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WORK SPACE

In the war of the roses in the Public Garden, the rabbits are winning

Izzy Berdan is a member of the Rose Brigade, an all-volunteer corps of community gardeners who toil in the soil of America's oldest botanical garden to maintain four beds of roses.
Izzy Berdan is a member of the Rose Brigade, an all-volunteer corps of community gardeners who toil in the soil of America's oldest botanical garden to maintain four beds of roses.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

The members of the Rose Brigade marched through the winding paths of the Public Garden until they reached an oval-shaped plot of fuchsia, hot pink, and paper-white roses, not far from the Swan Boats. There, Izzy Berdan, a tattooed photographer and graphic designer, planted a sequined green-and-pink flag with matching streamers, a sign it was time for the all-volunteer corps of community gardeners to don long maroon gloves and get to work pruning the roses.

“Come on, worker bees!” sang China Altman, a retired journalist for Life magazine who founded the brigade 32 years ago and calls everyone “honey bunch,” a trait she laughingly attributes to a “genetic anomaly” inherited as a girl growing up in Waycross, Ga.

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Berdan and Altman are part of the merry band of 40 or so gardeners who kneel in the dirt every Tuesday evening from May to October to prune, weed, water, and fertilize more than 200 bushes of hybrid tea and David Austin roses.

As urban workplaces go, it’s pretty idyllic, a fragrant oasis in America’s oldest public botanical garden.

But lately, the Rose Brigade’s terrain has been under siege.

Eastern cottontail rabbits began decimating the roses about a year and a half ago, gnawing the skin off the canes, nibbling the petals, and generally wreaking havoc with the delicate flowers. About 110 bushes were so badly damaged they had to be pulled from the ground.

“Not to sound dramatic, but if we don’t solve the rabbit problem, we’re not going to have roses,” said Carl Foster, the president of an information technology staffing firm who serves as the brigade’s co-leader, with Altman. “The roses and the rabbits can’t live together.”

Members of the Rose Brigade tended to the roses.
Members of the Rose Brigade tended to the roses. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

As a temporary solution, the brigade installed a 4-foot wire-mesh fence around its four rose beds earlier this year. But the group says it wants to replace that fence with a more permanent and attractive Victorian-style iron fence. The group has also asked the city for permission to remove the thick aralia hedges that surround the beds and replant the roses on raised terraces to make them more visible to the public.

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“If you want the roses to have a future in Boston, they have to be redone,” Berdan said. “If not, we’re just buying roses to kill them.”

City officials would have to approve the redesign, as they would any changes to the Public Garden, founded in 1837.

A rabbit in the area in 2017.
A rabbit in the area in 2017.(DAVID L RYAN/GLOBE STAFF)

Christopher Cook, commissioner of the Boston Parks Department, said while he isn’t ready to endorse the particulars of the brigade’s plan, he supports the group’s efforts to protect the roses from the insatiable varmints.

“The brigade sends a very strong signal that this is a high-level horticultural park so it would be a mistake to continue to watch those rose beds deteriorate,” Cook said. “They’re just such a treasure to the city, and they’ve really been up against it the last two years, dealing with this problem.”

A basket of pruning supplies used by the volunteers.
A basket of pruning supplies used by the volunteers.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

The gardeners, who include retired professionals and teenagers, say they find camaraderie and a deep sense of pride in their work.

Berdan, 41, said he joined the group after Altman walked into the furniture store he ran on Newbury Street and the two became friends.

“I myself was born in a small town in south Texas, and there was many a problem being a large, effeminate man there, but one of the nice parts of growing up in that community was a sense of ownership of your surroundings,” he said.

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Berdan said he gets a similar feeling when he walks or drives by the roses he helps to care for in the Public Garden.

“I know I have put sweat and sometimes blood there, and there’s just a feeling of responsibility for the space around you,” Berdan said. “For me, that’s the thing I like about it.”

Camille Sanborn, a member of the Rose Brigade.
Camille Sanborn, a member of the Rose Brigade. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

Foster, 62, joined the brigade after he and his wife walked by the rose beds one evening and started chatting with the volunteers. He said he enjoys changing from his suit into workclothes on Tuesdays and gardening in the soil.

“It is really head-clearing to go in there and do that,” he said. “It’s sloppy and it’s fun.”

Less enjoyable, he said, has been the grim task of removing rabbit-eaten rose bushes.

“It’s more than frustrating; it’s depressing,” Foster said. “A lot of Rose Brigade members couldn’t come to the roses last year. They just couldn’t see that. It’s been really hard.”

Foster said he and the other members of the group are hopeful the city will back their plan to save the roses with a sturdier metal fence and better showcase them on higher ground.

“If we’re able to do what we’re proposing,” Foster said, “it’s going to be a project that will create rose beds for the next 25 or 30 years.”

Diseased leaves were removed by the volunteers.
Diseased leaves were removed by the volunteers.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.

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