June 15, 2015

The Summer Garden Tour

In 1848, a farmhouse was built in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a farming community a few miles outside of Boston.  Around the time of the farmhouse’ construction, a black walnut tree was planted twenty feet or so from the home’s front door.

The black walnut tree
That tree would see a lot of history.  West Roxbury would secede from Roxbury in 1851 and West Roxbury would be annexed by Boston in 1874.  With the annexation would come new roads and streetcar lines.  The farm would be subdivided and re-subdivided until it consisted of only a grand house and a barn (converted to a garage) on a short street called Grayfield Avenue.

The black walnut, though, remained.  It grew until it both towered over and covered the house and, indeed the entire front of the property.  Successive owners came to realize they were stewards of a piece of Boston history.

Christie Dustman does an impromptu
horticultural lecture at a garden on
the West Roxbury Garden Tour
I was unaware of that tree’s existence, let alone its history, until this past weekend when I went on the West Roxbury Garden Tour; a fundraising event sponsored by the Evening Garden Club of West Roxbury.  Because I had a ticket for the tour, I had the opportunity to chat with David Godkin, the home’s owner for the past quarter century, who went on at length about the tree’s maintenance.  I learned that black walnuts are finicky trees, given to dropping branches (and walnuts).  A tree of its size and age requires cables to stabilize branches.  I suspect being a steward of a piece of history is an expensive proposition.

The house on Grayfield Avenue was just one of ten properties on view that weekend and, indeed, the West Roxbury Garden Tour was one of several in the Boston area competing for attention.  Betty and I also journeyed to the South Shore town of Pembroke for a garden tour the next day (more about that in a few moments).

A garden tour is an invitation
to poke around
Garden tours are a wonderful thing.  They are invitations to poke around and ask questions.  Docents (or, better yet, the home’s owners) provide the unabridged answers.  Sometimes, you don’t even have to ask questions.  At a second property on the West Roxbury tour, Christie Dustman, who had designed the garden (a professional, in this case) was offering a hands-on seminar about the things that made the garden special.  She used a knife to slice off a branch from a hedge and challenged a crowd to identify the unusual shrub used (it was a longstalk holly, ilex pedunculosa).  She also showed how the growth of ornamental pines were managed by manually truncating the ‘candles’ produced by the pines each year.

The century-old Kentucky
Most people go to garden tours to see flowers; we kept encountering glorious trees that stole the show.  In addition to the black walnut, a home on Montview Avenue featured a century old cladrastis Kentuckea – the Kentucky Yellowwood.  Yellowwoods are magnificent, tall trees anytime of the year, but in late May and early June, they produce a prodigious display of white flowers that stops you in your tracks.  Moreover, while the tree can produce flowers every year, the display is stronger in alternating years.  The yellowwood gracing the home was just past its peak flowering cycle, but the shape of the tree – massive and gnarled yet still as grand and proud as any tree in its prime – was a ‘teachable moment’ in horticulture.

West Roxbury featured gardens on small lots; a quarter acre is considered ‘huge’ within the Boston city limits.  On Sunday we ventured out to Pembroke where the Mattakeesett Garden Club was hosting its second annual tour.  Pembroke is 30 miles from the center of Boston and lots can range into multiple acres. 
An antique house on Brick Kiln Road was the site of both history and an expansive, meandering garden that showed care, imagination, and proof that vegetables can be an integral part of landscaping.  There were no fewer than half a dozen sites where vegetables had been tucked into unsuspecting sites, including adjacent to a swimming pool.  But perhaps the biggest surprise came when the homeowner insisted on showing us the interior of a shed.
The shed, as it turned out, was older than the house and was originally part of a shipyard that once sat on the property (itself on the meandering and historic North River).  Inside the shed was a piece of shipbuilding history – an intact lathe from the eighteenth century that was used to turn out the intricate wooden parts for the sailing ships built at the shipyard.  It was the most unexpected encounter I’ve ever had on a garden tour, and one that will stay with me for a very long time.
Garden tours are fun events; a great way to spend an afternoon with a mix of adventure and education.  They’re also important ways that garden club raise funds for civic beautification and educational programs.  Over the next month in eastern Massachusetts and on Cape Cod, there are garden tours in Sharon, Kingston, Dennis, Salem, Gloucester, and Osterville.  (I suspect that a Google search would produce an avalanche of tours in every state).  You can get full information on the Massachusetts tours at http://gcfm.org/Calendar-News/Calendar.aspx. 

Of special note, in the Berkshires, the Lenox Garden Club will hold its biennial “Hidden Treasurers of the Berkshires” tour on July 11.  I wrote their last tour here.  This is the Queen Mother of garden tours and while it is "only" six gardens, they are always spectacular.  This year's tour takes place in and around Stockbridge.  You can get information about and tickets for the tour at http://www.lenoxgardenclub.net.
If I were to pick one “don’t miss tour” though, it would be the July 11 Generous Gardeners tour of Annisquam.  Located on a peninsula within the town of Gloucester on Cape Ann, Annisquam is a stunningly beautiful village that meets everyone’s vision of the idealized New England coastal town.  Generous Gardeners, in turn, is an amazing philanthropic organization that exists to raise money for worthwhile horticultural projects.  You can get full details about the tour at http://www.gloucestergardentour.org/.

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