Winchester’s Arboretum

Some of Boston’s most intriguing landscapes are invisible to casual passers-by. Ramler Park sits quietly on a side street near a block from the Back Bay Fens; the Howard M. Ulfelder Healing Garden is tucked away on the eighth floor of Mass General Hospital’s Yawkey Center. In Winchester, the Cotton-Arbo retum nonchalantly waits to pounce visitors along a sparsely populated stretch of Washington Street. All right, it won’t actually attack you–but the Cotton-Arbo retum is one of the most overwhelming gardens I’ve visited in a long, long time.

To answer your immediate questions, yes, it’s supposed to be spelled that way. Dudley Cotton and Mindy Arbo arrived in Winchester in 1987 to find “a wild woodland of junk trees and scrub.” They set to work putting peonies, daylilies, and Siberian iris all over the place and within three years, their gardens were awarded the “Best in Show” prize in an amateur gardeners’competition sponsored by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. As a prize, the pair was sent to the Trompenberg Arboretum in Holland, a “life-changing experience.” Apparently, all their gardening urges went into hyper-drive.

Since then, Cotton and Arbo been busy stuffing their property with as many plants as possible. “Lush” doesn’t even begin to describe this place, which seems to have been precisely calculated  millimeter by millimeter to contain a maximum number of japanese maples, hostas, rhododendrons, blue spruce, hardy bananas, heuchera, geraniums, fountains, frog statues, dog statues, sun sculptures, seats and urns and fountains and clematis and heaven knows what else. If it can survive in USDA Zone 5, it’s probably living in here somewhere.

That isn’t to say that Cotton and Arbo are plant hoarders; their web site details their design principles. They’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to craft their garden, and how to share it with everyone. It’s a beautiful, lively space, formed by creative, generous people–and it’s a lot in a fairly small back yard. Still, it’s nice to see an antidote to all the hardscape-dominated minimalist landscapes that dominate public plazas. Jam-packed and refulgent, the Cotton-Arbo retum celebrates life.

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