Family Bonds in Festival Hill

Two Texas herb pioneers

| October/November 1998

  • 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
  • Dappled light and a delightful piece of sculpture add grace and surprise to a bountiful garden.
    Photograph by Gwen Barclay
  • Pots of rosemaries, lemon verbenas, and nasturtiums are good company for the many other herbs that line the walls and fill the air with fragrance.
    Photograph by Gwen Barclay
  • Menke House at dusk
    Photograph by Michael A. Murphy
  • A teacher at heart, Madalene Hill is always eager to talk about her herbs with visitors to Festival Hill.
    Photograph by Michael A. Murphy
  • In the dining room of Menke House, Gwen Barclay chats about the role of herbs in preparing a lively meal.
    Photograph by Michael A. Murphy
  • This pathway in the terrace garden cuts through a profusion of ornamental and edible herbs and other flowering plants.
    Photograph by Gwen Barclay

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.”

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