Best Gardens of Greater Boston

Daffodils at Tower Hill

Spring in New England is like Dustin Pedroia: short but powerful. As the sap rises in the veins of trees and New Englanders, my countrymen flock to open spaces in shorts and skirts freshly unpacked from winter storage, their Anglo-Saxon legs as white as Lamprey eels, their faces as rapturous as the Pope on Easter.

And then, two weeks later, we start complaining about how hot it is.

But I can think of no better way to spend the precious interlude between dismal winter and steamy summer than enjoying the flowers that will soon be scorched out of existence. So here is my incomplete, unscientific list of a few spots around Boston to take it all in. Please add your own suggestions in the comments!

The Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain. But wait, isn’t an arboretum just full of trees? Yes, yes it is — all kinds of beautiful flowering, budding trees! The Arnold also contains one of my all-time top-ten favorite places in all of New England: a path through 375 lilac plants, covering 180 different species. When they’re in bloom, run, do not walk!. They’re always gone quicker than you think.

The Public Garden, Boston. Boston’s central, formal park isn’t large, but it punches above its weight with gardeners who rotate in new annuals as the season progresses. It’s also (if you didn’t know, and I didn’t) America’s first botanic garden. No spring is complete without a ride on one of the Swan Boats and a peak at the little kids visiting the ducklings.

Mount Auburn Cemetery, Watertown. This historic burying ground helped launch a new movement in America: “rural” cemeteries where the dead could find their final rest among beautifully landscaped grounds. The popularity of such cemeteries helped launch the movement, a few years later, for more public green spaces like the Public Garden and Central Park. However beautiful it is, it’s important to remember that this is a graveyard, so no running, cycling, or dogs are allowed. Be sure to grab a map at the entrance so you can find the graves of New England notables like Henry Wadsworth Longfelow, Winslow Homer, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Buckminster Fuller, and Julia Ward Howe, along with any number of Cabots, Lodges, and Lowells.

Beacon Hill, Boston. Some of the most stunning small gardens I have ever seen are tucked behind the gracious mansions of this gas-lamped hill. But the only way to see them is to cough up $30 for the Beacon Hill Garden Club’s annual “hidden gardens” tour. It’s worth it. It’s generally (always?) the third Thursday in May. Cambridge runs a rival event called the Secret Gardens of Cambridge, but apparently only on even-numbered years. Well, there’s always next year.

Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Boylston. This 132-acre plot is relatively new, as gardens go, having been founded by the Worcester County Horticultural Society in 1986. But it’s well worth a trip west to stretch your legs in their lovely (and well-labeled) grounds.

And one of my favorite “garden walks” is really just walking the Comm Ave/Marlborough Street loop in the Back Bay. On Marlborough, in front of each architectural extravaganza is a tiny postage stamp of a garden, a “bit of ivory, two inches wide,” on which Boston’s remaining brahmins paint their horticultural fantasies. And on Commonwealth, when the magnolias are in bloom, you can’t imagine a finer boulevard.

Please share your favorite gardens (or urban gardens) in the comments!

Start Your Home Bar for Under $200

Here's one way to keep your New England-distilled spirits cold.

Here’s one way to keep your New England-distilled spirits cold.

When it was first suggested that I write something on “building your home bar” for this blog, I balked; this is New England Rambler, not New England Drinker. But it was then pointed out to me that in March in the Northeast, there’s very little rambling and a whole lot more drinking. This logic being unassailable, I had no choice but to accede.

You can quickly begin to build a home bar with a minimal outlay of cash by focusing on the basics.

Every overstocked home bar began as a single bottle.

Every overstocked home bar began as a single bottle.

Strong
Every home bar should contain a bottle of gin and a bottle of whisky. A 1.75 liter bottle of Beefeater was selling for $27 at the New Hampshire state liquor store this weekend (aha! there WILL be travel in this post after all!). While fancy gins have become “a thing,” I find Beefeater is perfectly acceptable for most purposes. If you want to go higher end (but not too far into cucumbers or botanicals) Bombay Sapphire is a smooth, versatile option. If you deeply love gin, Cold River Gin (from Maine — more traveling!) is excellent, although you’d probably never want to adulterate it with anything more exciting than a little dry vermouth.

As for the whisky, I think it’s perfectly fine to start with either a bourbon or a rye. If you like beverages slightly sweeter, pick up an affordable bourbon like Four Roses. If you like a dryer, more mineral taste, go for a perfectly serviceable rye like Old Overholt. Both are usually priced between $15 and $20. On the higher end, the ryes by Knob Creek and Bulleit are both excellent, and the Woodford Reserve bourbon always gets high marks.

Sweet
Vermouth, whether sweet (red) or dry (white) is wine-based, so even the “dry” stuff is still sweetish. You need a good bottle of both. It doesn’t pay to splurge on your gin and then desecrate it with Martini and Rossi. I like Dolin for sweet vermouth and Noilly Prat for dry. A small bottle of either will set you back maybe $12-$15. Unless you’re planning on developing a drinking habit (or hosting a large party) I do think it makes sense to stick to the smaller sizes, since as a wine-based beverage, the flavor of the vermouth will start to degrade after you open it. I thought I hated martinis for a good eight years after I made my first at my parents’ house with a bottle of vermouth that turned out to be older than I was.

Another useful sweet option to keep around the house: Cointreau. While pricey, it’s an essential ingredient in a sidecar (which I tend to make with rye) and in a lot of other classic cocktails. A mid-sized bottle will last you months.

A quick word on simple syrup: you can make an easy, no-heat version by taking equal parts superfine sugar and water and combining in a jar, shaking it until the sugar has dissolved. I always use less than the recipe calls for; a little goes a long way.

Bitter
Herbaceous amari add a layer of complexity and depth to cocktails. Angostura bitters are essential for most classic whisky cocktails. I don’t think you’ll need to diversify into any of the Fee Brothers flavors or even into Peychaud’s unless you really get bitten by the mixology bug.

Campari, on the other hand, is quite useful in a number of drinks, from the Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari in equal parts) to the Boulevardier (bourbon, sweet vermouth, Campari). It’s also delicious when combined with a bit of prosecco as part of a Venetian Spritz.

Sour
Always keep a few lemons on hand; you’ll need the juice to make Sidecars and French 75s, wedges to make whiskey smashes, and the peel to liven up your martini. An orange can also be useful (the peel is delicious in anything with Campari, and in a lot of wintry whisky cocktails). Limes probably aren’t necessary, unless you’re going to expand into rum, in which case they’re essential.

Fizzy
Small glass bottles of Schweppes tonic or mini-cans of Polar club soda will keep forever in your cupboard. Feeling fancy? I love Q Tonic (which also comes in mini-bottles).

Tools
A stainless steel cocktail set on Amazon — yes, evil Amazon — goes for about $15 and includes a shaker, bar spoon, strainer, and jigger, as well as a pair of tongs you’ll probably never use.

For two bucks, buy yourself a decent mixology app that will let you figure out just how many things you can make with what you’ve got.

Let’s tally up our costs so far (prices are all estimates):
Gin $27
Rye or bourbon $16
Sweet Vermouth $14
Dry Vermouth $14
Cointreau $27
Angostura $10
Campari $27
Tonic $5
Lemons $3 for 5
Cocktail set $15

Total: $160 — or the equivalent of an ambitious evening’s cocktails for two at Drink. If you’d like to add a few other items to round out this list of basics, consider:

Brandy (useful for classic cocktails, and cheapo versions like E&J VSOP are fine. Note that cognac is really just a tastier, more expensive version of brandy — both, like vermouth, are grape-based.)
Rum (Gosling’s black if you like dark and stormies; Meyer’s for the option that best combines versatility with deliciousness; or Sailor Jerry’s for hot rum drinks, like my favorite super-simple toddy: two ounces of rum in a mug, topped with hot water, finished with a squeeze of lime wedge.)
Maraschino liqueur (This clear liquid isn’t sweet, like cherries; it’s a little musky and mysterious-tasting. Combine an ounce of it with an ounce of lemon juice and two ounces of gin for the classic Aviation cocktail.)
Aperol (Like a lighter, sweeter Campari. It also makes a good spritz and shows up in a number of Italianate cocktails.)
Cocchi Americano (A white wine-based aperitivo, it’s like Lillet only better. Combine 1.5 ounces of it with 1.5 ounces of gin, a dash of Maraschino, and a teaspoon of Aperol for a Pretty Old Thing.)

And that’s it! You can do a lot with just these ingredients and simple ratios (the 2:1:1 — 2 oz strong, 1 oz sweet, 1 oz sour — is very forgiving). Yes, there’s an endless array of liquors to buy. But while my bar runneth over with these and more, I think you can get pretty far with these. Or at least, to April.

Six Ways to See Flowers in Boston in March

Crocuses are pushing their obstinate heads through the last remnants of dirty snow outside my office, but make no mistake — spring is still a good ways off. March may roar in like a lion, but in New England, it doesn’t so much go out like a lamb as like a slightly-less-aggressive-I-just-ate-an-antelope baby lion.

Nonetheless, if you’re itching for a bit more greenery, there are a few places you can get a preview of the lushness to come. In no particular order:

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum greenhouse

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum greenhouse

1. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Their verdant glassed-in courtyard is a perfectly climate-controlled jewel box this time of year. Palm trees, a fountain, potted orchids. Alas, they don’t allow camera use or cellphone use inside the museum proper — I CAN NO HAZ INSTAGRAM?! — but I did snap a photo of their greenhouse, replete with back-up flora. Should any plant-life flag or fail in performance of its duties, I suspect one of these runners-up will quickly get the call.

2. The MFA’s Art in Bloom weekend. Confession time: I have never attended this institutional Boston event. This year is going to be different! The event will feature roughly 70 floral arrangements throughout the museum, inspired by the works of art on display. Keep an eye out for their other floral events this spring; my mom, aunt, and I just attended an ikebana demonstration — that’s a spare, deeply meaningful form of flower arranging from Japan. (Also noted: arranging a few willow branches in a vase is much cheaper than buying a huge bouquet of blossoms, even if you buy them at Shaws.)

3. The Lyman Estate Greenhouses. Somehow, these are in Waltham — just a stone’s throw from my Watertown office — and yet I have never heard of them. Obviously, time to rectify that situation. From the website, I deduce that these are among the oldest surviving greenhouses in America, and that they contain camellias, grapes, and orchids.

4. The Limonaia at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. You’ve heard of orangeries. Well, Tower Hill built a limonaia a few years ago — and that’s another spot I fully intend to visit this winter. Spring. Sprinter. Wring. Springer. Whatever we’re calling it.

5. The Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College. Lo and behold, the most diverse under-glass botanicals in the greater Boston area just happen to be at Wellesley College. While I’ve wandered Wellesley’s arboreal campus many times, I don’t think I’ve ever wandered inside their 16 greenhouses — or even realized that they had any.

6. The Museum of Science’s Butterfly Garden. I once went to a butterfly garden on the outskirts of London and found it a magical, if slightly creepy, place. (They’re still bugs, even if they’re bugs with beautiful wings.) I haven’t been to the MOS’s version, but it promises to be “tropical” — and it’s cheaper than Curtain Bluff.

Did I leave off any favorites of yours? Let me know in the comments!