Pockets Full of Posies

Each summer, many a tourist is drawn to Portsmouth for its history, culture and seaside charm. But few tourists know of this insider’s secret — a glorious annual feast for the soul called the “Pocket Gardens of Portsmouth” tour, scheduled this year for Friday, June 16, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday, June 17, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

I’d been all over Portsmouth countless times, so I did not expect to be surprised when I accompanied a friend last year on this lovely walking experience to take in 10 private gardens. What we found were delightful nooks and crannies of sweetness and beauty we would otherwise never have seen. Private spaces spilled over with aromatic flowers, rock gardens, benches, flowering trees and even stunning seaside views. We were pinching ourselves, as the gardens just kept getting more and more beautiful as the day went by. How often do you get invited to enjoy such places? How often will you be invited to see 10 gardens in just one day? Not even a bit of rain troubled us as we cheerfully made our way from house to house, many of which happened to be on a single street.


Rest assured that you don’t need to be a horticultural expert to enjoy the day. You’ll come away from the tour inspired, even if you don’t know a rose from a peony (and, season willing, there will be plenty of both). Gardeners and sophisticated appreciaters will be on hand, themselves enjoying the thrill of identifying plants, some of them rare. Not all will be in season at once, of course.

“You never know what the conditions will be,” says Roddy Cole, chair of the Pocket Garden tour committee for its sponsor, Portsmouth’s South Church. “But people who garden love to try to recognize the plants, even in their early stages.”

Originally started as a way to raise funds for the upkeep of South Church’s own pocket garden, described by Cole as “a semi-private haven for passersby,” the annual event has grown over the years. Today some 125 volunteers include not only church members but also garden lovers. They make the arrangements, host the gardens and bake cookies each year to welcome visiting guests. “Some of them would give anything to sit in these gardens for a couple of hours,” says Cole. Having been on the tour myself, I can see why.

The gardens, Cole explains, range from works in progress to long-established ones. “Gardeners learn to value the process,” she says. While a work in progress might be obvious to a gardener on the tour, I noticed nothing that didn’t instill feelings of peace and beauty. I am glad I brought my camera. I enjoyed those late-spring photographs for many months, even posting a few to my desktop when winter set in.

Art and music are included in the ticket price. Each year, church member and artist Melissa Weeks creates a painting at one of the houses on the tour, right before your very eyes. Guests are invited to add strokes to the picture throughout the day, which results in a remarkably good painting. The 2005 painting will be awarded to the individual who can identify the greatest number of plants on this year’s tour.

Musicians play at the gardens, too. You’ll hear solo flutists, jazz guitar — or even an Irish shanty band. The charms of history infuse everything that happens in the Port City and each year at least one historic site is included on the tour. This year the Governor Langdon House garden will be on display, and for just three dollars more you can tour the interior. Last year I was delighted to tour the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion and stroll over the lawns, which offered nautical views.

My full-page ticket contained all the information we needed: A list of the homes’ addresses, plenty of flowery detail and maps to get us around town. Roddy Cole and fellow garden scout Meghan Rice select gardens so as to cover, as much as possible, one area of town in a given year. “We like to showcase secret hideaways of beauty in tiny spaces,” says Cole.

You should be able to walk the gardens in about three hours. The ticket price is well worth spending, $17 in advance or $20 on tour days. While you’re at it, toss in a special donation for last year, too. NH

If you plan to take children on your garden walk, don’t miss a very special treat: Children’s author Tracy Kane makes a special appearance at Governor Langdon’s garden. Kids love Kane’s books on building “fairy houses.” Meet the author to see her latest book and possibly build your own fairy house that day in the garden. There’s a plant sale, too. A highlight: Landscaper Jacquelyn Nooney of Eliot, Maine, will donate “mysterious and unusual” annuals. They will be offered for sale at South Church both days.