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Getting to the root of it: A morning at Boston's Eden

Getting to the root of it: A morning at Boston's Eden

Just steps from Boston’s wildly popular Museum of Fine Arts sits one of the city’s genuinely best kept secrets. An international treasure chest of artwork, marble, and leafy greens, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was named for its founder, and what it lacks in publicity, the museum makes up for with its unique floral displays. 

Comprising two wings — the old built by Gardner in 1903, and the new completed in 2012 — and on- and off- site greenhouses, the entire museum is garnished with plants, shrubs, and flowers. But the ISG’s most extraordinary work of nature is the planting in its glass-covered, Venetian-style courtyard at the centre of the original building; a living, blooming work of art in itself.

“It’s one of a kind,” says greenhouse supervisor, Taylor Johnston, who tirelessly tends to and curates the abundant greenery. “I think it’s one of Boston’s most beloved spaces.”

Johnston, at work.

Johnston, at work.

The whole place feels impossible, a veritable Eden sitting behind the Fens, complete with marble statues, ornate wall carvings, running fountains, and a calming air that only the smell of lush nature can provide.

In a way it is impossible. By all rights the garden shouldn’t even be here. The air is too dry, a way of preserving the paintings, and despite the great glass roof, the light is insufficient as well.

Johnston says, “Looking up, there’s no UV light. It’s just visible light. All these plants require UV light to do anything.”

Most plants last just seven days in the courtyard before they need to go back into the greenhouse to recover.

Most plants last just seven days in the courtyard before they need to go back into the greenhouse to recover.

Perhaps most remarkable about the whole experience is that the garden is the only thing in the museum that can ever change, the security guard tasked with making sure I didn’t break anything during my visit told me. A lovely woman with a thankless job, Tanisha Carrasquillo told me Gardner’s will stated that the museum must shut down if any of the works are sold or permanently moved, and everything must be shipped to Paris for an auction.

Looking up: the glass ceiling that protects the courtyard from the elements.

Looking up: the glass ceiling that protects the courtyard from the elements.

The only time this was ever violated was in 1990, when a theft heard around the art world stripped the museum of thirteen paintings, including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer. 

 The largest private property theft in history, at an estimated $500 million. The art and eclectic history of both the museum and its founder are captivating, yet it’s the beauty of the garden demands your attention. 

All the plants on site are grown in one of the greenhouses the museum owns, before being replanted in the courtyard. Most plants can last just a few weeks in those bleak conditions before needing respite in the cosy greenhouse. Some of the plants, like the colossal flowering vines will bloom for little more than two weeks, and yet need nine months before they’re ready to bloom.

Others are just plain demanding. Describing some of the tall, 30-year-old ferns, 33-year-old Johnston says, “They have to be watered everyday. So when we had the snow emergencies and Bosfton Bombings... you weren’t allowed out on the road, we had to figure out who was going to come in and water the f-ing fern trees.”

Water catches the light as Johnston mists the lower beds of the garden.

Water catches the light as Johnston mists the lower beds of the garden.

But the flawless appearance of the trees is just part of the artistry behind it. Johnston says part of the joy of the her job is connecting the garden arts with the pieces on the wall.

“It feels like we’re carrying the torch for people working out there in peoples’ homes and backyards. This is actually a very creative field,” she says.

It’s easy to see how a little time in the garden could cure any manner of malady.

It’s easy to see how a little time in the garden could cure any manner of malady.

While the gardeners don’t try to mimic a painting’s colour scheme with what they plant, for example, they do take inspiration from the works. “This past December we looked at Gardner’s travel journal to Egypt, and created a display that was mildly Egyptian,” Johnston says. “We had different combinations of plants like aloe, and red fruiting plants.”

Carrasquillo tells me this is one of her favourite parts of the museum: the contrast between the dark, cool brick hall that rings the main garden, and the vivid, airy, warm garden.

Carrasquillo tells me this is one of her favourite parts of the museum: the contrast between the dark, cool brick hall that rings the main garden, and the vivid, airy, warm garden.

Despite meeting with Johnston at 6:30 a.m. — a regular start time for her — the vegetation has an awakening impact on me. The courtyard feels warm, clean, and relaxing, without being sterile or dull. And apparently there are more tangible health benefits too.

“There are people often prescribed visits here by their doctor,” Johnston says. “If you think about where we are in the Fenway, there’s three big hospitals. There are a lot of people needing a place to come and feel like they’re in a sanctuary.”

Coburn carries two watering cans from the tap in the greenhouse to the plants in the lobby of the new wing. “There’s no hose out here,” she tells me.

Coburn carries two watering cans from the tap in the greenhouse to the plants in the lobby of the new wing. “There’s no hose out here,” she tells me.

Change isn’t necessarily a problem for the gardeners. One of the difficulties of working in the medium of nature is that some of your tools can take up to 10 years to bloom, like the fishtail palm trees in the new wing’s lobby, greenhouse assistant Grace Coburn said. 

Despite the obvious appeal of the riotous foliage right by the entrance, it’s not without its drawbacks. 

“Yeah, these boxes aren’t waterproof,” Coburn said.

“Yeah, these boxes aren’t waterproof,” Coburn said.

“At some point, the plants just become so overgrown that when people are in line to purchase tickets, there are people that are getting hit in the face with leaves,” Coburn chuckled, acknowledging it wasn’t an issue for her, at just 5-foot-5. “Some people will ask me ‘can’t you cut these branches off?’ and I’ll just walk right under it.”

Cutting back the overeager greenery is just part of the job, as the gardening team has to monotonously water everything, deadhead — plucking the flowers off so new ones can emerge — and rotate the displays all before the museum opens at 11 a.m.

“If something looks off your eye will go straight to it and it can ruin the whole experience,” Johnston says. “Every day you have to come in with fresh eyes and try to make it feel like that insane, stop-you-in-your-tracks feeling.”

Perhaps one of the best things about the garden is the accessibility. Viewable from any angle of the old wing, and universally appealing, this particular piece requires no artistic knowledge. Rather, you can just… feel it. 

Johnston “deadheads” a plant, pulling the flower off with a satisfying “pop” to allow a new one to grow through.

Johnston “deadheads” a plant, pulling the flower off with a satisfying “pop” to allow a new one to grow through.

“One of the cool things about this job is you don’t necessarily have to pitch the work that we’re doing at this out of reach academic level,” Johnston says. “You just want people to have a beautiful experience.”

One door to the old wing can be reached through the outdoor Monk Garden: Curvy, asymmetrical, designed like a piece of spaghetti on a plate — and as it’s winter, quite dead-looking. But Johnston assures me that’s not the case. “This garden’s open year round,” she says. “There’s something cool about seeing it in this messy, totally dormant state, and being able to more easily appreciate the bark [on the trees] and the structural elements of this garden.”

One door to the old wing can be reached through the outdoor Monk Garden: Curvy, asymmetrical, designed like a piece of spaghetti on a plate — and as it’s winter, quite dead-looking. But Johnston assures me that’s not the case. “This garden’s open year round,” she says. “There’s something cool about seeing it in this messy, totally dormant state, and being able to more easily appreciate the bark [on the trees] and the structural elements of this garden.”

“We do nine different gardens each year, and each garden has maybe three sub-gardens that require us to change things,” Johnston says.

“We do nine different gardens each year, and each garden has maybe three sub-gardens that require us to change things,” Johnston says.

Coburn (L) and Johnston (R) change out some of the plants in the boxes lining the walls of the garden for some bright yellow orchids.

Coburn (L) and Johnston (R) change out some of the plants in the boxes lining the walls of the garden for some bright yellow orchids.

Yellow orchids, awaiting their new — temporary — homes.

Yellow orchids, awaiting their new — temporary — homes.

Coburn tends to some of the potted plants, kept company by the museum’s new canary, Whistler.

Coburn tends to some of the potted plants, kept company by the museum’s new canary, Whistler.

If you go…

Open hours: 
Daily 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Closed Tuesdays

Admission:
Adults: $15
Seniors 65 and up: $12
College Students: $5 with current ID

  • ProArts Consortium Member students go free.
  • Adults and seniors can receive a $2 discount when purchasing an MFA and ISG admissions ticket to use over a two-day period.
  • The museum holds greenhouse Q+A sessions every other Wednesday.
  • Photography is only permitted on the first level of the old wing as of last year. Leave your big camera at home but snap a ‘gram worthy pic on your phone.
  • Think you’re a hoarder? Gardner’s private collection includes more than 2,500 paintings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, manuscripts, rare books and decorative arts.
  • Get your detective hat on: the museum had several paintings stolen in 1990, a case that remains unsolved. The empty frames still hang on the wall.
Scenes from 2016's first SoWa Sunday

Scenes from 2016's first SoWa Sunday

What are Bostonians reporting to 311?

What are Bostonians reporting to 311?