Garden Profile: Berkshire Botanical Garden

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Herbs lead a double life at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, whose 15 acres straddle a busy highway west of the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. On one side of the road, neat rows of plants provide a harvest of herbs for jellies, vinegars, dried blends, sachets, and cat toys, which are sold in the Garden Gift Shop. Across the roadway and through a shady grape arbor is an herb display garden, a collection of some 200 herbs of all kinds including culinary, fragrance, medicinal, and dye plants.

One of two “outdoor rooms” at the botanical garden (the other is an intimate garden of perennial flowers and flowering shrubs), the herb display garden is bordered by a waist-high hedge of Korean box (Buxus microphyllus var. koreana), grape arbors, an eighteenth-century farmhouse called the Center House, and a stone retaining wall. Within these bounds, six rec­tangular beds edged in stone, each in two tiers, and two triangular beds ­bordered by low germander hedges are terraced down a gentle, northeast­-facing slope, with narrow beds around the perimeter. Stepping stones link the different levels of the garden, and turfgrass studded with additional flat stones covers the areas between the beds. This main garden area measures about 60 by 35 feet.

Northwest of the main garden is a mint bed, a kind of sunken corral in stone designed to keep mints from overrunning the rest of the herb garden. Measuring 19 feet long by 10 feet wide, it comprises two narrow beds separated by a stone walkway.

Herbs have been an important ­element at the Berkshire Botanical Garden since its founding in 1934 by a group of local garden club members interested in all aspects of plants and gardening. The site, including several buildings, was donated to the organization by Bernhard and Irene Hoffmann. Irene Hoffmann, well known in the area as an herb gardener, was the president of the botanical garden’s first board of trustees and in 1940 ­published The Book of Herb Cookery (Houghton Mifflin).

The herb display garden, designed by Mr. and Mrs. Edward F. Belches, was installed in 1937, and its basic lines have altered very little since then, though the stonework was renovated in 1987. Changes that have occurred have been related to the growth of two large sugar maples (Acer saccharum) and three Canadian hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) above the retaining wall northwest of the mint bed. As the trees grew larger, the shade they cast covered more of the garden for more of the day; sun-loving herbs planted on this side of the garden grew spindly while their counterparts in full sun thrived. Eventually, the northwest side of the garden was in shade most of the day, and nearly all of the garden was shaded during the afternoon.

When tree surgeons examined the maples during the winter of 1991, they decided that the one farther to the northeast was a hazard–old and diseased, it might fall at any time–and removed it. The remaining maple, though also old, was in better shape, and the tree surgeons were able to save it by pruning out dead and damaged branches and cabling some of the remaining limbs. They also removed some healthy branches to let in more light.

The effect on the garden was dramatic. Even when the maple was in full leaf the following spring, the herbs planted below it received direct sun until noon. The hemlocks, which were not pruned, still block the late-afternoon sun, but their pyramidal shape doesn’t prevent the morning sun from reaching the herbs. Later in the day, the maple’s rounded can­opy shades the hemlocks as well as the herbs below them.

For three years beginning in 1990, the Berkshire Botanical Gar­den had summer interns assigned to the herb display garden, not only pulling weeds but also working on individual projects to benefit the garden. In 1990 and 1991, Clarissa Andic redesigned the beds, especially the paired beds in the center of the garden, to incorporate theme gardens, ­including a bee garden, lemon garden, and gray ­garden. In 1992, Lisa McColgan ­continued the theme development and installed a new bed. By this time, the small beds in the center were pretty well filled, but the ground near the pruned sugar maple and the hemlocks, now receiving sunlight for about half the day, remained unimproved, a wasteland of leftover plants called “the wild garden”. It was here that Lisa, under the supervision of the botanical garden’s horticulturist, Dorthe Hviid, planned a combined medicinal and dye garden measuring 37 by 16 feet.

An existing dye garden consisted of five or six plants struggling along in deepest shade next to the Center House. Lisa particularly wanted the new bed to contain herbs used in modern medicine, such as foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), a cardiac regulator, and Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), used in anticancer drugs. Some medicinal herbs were scattered here and there on the grounds, but most were crowded next to the boxwood hedge on the southeast side of the herb garden. The planting of Madagascar periwinkle, a colorful annual sold in garden centers as “Vinca rosea”, was on the verge of being smothered by rampant rhubarb leaves.

Some of the required herbs were obtained from the botanical garden’s other perennial beds. Dorthe mail-­ordered American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), sweet flag (Acorus calamus), and a few others unavailable on the grounds.

Meanwhile, Lisa, with some volunteer help, set about clearing the site. Most of the existing plants were vigorous and healthy, and many of these were relocated to other parts of the herb garden. Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), for example, found a home in the neighboring mint bed. Extra plants of great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), practically a weed here although a beautiful one, were transplanted to a spot below the box hedge and to a pond area elsewhere on the grounds. Transplant­ing full-grown plants in midsummer is often asking for trouble, but the summer of 1992’s unusually cool and rainy weather gave the plants just the conditions they needed to settle in at their new locations. A great stand of anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), already represented in several of the theme gardens, was recycled to the compost heap.

No Garden is Static, and This One Is No Exception

Lisa’s design called for a stone pathway down the center of the new bed, and this was installed by garden staff member Tedd Fiske. Bringing in large, flat native stones from a nearby stockpile, he set them into the hillside. Lisa planted chunks of caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona) in the crevices between the stones to keep the soil from washing away.

Knowing that soil preparation can determine the success of a new ­gar­den, Lisa and a volunteer spent an entire morning spreading and digging in six cubic feet of peat moss, two wheelbarrows full of aged horse manure, and ten pounds of Fertrell organic fertilizer (3-2-3).

It wasn’t until they installed the plants that the visual drama unfolded. The transformation seemed like magic to anyone who had not been present during the actual planting. One day, the vista was of dusty brown soil and peat; the next, large plants of purple coneflower, yellow dyer’s coreopsis, pink yarrow, and paler pink soapwort, interspersed with many smaller plants, covered the site.

Lisa edged the walkway with bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) and spread a light dressing of pine-needle mulch over the bare spots. The weather cooperated with occasional showers and moderate temperatures, and the garden was established by the final days of Lisa’s internship. Having made this significant contribution to the Berkshire Botanical Garden, Lisa returned to school at the University of Massachusetts, where she majored in landscape architecture.

Ongoing maintenance by the botanical garden staff includes lifting the tender perennials such as ginger (Zingiber officinale) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globosa) to bring them into the greenhouse for the winter. In late fall, the hardy perennials are cut back and mulched with pine needles to minimize frost heaving. Spring activities ­include starting annuals such as Madagascar periwinkle and dyer’s coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) to fill the bare spots and evaluating the perennials with regard to their adaptation to soil, sun, and moisture conditions: plants that are just struggling along may do better in another spot.

In the two years since the medicinal and dye garden was installed, many of the herbs have thrived. Dyer’s chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) is particularly robust, as are wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and fern-leaved tansy (Tana­cetum vulgare var. crispum); all are plants that like the rather dry soil that the garden provides. A few, those that prefer a moister site, for instance, are languishing (sweet flag) or have given up (ginseng). The latter has been replaced by gotu kola (Hydrocotyle asiatica).

No garden is static, and this one is no exception. As the trees continue to grow, the shade problem can be expected to recur. On the other hand, the maple may eventually have to be removed, which would make the medicinal and dye garden a sunny spot indeed.

Betsy Strauch of Lenox, Massachusetts, assistant editor of The Herb Companion, has spent many pleasant hours in the herb display garden at the Berkshire Botanical Garden.

The Berkshire Botanical Garden is located at the junction of state routes 183 and 102, two miles west of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It is open daily from mid-May to mid-­October. Herb workshops are offered during the summer, and products made from herbs raised on the grounds are for sale in the Garden Gift Shop. For information, call (413) 298-3926.

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