IN 7 acres of cool, low-lying city soil, some 400 gardeners have planted checkerboard plots of luscious vegetables, bursts of bright yellow and orange flowers, and drifts of pastel pink and blue blossoms. There are pools with fish that survive through winter freezes. There are small plots with nothing but sweet, green grass, the city dweller's craving. Some people, bitten by the urge to build on their little piece of real estate, have planted patios here complete with lawn furniture. This fertile grove, circled by a race track of downtown traffic and a haphazard arrangement of brownstone buildings, is the legacy of World War II.
The Fenway Victory Gardens in Boston are the last of the community gardens established by city parks departments in the 1940s, a time of food rationing and high wartime prices, to allow people to grow their own vegetables.
Some 2,600 families gardened here in the '40s. And although those original gardens disappeared from other cities, such greenery has since sprung up in vacant lots and fields in many downtowns. Today millions of Americans have succumbed to the lure of the soil.
``I hated gardening growing up,'' says Paul Belicki, a Boston banker with more than a dozen rosebushes in his garden. ``It was a chore. But I can't stay away from this plot I started about 10 years ago. It's on my morning jogging route, and I often come by at night to water and pick.''
The gardens are situated in what is known as ``the Fens'' - part of the city's so-called ``Emerald Necklace,'' a string of parks designed in the 1880s by famed architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also laid out Central Park in New York. The Fenway Garden Society elects officers, assigns plots to new gardeners, and helps beginners. The plots, which average 15 feet by 30 feet, are available to Boston residents for a $15 annual fee, which helps support a watering system and maintenance tools.
There's an egalitarian spirit here, seen in the variety of people who garden side by side, planting fall crops of lettuce, spinach, and peas, or bulbs for next spring. Some gardeners are serious about their hobby and like to quote the Latin names. Many learn from their neighbors or garden by instinct.
Mattie Matheson can be found in her garden - or helping out in a neighbors' - every day, fair weather or foul. Miss Matheson, a Fenway gardener for 40 years, remembers when ``people grew vegetables to save money. It was more serious business.''
Today, the business of gardening is mostly for fun. While most of the Fenway gardeners plant a mixed bag of flowers and vegetables, a few like to specialize. Some grow just salad foods, for instance, with half a dozen kinds of greens. Some plant Italian or Mediterranean foods, like broccoli Romanesco, basil, oregano, and angelica. Others prefer Oriental or French themes.
``I freeze a lot of my vegetables and dry the herbs and celery and parsley,'' says Millie Erkander, a retired nurse. ``Swiss chard and yellow beans are already in my freezer, and I make herb salt every year.''
``The big thing is that what you grow, you know about,'' says Susan Arsenault, president of the 400-member Fenway Garden Society. ``You know it's food that's really fresh. It's free of chemicals, additives, and processing.''
Ms. Arsenault's group is at the forefront of protecting the Fenway Gardens from the development pressures that have beset it since the 1940s. Gardeners and supporters fought off proposals for a hospital, a school, and, on three occasions, a parking lot for Red Sox fans attending nearby Fenway Park. Today the city plans to re-landscape Olmsted's ``Emerald Necklace'' to restore its original scenery.
The biggest threat to the individual gardener, however, is the passers-by who decide to avail themselves of another's labor. After digging all spring and weeding and watering all summer long, there's nothing more discouraging than coming to your plot with bushel basket in hand, only to discover that somebody's already harvested your crop. Or swiped a clump of your prize delphiniums.
Brian Bernard puts up fences and gates, and covers them with grease to discourage people from climbing over and upsetting his goldfish pool ringed with sweet alyssum, columbine, and other flowers. Others plant raspberry bushes to make a brambly barrier, or grow vegetables so strange - white eggplant, perilla, tomatillos, and yellow beets - that most people wouldn't think of swiping them.
But the gardens are in a city park, after all, and most gardeners are willing to part with the occasional pilfered pumpkin or snitched strawberry - in the spirit of urban neighborliness.