A teacher at heart, Madalene Hill is always eager to talk about her herbs with visitors to Festival Hill.
Photograph by Michael A. Murphy
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
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.