He stood there with a soggy cigar in his mouth admiring his work. After 25 years, Rick Malkasian’s piece of the Victory Gardens in the Fenway is a labor of love, a place admired by many.
It wasn’t always so. When Malkasian, 59, was given his plot in 1987 by the garden society, he wasn’t quite certain where to begin. It came with a “tall and gangly” crabapple tree, he said, and his friend suggested that he cut it down.
“I didn’t know what to do with it,” he admitted.
So for a while, he did next to nothing.
“I paid a kid to mow my lawn and I’d come on Sundays and have a barbecue or smoke a cigar,” said the former cab driver.
But after receiving two letters from the garden society -- one still tacked up on a board -- threatening to take his garden away, Malkasian slowly began to make moves. He kept the tree, and began carving beds in preparation to plant.
“Then I realized that [the garden] was art and I became more invested.”
A lot more invested.
Today Malkasian, who lives a few blocks away, estimates he gardens here about 10 hours a week. During this year’s mild winter, he worked through months when most Northeastern gardens are normally under a layer of snow. And now Malkasian, who has become certified as a master gardner and opened his own horticulturist business, knows just what he wants to do.
Visit his garden and he will tick off the different plants and flowers in his plot: Lenten Rose and the Christmas Rose, which are both Hellebore flowers that bloom at different times of the year. There are chartreuse plants, Mini Grape Hyacinth placed just so, and a Blue Spruce, neatly pruned.
Around him, the Victory Gardens stretches across seven acres of land with more than 500 plots that measure about 15- by 25-feet. The garden dates back to World War II, when it and similar gardens sprang up nationwide to help feed our soldiers overseas. The Fenway Garden is the last of the original Victory Gardens remaining. Malkasian’s garden stretches over four of its plots.
The Victory Gardens is its own neighborhood. For example, Malkasian’s friend for more than 30 years, Tony Siracusa, kept suggesting things for him to plant.
Recalls Siracusa, “Soon enough he said, ‘Why don’t you go get your own garden?’” And so he did.
“The garden has a lot to do with us still being friends,” said Siracusa, who gardens next to Malkasian. “It’s hard to drop in on someone in their home, it’s a lot easier to drop in when they’re in their garden.”
Other gardeners share their crops.
“When it’s tomato season, people will just give away tomatoes because they grow faster than anyone can eat them,” said Malkasian, who enjoys the friendly community that also grows around him.
As he grew more engaged in his own garden, Malkasian drew inspiration from an artistic background.
In high school, he was enrolled in art classes, and he also attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design on and off for five years.
And so he said to himself, “I want to paint a picture. I shuffle plants for a more pleasing design.”
It took lots of observing for Malkasian to figure out what that design should be.
“It’s a controlled garden. It’s naturalistic, but it’s not natural,” Malkasian said. If it were natural, he said, there would be weeds all over and plants growing wild.
As his plants grew, so did Malkasian’s interest in gardening.
For 15 years, he drove a cab at night. But before each shift he’d spend time tending to his masterpiece. On the job, he’d share photos of his garden with customers.
“When you’re a cab driver you don’t get a lot of nice things said to you," he said. "it’s kind of a depressing job." But his garden kept his spirits high.
It still does. Malkasian explains how gardening to him is almost “godly.” Accidents happen, something grows somewhere unexpectedly. This leaves him a choice. He can “allow a thing to be,” or he can tear it up by the roots.
“Everything is on a list, everything has a plan,” he said. “I won’t remove something without a plan of replacement.”
Wearing his gardening gloves, a hole in his ring finger about the size of a nickel, he points to a Japanese Maple.
“That tree came as a stick in the mail,” he said.
He also points to plants that used to be. A stub remains in the corner of his garden where a Blue Pine once stood. Now there are bricks neatly placed for a table and chairs.
The planning and developing is the fun part, Malkasian said. The hard work is the maintenance.
With every beautiful plant that blooms, Malkasian will hardly ever take a flower home.
“If I’m missing a flower it’s like a scar on my garden,” he said.
He enjoys the visitors who pass by, often with kind words.
Rafael Troche doesn’t garden himself. But he loves walking through Victory Gardens.
“I used to come here for lunch,” said Troche, who worked in the Landmark building down the street at Blue Cross Blue Shield. Troche would bring his lunch and sit under a pine tree to enjoy the beautiful scenery.
“It’s just so peaceful here,” he said.
Victory Gardens is one of the best spots for people to birdwatch, too, Malkasian said. People will come from all over the region.
The songs of a Black-Capped Chickadee perched in a tree from behind and a woodpecker from a near distance have a sweet melody. It’s almost magical -- until the sound of a siren cuts the air, a reminder that this is still in the heart of a city.
Still, as the leaves fill in the garden gets quieter, Malkasian said.
“When kids are off to camp and the Red Sox are away it gets real quiet,” he said. “But when the Sox are here you hear Neil Diamond and the crowd roaring.”
But it’s the garden’s magic and tranquility that keeps bringing Malkasian to its shadow.
“Rick is a real horticulturist, he knows where to plant what and names of all sorts of plants,” Siracusa said. “I don’t know any of that, I just wanted a piece of land to paint my garden with plants.”
Malkasian's evolution to certified master gardener came gradually. He took master classes through the Massachusetts Horticulturist Society. Classes like soil structure and plant biology rooted him with the knowledge he desired. They also prepared him for the Massachusetts Certified Horticulturist Exam that he took to become a certified horticulturist in the state.
Today he has his own small business: Rick Malkasian Gardens. When people look at his garden, they want what he has, he said. But, he added, he never takes on more than two clients at a time.
He is a meticulous man. He says he wishes he had a year to develop his clients’ gardens because there is a lot that goes into planning.
“I need to observe it. I need to know what things are like in their yard and how it changes with the seasons,” he said.
Twenty-five years ago, Malkasian would not have known where to start. But after years of tilling the soil of the Victory Garden plot, he’s mastered the craft. His perfectly edged stonewall, his sunken paths and carefully placed brick work add texture to his wonderland, and the peach tree that blooms along the fence is an attraction to many who pass by.
“Back in the 70s they wanted to make it a parking lot for Fenway,” Malkasian said. “But when Kevin White was in his mayorship it was declared a national historic landmark.” Now, it’s untouchable.
And so is Malkasian’s plot, a part of the city, a part of the garden, a part of him.
“It’s an enhancement of my life," he says.
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.
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