Harking back to harder times

Harking back to harder times

By Derek Hawkins and Marc Larocque

The Fenway Victory Gardens are a seven-acre swatch of cultivated swampland, less than a half-mile from Northeastern’s campus, where community and plant life thrive and a piece of American history lives on.

Many of the 300 gardeners who own plots say they go there to escape cramped apartment life and city commotion. But the roars of Red Sox fans from nearby Fenway Park and the sight of the Prudential building towering above the phragmites are reminders of what this place is – one of the country’s largest and oldest urban gardens.

The garden plots range from bedroom-sized patches of soil to large yards. Some are crafted to be works of horticultural art, meticulously prim, orderly and lush with color.

Others, however, seem to lack, or at least downplay, aesthetics. These are the vegetable gardens, which compose less than one quarter of the plots there. Concerned less with design and appearance and more with efficiency of space and soil, the vegetable gardens represent a Fenway Victory Gardens legacy that has endured since their inception in 1942.

So-called victory gardens, some public, like those in Fenway, and some private, were encouraged by President Franklin Roosevelt as part of a nationwide effort to supplement canned food rationing during World War II. By 1944 some 20 million victory gardens produced nearly 40 percent of the vegetables and fruits Americans consumed, according to the Department of Agriculture.

The Fenway Victory Gardens are the last surviving public gardens created during the war. But more than a half-century later they are far from the produce-generating hubs they were in harder times. Designed gardens, rife with flowers, ferns, shrubs and decorative objects, are now ubiquitous. Vegetable gardens, rooted in a wartime tradition, occupy a smaller niche.

Most gardeners rarely acknowledge a difference. But today’s makeup of the Fenway Victory Gardens reflects the attitudes of the community and a social climate that has changed across generations.

Different methods, a common appreciation

Rick Malkasian and Tony Siracuso are self-proclaimed designers. Together, they tend one of the Fenway Victory Gardens’ biggest plots, which they have amassed since they began gardening more than 20 years ago.

Their garden is about equal in area to a suburban front yard and abounds with carefully pruned bushes, color-schemed flower beds and healthy shrubs.

After an afternoon of work there last week, Malkasian and Siracuso retired to their garden’s “living room” – a coffee table, two end tables and four plastic chairs in the shade of a ceiling-high tree – to enjoy the sunset.

For this pair of friends, gardening for its artistic and spiritual qualities and not for self-sufficiency is part of a trend they’ve watched emerge in their years there.

“The original mission was produce, but the gardens have grown to be more for pleasure,” Siracuso, 62, said. “There are always people who just made places to sit.”

The market for show gardens has also boomed in recent years, Siracuso said.

“Everyone feels capable of making this great thing, but after they’ve built their magazine garden the mundane work suddenly doesn’t appeal to them,” he said. “The test is the time and the patience. It shouldn’t be a chore.”

Malkasian, 54, whom Siracuso described as the “obsessive horticulturist” of the two, said he spends more than 300 days a year there. It’s spiritual, he said.

“The garden I have control over, even if I can’t control my job or my bills or my relationships,” he said. “There are lots of life lessons in gardening that are philosophical. You reap what you sow. The plants are as different and unique in personality as people. Things come and go. New opportunities come, things pop up. It’s a metaphor for life.”

For others, like James Papalambros, an experienced grower, vegetable gardening possesses the same qualities.

“The exercise is great, but it heals you, too – mentally, you see,” he said, tapping his head with an index finger.

The counterpoint to Malkasian and Siracuso, Papalambros is an 83-year-old native of Thessaloniki, Greece, who has been tending one of the largest and most productive vegetable gardens in the Fenway Victory Gardens for close to two decades. His garden is a classroom-sized grid of mostly root vegetables, including radishes, sweet spanish onions, leeks, kale, broccoli, cucumbers and red beans. Most impressive, however, are his tomatoes – 40 plants that each yield about 35 fruit seasonally, he said.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Papalambros was watering a patch of romaine lettuce and sitting with Giulia Del Guercio, a younger friend from a neighboring plot.

When Del Guercio extended a bag of wild raspberries she had picked to Papalambros, he politely refused to take any, as he does with most of the food he’s offered.

“I give almost everything away,” he said as he stuffed handfuls of lettuce into a plastic bag for Guercio. “I only keep enough for salads.”

Papalambros, a World War II veteran who served in the Greek underground forces, said his father introduced him to vegetable gardening when he was a boy. Since his move to the United States in 1946, he said, it has become his livelihood.

“I garden now,” he said. “It’s my life. It just makes me happy.”

Del Guercio told Papalambros he was too modest.

“Rick and Tony and Jimmy are the masters – Rick of the flowers, Jimmy of the vegetables,” she said. “The rest are just learning.”

Self-sufficiency, spirituality and social life

Nicole Kleman and Jason Bowers have tended a sunny double plot for two years and consider themselves learners. But their tidy rows of produce, ranging from eggplant to green grapes, speak to the success of their garden.

“We’d like to get better at it,” said Bowers, a 36-year-old architect. Still, he said, the couple doesn’t expect to have to buy any herbs, scallions, zucchini or other vegetables for the rest of the summer.

“I like to know where my food is coming from,” said Kleman, 34, who is also an architect at a local firm. “I like being in touch with the whole life cycle of the plants. The more you know about your food, the more you appreciate it.”

Amy Kellogg, a senior studying fine art at the Art Institute of Boston, also grows produce for personal use – short- and long-term

“I can’t wait to come here and just snack on my vegetables,” Kellogg said. “Ultimately, I want to be more self-sufficient. I like to be able to get foods that are out of season at the stores, though, the more you do that, the more out of touch you are with life.”

Kellogg received a plot two months ago after a brief application process. Fenway Victory Gardens plots, available to all Boston residents, cost $30 per year regardless of their location and are usually about 15 by 20 feet in area. Tenants are discouraged from selling items from their gardens.

Richard Barry, one of the gardens’ longest-serving tenants, has owned the plot adjacent to Kellogg’s since 1985.

One of the many things Barry and his plot are known for is a massive Katsura tree brought back from Japan by a friend in 1945 that gives his garden more shade than most. He grows few vegetables, tending instead to an array of leafy perennials that flourish in the shadows.

“This is like my meditation on Saturdays,” he said. “I go to church later.”

Formerly the manager of New England (now Beth Israel) Deaconess Medical Center’s information center, Barry recently retired to the Fenway. He is a venerable figure in the gardens and the community, his friends say, and when he isn’t feeding and trimming his plants he’s likely volunteering at the local monthly newspaper, the Fenway News.

Most gardeners take pride in the sense of community and diversity in the Fenway Victory Gardens. And many receive gardening tips, donated plants and tools and other assistance from fellow gardeners around them.

“The great thing here is that people really help,” said Daphne Hubbard of the South End. “I have some younger male friends that help with the fences and move things that are heavy.”

Visitors are always coming here with big smiles, she said while watering her marigolds and lantana.

“When I grew up in rural America, nobody really paid any attention to other people’s plants,” she said. “But here, gardens just seem to bring out the best in people.”

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