An Aging Garden Bed Gets a Splashy Makeover

November 12, 2013
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Part of a mature garden bed on the Public Garden’s Boylston Street border was just rejuvenated by the Friends of the Public Garden.

Part of a mature garden bed on the Public Garden’s Boylston Street border was just rejuvenated by the Friends of the Public Garden.

Come spring, tiny crocuses of purple, yellow and white will signal new life to an aging garden bed that had gradually tired of its work sustaining giant Elm trees nearby and plantings that had outgrown their spaces along the Boylston Street edge of the Public Garden.

The installation of three new benches mark the last step in the first phase of a multi-year makeover planned by the Friends of the Public Garden to give the border garden the attention it needed and the look of a rejuvenated landscape.

It is a skinny shoestring of a garden measuring 900 linear feet and 10 feet wide, home to a mix of evergreen and deciduous shrubs, small trees and ground cover. Some might think its role is only to provide a visual, sound, and wind barrier from the street. “But a border garden must provide a proper balance of views in and out of the park, while still providing a protection from the busy urban environment,” said Friends Executive Director Elizabeth Vizza.

What’s more, the planting should be attractive in its own way, providing a contrast to the formal main Garden with its strong axial character, tightly planted formal flower beds and picturesque groupings of trees, according to the Friends horticulture committee’s planting guidelines. “The Garden’s borders have a naturalistic character to them,” explained Vizza. “Elsewhere in the Garden you have hostas grouped in a formal setting and here you have hostas in a natural setting. Its palette reflects the formal design of the Garden but in a naturalistic way as a counterpoint to the formal beds.”

The border garden was first established in 1975, near seventeen Belgium elm trees planted a century ago after the removal of the subway entrance once stationed there. In 1994, the Friends installed new border plantings designed by landscape architect, Vincent Merrill, featuring rhododendron, leucothose and holly.

But time went on and the narrow garden began to suffer from poor water drainage, compacted soil, silt erosion onto the path, weeds, balled roots and other signs of old age. For years it has been forced to sustain street trees outside the fence and shrubs and plantings within. “The trees and plants all competed with each other, looking for water and nutrients. Their roots looked down and around for where they could find them because every one was starved,” said Vizza. Light and shade conditions changed over time, as canopies provided by growing trees expanded and five diseased Elm trees were removed. Some plants survived and some didn’t.

Then the Friends came to the rescue, bringing along expert consultants including landscape architects, engineers and arborists. They conducted surveys and site documentations, design schemes and final plans. And they gratefully received grants from the Highland Street Foundation, the Phil and Norma Fine Foundation and the Stanton Foundation to support the first phase of the $100,000 park renovation. The Highland Street Foundation has committed to funding the project’s phasing over four years.

To begin, the Friends chose an area of the garden extending 75 feet on both sides of the Charles Summer Statute facing the border across the path because it suffered to the greatest degree from water drainage problems. Significant ‘puddling’ was due in part by an impenetrable covering of bark mulch that caused water to roll off the garden, according to arborist and soil scientist Norm Helie.

The initial facelift took place in the spring when plants were pruned and the area cleaned up, explained Robert Mulcahy, Friends project manager. This fall, a simple long linear French drain was installed and filled with a small layer of stone, allowing roots to interact directly with the drain to get water. The redesign will help keep the water and soil where it belongs, and support a rejuvenated planting scheme. Ten plants were transplanted, and others that were unhappy or had outgrown their present location were removed, he said.

For many years the border garden had been monochromatic, but now it will burst into color year-round because 1,117 bulbs were planted, ranging from lilies to snowdrops to Siberian squill, Mulcahy said. Perennials such as ‘visions in pink’ and ‘younique silvery pink’ astilbes and flowering guacamole hostas will join the existing boxwood, False cypress and Japanese andromeda.

The addition of three benches has given the revitalized garden one more role to play – to invite visitors from around the world to sit and quietly enjoy the beautiful colors around them and to look forward to appreciate the formal gardens of the Public Garden.

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