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Tenacious Boston Gardeners Keep a Wartime Tradition Alive


`THIS is one of the most beautiful places in Boston," says Kathleen Sanborn, paying tribute at the Fenway Victory Gardens' 50th anniversary celebration last weekend. Standing next to her three-foot-high brussels-sprout plants, Ms. Sanborn praises the location where she has gardened for the past 14 years. "This is the garden of Eden," she says.

In an adjacent park, gardeners of the seven-acre haven that used to be fens (marshland) displayed their produce and mingled with visitors while a jazz band set the anniversary mood.

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Even in late September, the gardens beckon passers-by to take in their vibrant colors, unusual shapes, and tempting edibles. Framed by Boston skyscrapers, apartment buildings, and Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox baseball team, the gardens are an urban anomaly.

"Every time there is a Red Sox game we are invaded by people who say `Hey, look at this place! We never knew it existed!' " says Albert Sabal, president of the Fenway Garden Society, the group that oversees the gardens' 450 plots along with the Boston Department of Parks and Recreation.

The most common questions asked by visitors, the gardeners say, are "What's that flower?" and "How can I get a garden?" Such questions are prompted by hibiscus plants from Hawaii, exotic irises, and pools of fish and waterlilies.

Established in 1942, these "victory" gardens, the oldest in the United States, were originally worked by Americans heeding the call of President Roosevelt to help supplement rationed food supplies during World War II. At that time, some 20 million gardeners hoed for Uncle Sam.

Today, gardening has remained in the public eye through such television shows as PBS's "The Victory Garden," which first aired in 1975. But with no more war to fight, the term "victory garden" has a new meaning.

`FOR our show it was ... victory over the dependence on others to provide your food. It was [victory] over the cost of buying vegetables from someone else," says executive producer and director Russell Morash by phone. "It was victory over the apparent mystery of getting a seed to sprout and form, and produce a useful vegetable."

The Boston-based director says the popularity of gardening has risen and fallen since the '70s. But of the Fenway gardens, he says, "Clearly, they've survived because they fill a very important human need." As he sees it, "there is something about the human spirit that needs to get fingers in the earth and get seeds growing."

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Mr. Morash has visited similar urban gardens in Britain, Germany, and "most notably" in Holland. "Anywhere you have dense urban populations and a little vacant land, you'll find people who will ... take the trouble to garden," he says.

The Fenway Victory Gardens are no exception.

"We have 350 registered gardeners, but with their spouses and friends who work with them, we have well over 1,000 people who garden the gardens," says Jack Delmond, organizer of the celebration and a former president of the gardening group. The young, the retired, the immigrant, and those who have special needs can all be found gardening here. Mr. Delmond says the gardens make the city more livable for gardeners and the community alike.

The waiting list for a 15-by-30-foot plot today is two months at the most. Boston gardeners may acquire more than one plot, at $15 per year for each, and several plots are used for compost on a rotating basis.

"Urban gardening is very different from regular gardening, in that it's not a solitary venture," says Delmond. "Urban gardening is very social ... meeting friends, gardening with friends, that's what makes it very different from gardening in a suburban house."

The composition of the victory gardens has changed over the years, from vegetables only to a mixture that includes flowers and herbs, says Delmond. But, he says, the variety of vegetables has also changed - from basics like corn and potatoes to more exotic crops. "You get things like fennel, fava beans, leeks, cardoons [a relative of the artichoke], which is an odd vegetable, and different kinds of herbs," he says.

One long-time gardener of unusual vegetables is Jamaica native Leslie Hyman. A retired carpenter who has had a plot here for 15 years, Mr. Hyman grows Jamaican spinach (called "callaloo"), his favorite, and a long, green Jamaican squash. (See photo.) Fellow gardeners ask him for seeds so they can grow it, too.

But tomatoes are the gardeners' top choice. "I eat tomatoes every day," says rookie gardener Tim Ewart, who says he has started eating more vegetables since acquiring his garden a year ago.

"You can't buy anything that tastes like a fresh-grown tomato," Delmond says.

In their 50-year history, the gardens have survived the continual threats of vandalism and developers. Delmond says the gardens have thrived because of a well-organized, tenacious group of gardeners.

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