Family Bonds in Festival Hill

Two Texas herb pioneers


In the intimate cloister garden, Johnny-jump-ups ring a large bed of thyme, potted rosemaries and other plants find comfortable spots, and thriving herb beds line the path inward.

Photograph by Gwen Barclay

Content Tools

The lush rolling hills of south-central Texas, where live oak trees provide afternoon shade for longhorn cattle, are the setting for a 210-acre arts mecca known as the International Festival-Institute in Round Top. And enhancing the grounds are beautiful herb gardens tended by two women who are outspoken champions of herb gardening in the South.

Madalene Hill and her daughter, Gwen Barclay, have laid siege to the Texas countryside for decades in a battle to debunk the notion that herbs don’t grow well in the heat and humidity of the extreme South. There are few herbs they can’t grow; even silver-leaved and woolly plants, the bane of southern gardeners, thrive under their care. A stroll through their gardens is proof that they’ve mastered how to do it.

Pioneering Spirit

Madalene, now a spry eighty-four, has long tested the limits of conventional gardening wisdom. In 1957, she and her husband, Jim, bought 13 acres of land near Cleveland, Texas, 60 miles north of Houston. Looking for a proj­ect they could continue into retirement, they decided to grow gladiolus for the commercial market, a feat no one else had ever attempted in Texas.

They proved they could grow gladiolus, but it wasn’t exactly a financial boon. What really changed their lives was the large vegetable and herb garden Madalene planted at the same time. Madalene had always been a gardener, and she grew up with good food and knowing what herbs bring to the table in terms of flavor. The herbs took off in Cleveland, and what started as a hobby evolved into a highly successful business venture.

In 1967, the Hills named their Cleveland herb business Hill Top Farm. Madalene grew herbs, made herb jellies and dried herb blends, and started serving weekly herbal lunches—elaborate, multicourse meals—to customers from near and far. Her meals became so popular that people had to make reservations months in advance.

“When we began serving food, I thought a few little ladies in tennis shoes would come for lunch,” Madalene says. “But it grew. We were ahead of our time. The only person I knew who was doing something similar to what we did was Adelma Simmons [late of Caprilands Herb Farm] in Connecticut.”

Diners included NASA astronauts from Houston, politicians from Austin, wealthy businessmen from Dallas, even rock stars. They came looking for something other than the Texas staples of steak and fries.

“It was a new experience for people,” Madalene explains. “We had a thousand hanging baskets in the dining area and great-smelling food. People came and had what I was hungry for. It was like going to Grandmother’s house. You didn’t ask what was for dinner.” Few left disappointed, even the devout meat-and-potato types.

By 1972, when Gwen returned to the farm after earning a degree in instrumental music, performing in a community orchestra, and teaching music in Houston, the operation had expanded to include dinner. Soon the dining area seated 225, and Madalene and Gwen were hosting 20,000 people a year. The biggest challenge was learning to cook for crowds. “When we started, we didn’t know much about what it took to cook for hundreds of people at a time, but we learned—we taught ourselves—and it worked beyond our wildest dreams,” Madalene remembers with a smile.

These two native Texans (a badge both wear with a great deal of pride) were the first to create and market jalapeño jellies and among the first to offer fresh-cut herbs as well as herbal salad dressings, butters, and chutneys to the Houston restaurant industry. Chefs visited Hill Top Farm regularly in search of ideas for incorporating herbs into their menus. Ultimately, Madalene and Gwen had twenty-five people working for them, a successful mail-order business selling their herb plants and products, and busloads of visitors there to see the herb gardens, sample the food, and take classes on growing and using herbs.

A New Beginning

The early 1980s were trying years. Jim died in April 1982, the Hills’ home burned that September, and in December 1983 (as more than a hundred guests were arriving for dinner), a tornado hit, destroying the entire operation but thankfully injuring no one. Madalene and Gwen, not easily defeated, pulled up roots and moved closer to town. They put their knowledge to other uses. From 1988 to 1993, they traveled ­extensively, sharing their love of herbs and their know-how with anyone who was interested. And there were many. The interest in herbs was growing steadily and rapidly across the country as more and more people discovered the fresh flavor of herbs, their health benefits, and their role in increasingly popular ethnic cuisines.

In 1993, the mother-daughter team settled at the International Festival-Institute, familiarly known as Festival Hill, in Round Top, halfway between Austin and Houston. Gwen became the director of food services, preparing menus for staff lunches year-round, dinner for guests during the concert season, and three meals a day during the summer, when as many 120 students from around the world are in attendance. Madalene was offered a position as well but chose to work as a volunteer so that she might retain control of her time. She regularly rises at 4 a.m. and puts in a fifty-hour week mothering the plants and overseeing the corps of volunteers she organized to help her with the gardens.

Once again, the two women have found their niche at the center of something unusual, inspiring, and educational. Festival Hill is the dream of the concert pianist James Dick, who more than twenty-five years ago envisioned a multidisciplinary arts retreat where aspiring musicians and artists in other creative arenas could come for instruction from leaders in their fields. In Round Top, visitors turning off Highway 237 onto the property get a commanding view of the expansive grounds and stunning architecture. The Festival Concert Hall, of Old World design, is surrounded by painstakingly restored turn-of-the-century buildings. For gardeners, however, the real draw is Menke House, the restored Victorian house that serves as Madalene and Gwen’s home as well as the dining area for staff, students, and guests.

On the porch and entryway sit forty or so scented pelargoniums in pots. Framing the house are Romanesque stonework and orderly raised garden beds planned and planted by Madalene, including a cloister garden, a Mediterranean garden, wall gardens, and a terrace garden. The gardens, collectively called the McAshan Gardens, are named for Susan McAshan, an herb enthusiast and longtime friend of Madalene, Gwen, and Festival Hill.

In the terrace garden, Madalene envisioned herbs, vegetables, and flowers mingling together “to show people that they don’t have to have a separate place for herbs.” The stonework that surrounds the other garden beds provides a striking backdrop for hundreds of varieties of herbs—more than thirty mints, a wide array of basils, seventy rosemaries, countless thymes, oreganos, salvias and lavenders (which Madalene says do quite well in Texas if you keep the tops dry and the roots moist with a light-­colored gravel mulch).

Many of the more than 1,200 plants are observed and tracked as part of a national registry of growing information for the Herb Society of America. Madalene and Gwen, both members of the sixty-five-year-old national alliance, whose purpose is to further the knowledge of herbs, are devoted to the idea of public gardens and the role they play in research and education.

The Roots of Friendship

The variety of plants in the Festival Hill gardens are testament to all the gardening friends of this dynamic mother-daughter team. Everywhere you look are unusual plants given to them by this friend or that: a Shasta daisy that dates to pre–Civil War days, a South American coriander, a tree whose leaves smell of peanut butter when crushed, a garlic-scented vine, a black persimmon, and many, many more.

One of Madalene’s favorite plants is her “rest-stop rosemary”, a large specimen grown from a cutting given to her by friends who found the mother plant, abandoned but thriving, at a gas station between Dallas and Houston. Madalene wasn’t surprised by the herb’s hardiness; she is the first to argue that “we pamper rosemaries unnecessarily”. Her plants, some in pots, some in beds, remain outside throughout the winter and do just fine despite occasional freezing temperatures in this Zone 8b garden.  For Madalene, sharing plants is an important aspect of gardening and also provides protection against losing a plant. When one of her prized specimens dies, she has only to call any number of friends who have received seed or a cutting from that plant to obtain a replacement. And giving away cuttings is “a great way to keep the plants pruned”.

Seated in the shade of an enormous live oak tree, Madalene spies a rabbit in the terrace garden. “Ah, that must be what’s been eating some of the plants,” she notes, not the least disturbed but pleased to have solved the mystery. The deer and other wildlife are no threat and also welcome in her gardens because she gardens by the motto “Plant one for us, one for God, and one for the animals.”

A Common Purpose

The two women have never been interested in “filling a greenhouse and checking off plants”, Gwen says. They gain more satisfaction from introducing people to herbs, so their herbal careers have always involved education, interaction with other gardeners, and writing about herbs. In the 1970s, they started a monthly column, “Thyme Being”, for a Houston home and garden magazine. In 1987, their book Southern Herb Growing was published by Shearer and soon recognized as the definitive guide for growing herbs in the South. The revised edition, published last year, may be ordered through your local bookstore. They have had many herb articles published in magazines and are regular contributors to The Herb Companion.

When they are working, the two think of each other as colleagues rather than as mother and daughter. Usually, the one with the best-formed ideas about an article writes it; the other edits. In the kitchen, it’s a different story. They quickly learned that they don’t work well together because they have different ways of doing things, and so Madalene reigns in the garden, Gwen in the kitchen. These women, who have spent so many years together, frequently finish each other’s sentences, but each has a firm sense of self. With a gleam in her eye, Madalene explains that when the occasional disagreement arises, “I go ahead and do what I want, and so does she.” Gwen explains it this way: “We don’t always agree, but hopefully not disagreeably.”

A Southern View

Early on, Madalene discovered that elevation, temperature and soil pH have little to do with how well herbs grow. Drainage is the real challenge. Adequate drainage (in the South, that means raised beds) can go a long way toward mitigating the problems associated with heat and humidity.

Some gray or woolly herbs, which don’t generally like humidity, do well enough if heavily mulched and kept dry. They may wilt slightly in the afternoon but ­usually revive when the sun drops. Madalene grows others, such as garden sage, as ­annuals, as she does sweet cicely, tarragon, sweet woodruff and angelica, all of which require a period of freezing temperatures to survive longer than one season. “Testing plants and seeing what they can do is of value,” Madalene says. “If you lose a plant, that’s all right. But you’ll be surprised by what you don’t lose.”

Madalene cautions southern gardeners against spraying water on herbs in direct sun during hot weather; the plants can literally steam to death. She waters by soaking the ground around the plants in the evening. In addition, intense heat can cause plants to go dormant, so wait to fertilize until the weather moderates, just before the plants start growing again. Madalene and Gwen have contributed to the growing interest in herbs in other ways. Madalene served as president of the Herb Society of America from 1986 to 1988. Gwen served as chairwoman of the South Texas and Pioneer Unit of the Herb Society of America; she was also the first president of the Texas Herb Growers and Marketers Association and is still on the board of directors. Both have won many awards for their horticultural achievements.

The two show no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Madalene is plotting several new theme gardens in her head. She and Gwen have lots of traveling and lecturing on their schedule, and ideas for articles and books seem to grow as rapidly as their herbs.

Audrey Scano, a Colorado transplant from Texas, is an assistant editor of The Herb Companion.