Expert Advice

Connecting People with Plants – 
A Conversation with Tom Smarr,
Superintendent of Horticulture, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, Boston, MA 
“In the City, Tough Plants go into the Ground”
From my point of view, Tom Smarr has one of the best jobs on earth.  He is the Superintendent of Horticulture at the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston.  His eyes light up when talking about creating a beautiful and safe environment on the Greenway and connecting people to plants. What an exciting match of opportunity with expertise!  The Greenway, for those who don’t know, is a 1 ½ mile stretch of gardens, fountains and paths that wind between Boston’s North End and Chinatown. It’s new, reclaimed, ground-level space created from the Big Dig tunnel, bridge and road project.   
Tom’s journey to the Greenway started in his childhood, with the influence of his farmer grandparents and his mother, who cultivated botanical gardens and house plants.  He fondly remembers dogtooth violets and trillium.  I must confess I had to look up those varieties after the interview but they are lovely!

Tom earned his undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies and a graduate degree in Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington in Seattle.  I didn’t even know there was such a course of study!  After college, he interned at the well-renowned Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania.  Then a position at Garden in the Woods in Framingham brought Tom to the Boston area.  After 10 years there, three as the Director of Horticulture, he took on the top horticultural leadership spot at the Greenway.  “Garden in the Woods is an amazing space, Tom said.  “There I learned how you can host people and educate people through beautiful garden spaces.”  Now at the Greenway, Tom muses that “in one day, as many people are on the Greenway as came through the Garden in the Woods in a year.”

Speaking about the Greenway, Tom says, “In the city, gardening gets a little tougher because you have so many more challenges.  You have the passerby pedestrian, you have people in general, plus animals, vehicles, bicycles, and more.  Every square inch of the city has so much more impact on it than out in the suburbs, or in the country.  Out in the country, you may walk a similar pathway but it’s only you.  But in the city, it’s you and 5,000 people following behind you!” 

So what are Tom’s recommendations for city gardeners?
Getting Started:
“Designing a garden plot is like decorating indoors.  A garden is like a room.  It has a floor and walls.”  What colors and textures do you like?  Unsure?  Go to a flower show or a greenhouse or garden center.  See what plants and flowers attract you.  Tom suggests three books that provide design and plant guidance and inspiration:
• Small Garden by John Brookes;
•  The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy Sabato-Aust
•  Designing with Plants by Piet Oudolf.

Selecting Plants that Grow:
“In the city, tough plants go into the ground.  And tough means beautiful and hardy.  When you choose your garden plants, consider sunlight, moisture, bloom color and height.”  
“Know your exposure.  Notice how much sun and shade are in different areas of your garden.“
•Full Sun                 6 hours or more of direct sunlight (in summer)
•Part-sun               2 to 6 hours of direct sunlight
•Part-shade          1-2 hours of direct sunlight
•Light shade         Dappled sunlight, or shade below open sky

Tom suggests these plants for each sun level:
1. Full sun: 
•Black-Eye Susan’s (Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’)
•Dwarf New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’)
•Husker Red Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’)
•Daylilies (Hemerocallis cultivars)
•Blue Licorice Giant Hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia ‘Blue Licorice’)
•Blue Ice Amsonia 
All of these are medium to tall plants that would grow great in a perennial boarder or meadow style with ornamental grasses.  These provide a season of blooms and foliage interest and hardy in urban garden conditions.
2. Medium sun:
•Heavy Metal and Shenandoah Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum) plus  Little Blue Stem (Schizachryium scoparium ‘The Blues’) are two great grasses that durable and have nice solid color. 
•Snow Flurry (Symphyotrichum ericoides) is a low growing, groundcover type aster.
•Sheffield Pink Florist Daisy (Chrysanthemum x morifolium ‘Sheffield Pink’) is a hardy blooming chrysanthemum along with many other cultivars provide different colors in the garden for autumn. 
All of these will do fine in full sun to medium light and mixed with plants in the full sun category.
•A favorite shrub is Dwarf Witch-alder (Fothergilla gardenia) an early spring flowers with vibrant autumn foliage.  
3. Part Shade to Shade:
•Pachysandra is typically a dependable groundcover as is Liriope spicata that is a grass-like blooming plant. 
•Tom’s favorites are Hydrangeas that provide good summer color and mounding shrubs.  Popular cultivars are mop head types like ‘Blushing Bride’ and ‘Endless Summer’ or a lacecap variety like ‘Blue Billow’. 
•He also likes Oak Leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) as it has unique flowers and leaves.
•Barren Strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides) is a groundcover that does well in shady conditions like many other woodland favorites seen at Garden in the Woods in Framingham. 
Plants for shade sites can be tough as little or no light reaches the ground.  Tom recommends trying some of the groundcovers in Part Shade and thinking uniquely about the location for garden ornaments.
You can follow many of these plants found on the Greenway and more through the Greenway Conservancy’s blog:

Moisture:  “Just as we determine sun exposure for the success of plants to grow, so do we need to understand moisture.  Here we can fool nature a bit by adding moisture to the ground through hand watering or irrigation. 
“We can never fully replace a nice gentle rain, but we can help plants survive in tough situations.  Notice if your soil will hold moisture for a week after an easy rain.  Test this by putting a trowel in the ground to see if the soil is damp below the surface.  Many urban soils are sandy and cause water to drain quickly, but soil compaction will hold moisture for prolong periods.  Both have challenges that can be modified with compost and de-compaction.” 

Bloom Color and Height: Choose colors that you like and that work together.  Choose flowers that bloom at different times of the season. Make sure to read the plant label.  Know what to expect for growth.

Dose of Reality: “Expect many plants to die.  It’s what happens.  It’s how we learn.  Just keep at it!”

Where to look for quality plants:
Though not a complete list by any means, Tom suggests Mahoney’s, Russell’s and Allendale Farm as three good garden centers in the Boston area for perennials and plants. 

Want to hear more from gardening professionals?
Tom recommends looking at the offerings at local public gardens like Arnold Arboretum and community education programs.  For professionals New England Grows, a three-day convention held at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center on Feb. 3, 4 and 5.  It’s a trade show for horticulture and landscape professionals with an interesting series of lectures.  Learn more at

Want to learn more about the Greenway?  The Greenway is actively looking to engage and find new audiences.  Sign up to receive their e-newsletter at their website,   


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