Conceptual Gardening: Historic Back Bay Bagel Design

Some works of art transform the landscape for the ages: the pyramids at Giza, the pre-Columbian causeways and earthworks in the Bolivian Amazon; Stonehenge. Other landscape art is ephemeral: Andy Goldsworthy‘s natural constructions vanish with the wind and the rain; the Big Hammock that graced the Rose Kennedy Greenway has disappeared along with lazy summer days. To this latter company we all must add the Bagel Garden, one of Boston’s most historic, temporary, and tasty landscape installations.

According to designer Martha Schwartz‘s web site, in 1979 Schwartz was a frustrated young artist laboring at a landscape architecture firm, yearning to create her own projects with her own hands. In a fit of inspiration, she redesigned the 22-square-foot front yard of her Back Bay row house. The spot had two square concentric rings (if a ring can be square) of short boxwood hedges, one inside the other. Inside the inner box, she planted purple ageratum. Between the outer box and inner box she put a 30-inch wide strip of purple aquarium gravel. (Yes, aquarium gravel; the stuff that always seems to match the goldfish so well inside the Petco store and looks like remnants of The Blob in your little glass bowl at home.) And on top of that gravel, Schwartz carefully aligned a double row of… bagels. Eight dozen bagels adorned the Barney-The-Dinosaur-colored walkway, decades before the curse of Barney was unleashed upon our land.

Mind you, these weren’t ordinary bagels! Well, actually they were. Schwartz dipped them in marine spar, known as “varnish” to us landlubbers, but still; bagels they were, and bagels they remain. Or, at least, they would be if they hadn’t “eventually decomposed,”as Schwartz’s web site explains.

The Bagel Garden is worth remembering because Schwartz’s garden helped usher in the “conceptual gardening” movement– which is fitting, as all we have left of the garden is an idea and several charming pictures. But really; the idea behind the garden has become as important to many designers as the plants, if there even are any plants. Bagels were just the beginning. Nowadays, you can find all sorts of odd things at international garden festivals, including giant sea urchins.

The row house which hosted the row bagels is still there, at 190 Marlborough Street, and someone has been keeping up the hedge. But the purple gravel is gone, and the goldfish in the condo market are probably looking elsewhere.

  2 Replies to “Conceptual Gardening: Historic Back Bay Bagel Design”

  1. Maria Pap
    October 4, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Hi Meg,
    The Bagel Garden is indeed a very famous conceptual garden but what is the idea behind this ? Is it just a garden with different materials that makes you wonder what is a garden or there is something more?

  2. Meg Muckenhoupt
    October 4, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    How thoughtless of me! I apologize for the omission. Here’s what Schwartz has to say about it:

    “Conceived as the stage set for her husband’s return from a week-long business trip, the front yard also became an ode to the landscape artist’s favorite food: ‘Bagels are humble, homey, and ethnic,’ she explains. ‘Besides, I could get many of them inexpensively.'”

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