By Dan Murphy
China Altman never imagined the Rose Brigade she established three decades ago to tend to the rose beds in the Public Garden would grow into what is reportedly the longest, sustained volunteer group operating in the city.
“It has seemed to me that the people who have come and gone over the years – we have about 250 alums – fell out of the sky,” Altman said at a June 20 ceremony in the Public Garden honoring her and the group. “ I feel astonishment and love in my heart when I think about all of them and all of you who make up the Rose Brigade now.”
In 1988, Altman founded the Brigade, which is sponsored by the Friends of the Public Garden and works in collaboration with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. The group cares for the park’s four rose beds that span 4,150 square feet and consist of around 280 bushes from mid-March through early December and every Tuesday during the summer months. Today, the Brigade has a core membership of about 20 individuals, including an anesthesiologist from Massachusetts General Hospital, two engineers, a retired school teacher, a department head at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, three teenagers and an octogenarian photographer.
Carl Foster, the president of a Boston consulting group, joined the Brigade in 2011 and agreed at China’s request to become a colleague leader with her in 2014.
“It’s really exciting to be in these roses,” said Foster, who sometimes travels to Boston from his Connecticut home for the sole purpose of working in the Public Garden. “People from all around the world appreciate them and thank us for helping with their upkeep.”
While Altman said “monitoring” and “observation” of the roses are basic components of the Brigade’s careful work, she added that “talking over the hedges is our diplomacy, an important part of what we do,” often providing directions and general information to passersby, as well as tips on caring for roses.
A journalist by occupation, Altman said she knew nothing about roses at the time of the Brigade’s inception, but soon began to be knowledgeable after spending countless hours exploring the subject at the Copley Branch of the Boston Public Library.
“I loved doing the research – I am a nerd — and I even wrote myself a report on how to do it,” Altman said. “ And of course, my research has continued all these years, from many sources, and most of all from the roses themselves.”
The Brigade, meanwhile, has fostered a close partnership with the Parks and Recreation Department, which provides the use of a shed at the Public Garden to store the group’s equipment and supplies and since 2012, has assigned one of its professional gardeners to work in the roses most Tuesdays.
“The Rose Brigade sets the standard for community involvement: they’re hardworking, dedicated, and they have such an affinity for the roses they care for that they’ve named the beds that they grow in,” said Boston Parks Commissioner Chris Cook. “The members clearly love their work and the results are seen by tens of thousands of visitors a year. We are truly grateful for their dedication and support.”
Liz Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden, said, “The magnificent roses in the Public Garden exist because of the dedication and knowledge of China Altman, her co-leader Carl Foster and all the wonderful Rose Brigade volunteers who willingly give their time on Tuesday evenings to care for those exquisite blooms.”
As for Altman, she is as committed to maintaining the roses of the Public Garden today as she was when she founded the Brigade three decades ago.
“This is the 30th year that, if anyone asks me to schedule something late on Tuesday,” Altman said. “I think of one of the cornerstones of my life and I say, ‘Oh no, if it’s Tuesday I go to the roses.’”