Boston's tony Beacon Hill plays host to hundreds of gawkers each year for the spring garden tour

LET'S be clear about one thing: People who flock to the annual Beacon Hill Hidden Garden tour care little about variegated Solomon's Seal or cinnamon ferns. The hundreds of visitors may politely ooh and ah over the greenery, but they're really angling for a peek inside the townhouses and terraces of Boston's elite. And the women of the Beacon Hill Garden Club are wise to their secret.

Each spring, this group of 60 members opens a dozen or so gardens to the public as a fund-raising activity. The club, which began in 1929, organizes beautification projects around Boston, including the nearby Public Garden, and contributes to environmental organizations such as the Boston GreenSpace Alliance and the Conservation Law Foundation. But the members' own gardens draw the most commotion.

This year, the mid-May event was darkened a bit by steel-gray clouds that threatened rain and by a chill wind. The volunteers, stoic and cheerful in raincoats and fortified with hot drinks, shepherded visitors down narrow red-brick passageways that opened into intimate backyard spaces.

Wisteria dripped from facades, and vines trailed elegantly like the arms of swooning women in 19th-century paintings. Violets and late tulips lingered in the shade, and azaleas were showing their colors in sunnier spots. The garden spaces, some not much bigger than a small room, were models of efficient design and ingenuity.

Despite the obvious stage-managing of many gardens (some of the plants had been troweled into place that morning), a sense of the residents' lives and personalities emerged. One gardener, perhaps in rebellion against the prevailing standard of perfection, placed a pitchfork and spade by her back door. More fanciful gardeners arranged small cherubim on ledges and tucked antique garden sculpture under waving fronds. A family built its patio to accommodate a parking space - a necessity in congested Beacon Hill. Another enterprising family designed a two-tier garden that could accommodate both child play and adult relaxation: For garden parties, the sandbox is hidden under a beautifully carved teak cover.

The problems of urban gardening are no strangers to Beacon Hill: Pollution, lack of light, raccoons, and squirrels take a toll on landscapes. The narrow rectangular plots require specific problem-solving. Circular, organic shapes must be used to defeat the stark geometry or soften its edges, and blank walls must be covered.

A reporter, asking if it was appropriate to include the names of owners, quickly learned about an old Yankee tradition. It says that there are only two times in life when a respectable person's name gets into the paper: marriage and death. The residents, who welcome tour sightseers enthusiastically, are quite zealous of their privacy the rest of the year. And with these tiny patches of green as their only retreats, who can blame them? But it still makes passersby wonder what's behind the garden wall.

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