SCOUT OUT: Secret Gardens

Photo by Martha Slocum

On a hot, blue Sunday in early June two people exiting an apartment building on Dana Street followed chatter and the distinctive whiff of something going on to a slightly wilted red balloon tied to a sign out front of Amy Domini Thornton’s house.

“Secret Gardens, 10-4.”

And then, in red but lower-case: “ticket required.”

He adjusted his Red Sox cap. She read the last words aloud slowly, as if to test their authority. Then the two proceeded down a brick driveway past strawberries and roses and into Thornton’s yard, where eyes fell on what appeared to be some sort of lagoon. This was just off Mass Ave.

Thornton ushered guests in around the greenish mote.

“Hello, welcome, we’re just taking a lunch break,” she said.

The rush had been in the morning — something about the type of people who buy tickets to see strangers’ backyards being early risers — and so Thornton, smiling cheekbones and brown sunglasses, a pink floral shirt, sat in the shade of a dogwood’s white blossoms.  Beside her a man in a tan summer flat cap, with outstretched, crossed legs, tasted the sandwich of a blonde woman with a foreign accent.

“It’s not re-defining poblano for me, but it’s good,” he said, handing the sandwich to her. Within minutes, the two were in the pool. The trespassers exited past a massive copper beech.

In its second season, the pool is natural, or as natural as a man-made swimming hole near the Red Line can be. (Thornton has lived in the house, a rare local example of both Gothic and Greek revival that dates to 1841, since 1980.)

“Once I discovered that it would mean I could have an actual water garden and not have chlorine, which is always the big downer on a pool, then I very much wanted it,” said Thornton. Its use is a daily event, either for swimming or as a kind of summer hearth around which to gather.

“It doesn’t strike you as a swimming pool, it looks like a reflecting pool,” one visitor remarked.

Or, perhaps, a shady cove in New Hampshire: beside the main swimming section is the water garden: dwarf cat tails, water lilies, floating lettuce, water hibiscus, a variegated iris that’s new, pickerel weed and water hyacinths, which the raccoons have a tendency to go to town on, though their initial curiosity at the pool overall has subsided. The water trickling down from the garden side is clear. A biological filtration system hides under pavers. There’s a heater under the porch.

“Yeah it’s pretty unusual in Cambridge to have a swimming pool,” Thornton said.

The pool is only part of the Thornton’s garden, which also contains bluebell flowers by a Burmese Buddha in a mediating garden, a pergola with grapes and clematis, Solomon’s seal and much more. Thornton’s yard was one of 25 spots, mostly private yards as well as the Longfellow and Hooper Lee Nichols houses, on 2014’s Secret Gardens of Cambridge Tour, a fundraiser organized by the Friends of the Cambridge Public Library. Every two years residents open their gates to ticket-holders – and a few non-ticket-holders – to share their hobby and their haven. The Friends sold about 800 of the map pamphlets, which double as a ticket, at $25 a piece this year.

Some locations on the tour are humble: some azaleas, a row of annuals and a pitcher of lemonade. Other yards, like Elena Saporta’s, just keep on going, through a sculpture walk and “token lawn,” an apricot tree, edible nasturtiums, blueberries and red currants, heritage raspberries, and rhubarb and two working beehives. On Brattle Street, an award-winning array of plants abut a series of paths (past the fountain, before the barn) that a kid could get lost in.

“That was the range I was going for,” said Bruce Mays, the event organizer, “where you’d be blown away, and then be seeing something small but nicely done and think ‘I could do this.’”

The goal, he said, is also to have so many gardens that attendees will never be able to see them all in one day so they will be left curious. Mays was brought on in 2012 in part, he says, because he has no shame.

“I didn’t mind knocking on peoples’ doors and asking, ‘Can I go in your backyard?’” he said.

Anyone who’d like their garden to be considered can contact the Friends, though Mays does a fair amount of scouting on his own, and neighbors often recommend neighbors. Some other interesting facts according to Mays: the weather the day before is very important for turnout: “When Saturday is nice people think ‘I’d like to be out walking around gardens tomorrow.’” Also, reports from local gardening stores have the day before the tour as their busiest of the year.

A garden can only be on the tour twice in a row, and then it has to be off for a while. The Monday after this year’s tour, Mays was out scouting gardens for 2016.

Why only every two years?

“It’s a lot of work,” said Mays, on everyone’s part.

“There was a time I was thinking I’d like to maybe have my garden on the tour, but that was fantasy,” he said.

“Its dauntingly difficult to put together a good garden.”