The green agenda: Explore the lush parks and gardens of Massachusetts

Sarah Baxter discovers literary connections and military history on her trip to New England

Although I was 50 floors up a steel-and-glass skyscraper, looking down on one of the larger cities in the US, I felt curiously close to nature. The view from the Prudential Tower's 700ft-high observatory made it clear that, though undeniably urban, Boston's heart is green.

The colour courses through the city. Most obvious from my eyrie was the Emerald Necklace, a seven-mile chain of open spaces masterminded in the late 19th century by Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park fame). From Boston Common – the country's oldest park – it snakes down leafy Commonwealth Avenue, before sprawling to the Back Bay Fens, Jamaica Pond and beyond. To the north I could see the green esplanade of the Charles River (where, earlier, I'd watched a turtle dig a nest). To the east curved Rose F Kennedy Greenway, created when the elevated highway was torn down. In all directions there were abundant trees, packed between rows of handsome redbricks like protective bubble wrap.

The viridescence runs deeper, too. It swirls in the psyche of a city that's 20 per cent Irish-American. It even infiltrates Boston's obsessional sports scene: the emerald-jerseyed Celtics play basketball at TD Garden; the Red Sox's baseball stadium, Fenway Park, has trademarked the colour "Fens Green". All of which is to say that this was an appropriate start, because I'd come to Massachusetts to admire its parks and gardens.

Why go to New England to look at gardens, you might ask: Old England has no shortage of its own. But I had an inkling that by making this my theme, I'd unearth much more than plants.

I was sad to leave Boston. The city, roasting in the summer heat, was alive with the buzz of a population used to harsh winters. Like them, I was drawn to the cool of the venerable Common, to the shady old burial grounds (where Revolution greats lie) and to the innovative spaces of the Rose F Kennedy Greenway – a triumph of urban regeneration. But, like Paul Revere, leave Boston I must. And, like Revere, my first destination was the town of Concord, 20 miles west.

Urban adventure: Explore Boston's historic streets Urban adventure: Explore Boston's historic streets

Revere didn't actually make it here in April 1775: his famed Midnight Ride, to warn of advancing British troops, was cut short in nearby Lincoln. I learned all this from local guide Peter Healey, who walk-talked me from Concord's main square to the Minute Man National Historical Park. This particular patch of green, where the river is spanned by the Old North Bridge, was the scene of the opening battle of the American Revolution. These days it's a peaceful spot, where a Minute Man statue commemorates the fallen.

There's more than military history here. Concord, and Massachusetts in general, is overendowed with literary connections: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Eric Carle, Dr Seuss – they all lived hereabouts. Walden Pond, where naturalist Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to "live deliberately" for two years (1845-47), is just outside Concord. I went there one morning: it sits just off an eight-lane turnpike, and Thoreau's cabin is long gone, the site marked by pillars and an affectionate cairn. But still, following the 1.7-mile loop around the lake, with chipmunks scuttering amid the trees, I could feel the simple appeal.

I think Thoreau would have appreciated my green-space quest. He once wrote that "each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest … a common possession for ever, for instruction and recreation". While my next stop, Tower Hill Botanical Gardens, isn't primitive, the organisation behind it – Worcester Horticultural Society, founded in 1842 – shared his ethos. "People here used to have apple orchards, dairy cows," explained Tower Hill's Michael Arnum as we sat on the panoramic terrace, eating sweet strawberries grown on site. "After the Industrial Revolution, there was a worry that people were losing touch with their roots."

Tower Hill is designed to inform via flora. All species are labelled; there's a Systematic Garden, planted chronologically to show botanic evolution; there are courses on everything from garlic to medicinal herbs. Most of all, though, it's a sensory treat, overspilling with lyrical blooms: beautyberry and beardtongue, allegheny spurge and hearts-a-bursting-with-love. I don't know my pickerelweed from my, well, just weed, but I could still appreciate the aromas and aesthetics.

That kind of thinking wouldn't have held much sway with the Shakers. The religious sect, which flourished in New England in the mid-19th century, believed in pragmatism, not prettiness. Elder Frederick Evans once remarked: "The beautiful, as you call it, is absurd and abnormal; it has no business with us." No surprise, then, to find the gardens at Hancock – a working Shaker village until 1960, and now a heritage museum – were a more utilitarian affair.

There's still a medicinal plot, full of foxgloves and apothecary rose, and a textile garden, where flax is sown for linen. The vegetable patches, now run as a community agriculture scheme, were blooming with many of the same crops that Hancock's Shakers grew. "Our members get fresh greens, lots of lettuce," explained Todd Burdick, director of interpretation, as we strolled amid the site's historic buildings. "And an increasing number are becoming mangle-beet fans."

Ironically, as the Shakers strove for usefulness, beauty was an accidental by-product. Their oval boxes, rocking chairs and even their rolling pins are spartan but exquisite. The round stone barn here is a particular revelation: everything about it is designed to make farming less effort. For instance, wagons can be driven up a ramp to a mezzanine, so hay can be thrown down into storage rather than having to be hoisted up. The barn's circular structure means those wagons can be ridden right around and out, without the need to reverse the horses. Simply beautiful. Sorry, Fred.

Pole to pole: the Naumkeag gardens Pole to pole: the Naumkeag gardens

Simplicity wasn't the aim at my next set of gardens – far from it. The Berkshires, the line of hills edging far western Massachusetts, and equidistant from Boston and New York, are a cultural hub and have long been a popular retreat for the well-heeled. The Astors, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies – all built opulent "cottages" amid these undulations. One such is The Mount, Edith Wharton's country escape. Wharton, whose first book was non-fiction guide The Decoration of Houses, designed the white stucco mansion and gardens herself, a riposte to the vulgar décor favoured by many of her nouveau riche contemporaries. Although she lived here only from 1901 to 1911, they were her most creative years – she wrote The House of Mirth here.

My favourite spot was the terrace. From here, the formal grounds – an Italianate giardino segreto, French-style flower garden, a formal alley of linden trees – drop away from the house and merge with the countryside beyond. Henry James, who visited several times, called it "a French château mirrored in a Massachusetts pond".

It was a similar set-up at Naumkeag, a Gilded-Age villa of turreted redbrick and shingle that belonged to the Choate family. The gardens were their pride and joy, a mix of peony terrace, parterred Afternoon Garden, iconic Blue Steps, a Chinese enclave. Indeed, the landscape dictated the whole set-up. The Choates selected the plot because of a fondness for a particular old oak; when the original architect (Mr "Central Park" Olmsted again) recommended chopping down the tree to make way for the house, he was replaced.

I sat under that tree, on an Adirondack chair, and thought I'd rather like to be a Gilded Age-ee. I could get used to pottering amid the roses or rocking on the patio, waiting for the dinner gong to sound. It's a life easily imaginable at Naumkeag: in 1958, Mabel Choate passed the house directly to the Trustees of Reservations (a sort of National Trust for Massachusetts), so all the original furniture, wallpaper and knick-knacks remain. The result is an authentic, lavish yet liveable home.

The same could not be said of my final Berkshires stop. Completed in 1912, Ashintully was once known as the Marble Palace, a glimmering Georgian-style mansion on a hill, fronted by four great Doric columns. But it burnt down in 1952; now only the columns remain, lonely stanchions, supporting air. The gardens are well tended; a stream trickles under a bridge; statues dot the lawn. But it was the view from that ruined terrace, over the Tyringham Valley, that entranced.

"See that rise?" Garden-keeper Jeb pointed to a near tree-cloaked ridge. "That's where the Appalachian Trail runs through." Ah, the Appalachian Trail, the most tantalising of long-distance hikes, 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. And here were the gardens of Massachusetts segueing right into that great untamed garden beyond. An inspiration in green.

Travel essentials

The writer travelled with Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777;, which flies from Heathrow to Boston from £500 return.

Seeing there

Emerald Necklace Conservancy (

Rose F Kennedy Greenway Conservancy ( Minute Man National Historical Park (

Tower Hill Botanical Gardens (

Hancock Shaker Village (

The Mount, Edith Wharton's Home ( Naumkeag (

Ashintully Gardens (

Staying there

Colonial Inn, Concord ( Doubles from $159 (£106).

The Deerfield Inn, Deerfield ( Doubles from $165 (£110).

Nine Zero, Boston ( Doubles from $249 (£166).

More information

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments