered with his friend and neighbor (in the gardens) Leo Romero, his extensive list of vegetation includes raspberries, chives, rosemary, and many beautiful flowers. Bibb was once the treasurer of the gardens and he says that many reforms, such have been put in place for the better such as a fortified fence system around each plot.
“It’s all up to the city. We’re a city park. They can do what they want. We have enough money to do small projects,” said Bibb. He also went into detail about what it takes to tend a plot and that if you let it go, it may not look like his. He said it takes hours a day just to get close to looking like an organized plot.
Bibb said he believes these gardens are a privilege. “Most people don’t have an opportunity to garden at all in the city. It’s a wonderful opportunity for people who are residents, and it’s good exercise.” Bibb said he spends less time at the plots now, but on some days would spend over five hours tending to his plants, vegetables and flowers.
Leo Romero is another long tenured member of the Fenway Gardens. He came to Boston from Mexico and said he has fallen in love with his plots. He has tirelessly tended to his garden for 27 years. He is the owner of the Back Bay restaurant Casa Romero, which he says serves “real” Mexican cuisine, not like Chipotle.
Romero was a former president of the gardens and regularly visits to weed and plant. “I think they’re fabulous. Most of us live in apartments in the Fenway area. Having a garden is wonderful. We don’t have backyards to these are the backyards,” says Romero.
With help from Philip Bibb, his garden is one of the biggest and one of the more sought after. “I get people who stop and ask questions all the time here.” But Romero says it’s no easy task. “It’s a sanctuary alright, but it’s also a place of hard work. I spent as long as six or seven hours in one day on the garden. It’s still not done.”
Walking around the gardens, many said it’s a must to visit Arthur Rose. He is the oldest gardener in the Victory Gardens. At 98, Rose still keeps up with his plot, and visits nearly every day. Rose’s plot offers beans, rhubarb, lettuce, and even horseradish.
Growing up in North Dakota, Rose was hard at work gardening at a young age., “My father made us garden, we had to weed, and we hated it. We wanted to go swimming. I thought I’d never be in a garden again. But, as I got older here, I thought about it and I like nature, so I thought I’m going to get a garden.”
Sometimes old traditions stick with people over the years. Arthur also said that he has seen drastic changes in the past 35 years that he has been a member. “So I got a garden 35 years ago, and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve seen it grow from slum-like garden to a very nice looking area,” said Rose., “There was no real organization. People would get a garden and creep over three or four inches on either side. Now it’s much more organized. In fact, it’s almost like a big business.”
At their 75th year, the Gardens have played a major role in the Boston community, and likely will continue to do so for years to come. Walking through the gardens, the city sounds fade away for minute at a time. at all. But then sirens blare and cars honk their horns. “A lot of noise here, that’s the only trouble,” said member Arthur Rose.
Bertolozzi shared that sentiment. “It does have that effect on you. Not to say that I don’t walk up Boylston Street, and I don’t see somebody yelling at somebody for running a red light over the bridge.” She continued to say that like Romero, the gardens are sanctuaries for many people in the community. “For the time that we’re here, and I tell people that all the time, we’re like a neighborhood of gardeners now. If you’re having a bad day and if you’ve got things that you’re dealing with, come to the Gardens and relax and enjoy what we have here.”
There are some problems in the gardens though. Some plots do get vandalized or stolen from. But the board has put in a fast action program that will repair locks quickly if damaged. Philip Bibb told me the story that in times like Mother’s Day weekend, people would waltz right into the gardens and steal flowers and flip them into their own business.
“They were selling flowers in Kenmore Square that came straight from these plots,” said Bibb.
The people who make up the plots such as Bertolozzi, Rose, Bibb, and Sharkey all know that the purpose of these gardens in 1942 was to bring the community together, and there is certainly still that same value in place after 75 long years of hard work and dedication.