Garden Profile: Berkshire Botanical Garden

| October/November 1994

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.

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