hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues August 2019


Lush gardens, growing mission

Pact with neighbors allows Berkshire Botanical Garden to expand



A winding path is lined by lilies at Berkshire Botanical Garden, which recently expanded its land area for the first time in its nearly 90-year history. Susan Sabino photo

A winding path is lined by lilies at Berkshire Botanical Garden, which recently expanded its land area for the first time in its nearly 90-year history. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


Winding trails curve through a peaceful setting where towering pines and Eastern redbud trees shelter the patchworks of ferns and flowers below.

The Berkshire Botanical Garden has been both a refuge of serenity and a place of learning for nearly 90 years. And now, thanks to supportive neighbors, the garden is set to expand its layout and offerings.

Earlier this year, longtime neighbors Homer “Skip” Meade and Paula Meade sold their house and property next door, allowing the nonprofit botanical garden to add to its land area for the first time in its history. The transaction will bring the garden’s total acreage from about 15 to nearly 20.
“We were approached by Skip and Paula last fall; they wanted to sell their property and made sure we knew about it first,” said Michael Beck, the garden’s executive director. “The Meades have always been great neighbors and supporters. We negotiated a sale where they’re able to stay in their home and maintain life tenancy while the gardens own the property outright.”
The nearly five-acre field surrounding the couple’s century-old house is now available for visitors to explore.

“We’ve put signs up already, pointing to a meadow walk,” Beck said. “We’re encouraging visitors to take a look and see what’s down there.”

The property immediately surrounding the Meades’ home remains private, but the sizeable field below the house will now be allowed to grow naturally.

“We’d like to see what native grasses and plants come up,” Beck said. “There will, however, be a pathway mowed through the meadow in a loop for easier passage.”

Over the longer term, the botanical garden has commissioned a master-planning project that will provide options for the best uses of the newly acquired land.

“This is a win-win,” Beck said. “The Meades weren’t ready to leave yet. It’s a good financial solution for them, and it allows us to make use of their property.”


Renovation and expansion
Beck said the botanical garden bought the Meades’ property for $285,000, capping a series of recent upgrades to the garden’s facilities.

Among these, of major note is the renovation of the garden’s Center House in 2017. Beck said the house, built in 1790, is one of the oldest in Stockbridge. The $2.5 million project took the historic house from a bare-bones meeting space to a spacious art gallery that hosts botanical-themed exhibitions by artists from around the globe, including some from the region. (The current show, “Shimmering Flowers: Nancy Lorenz’s Lacquer and Bronze Landscapes,” is on view through Sept. 30.).

“When we began renovations, the building was in rough shape and not up to fire code,” Beck said. “It needed lots of TLC.”

The gallery space was designed to retain the stylistic integrity of 18th century former farmhouse, including its rustic, wood-plank flooring.

“We wanted to restore the old part and realized it was also a great opportunity to create extra indoor space,” Beck said. “So we created an addition.”

The newly constructed space, adjoining the Center House gallery, includes a spacious foyer for welcoming visitors as well as restrooms, meeting space, a commercial-sized teaching kitchen for cooking classes and special events, and a library brimming with all manner of books on horticulture.

“We spent about two years planning and another year and a half on construction,” Beck said. “And we raised the money through our capital campaign, so we didn’t incur any long-term debt on the project.”

Beck said the cooking classes, with a garden-to-table theme, have become extremely popular. And now that Berkshire Botanical Garden is catering-kitchen ready, it is hosting more special events and weddings, though only up to a point.
“We don’t want to overwhelm and over-schedule the gardens, so we do only 10 to 12 a year,” Beck explained.

Educational mission
The garden was founded in 1934 and originally known as the Berkshire Garden Center. It was made up of a group of smaller garden clubs under the umbrella of the Lenox Garden Club. Bernhard and Irene Hoffman donated the original 15-acre parcel plus the farmhouse (now Center House) when the club became a nonprofit corporation in 1936.

Beck said the mission from the start has been to inspire and educate.
“Those are our instructions to ourselves, and everything we do ties into that,” he said.
The garden offers an abundance of classes and workshops on gardening and horticulture as well as off-campus field trips.

“I also consider a casual visit to the garden educational,” Beck added, noting the explanatory signs within the different gardens as well as the availability of audio tours.

The Berkshire Botanical Garden is situated nearly 2 miles west of the center of Stockbridge, at the intersection of state routes 102 and 183. Route 102 bisects the property.

On one side of the highway is the Center House complex, the new Meadow Walk, Pond Garden, and a number of gardens with varying themes, including the Evelyn Streeter Primrose Walk, Rose Garden, and the Martha Stewart Cottage Garden, where beds of neatly planted vegetables and summer flowers border a cottage whose roof sports a patchwork of succulents and sedums in varying hues of green.

New this year is “Lucy’s Garden,” a topiary showcase donated by a family in Greenwich, Conn., that was moving to Florida and wanted their prized collection of verdant and expertly sculpted reindeer, llamas, elephants, peacocks and crocodiles to have a proper home.

“European beech trees have been planted surrounding the topiary figures,” Beck said. “They may be trees, but they lend themselves to hedging. Our ultimate goal is to have a maze made of them in Lucy’s Garden.”

Dragonflies hover above flowering lily pads at the pond, which is bordered by native plants as well as a thick grove of shoulder-high leafy stalks that look like wildly enthusiastic rhubarb but are actually part of a Japanese family of plants called Petasites. The rows of stalks, topped with parasol-like leaves, are not only ornamental but also provide useful ground covering.
Visitors wander the gravel paths slowly, as if not wanting the visually intoxicating experience to end too soon.

“We’ve gotten feedback on how therapeutic the gardens are to those who visit,” Beck said. “It’s somewhat akin to the trend known as ‘forest bathing.’ We’ve begun offering yoga and tai chi classes in the garden and also collaborate with Kripalu on ‘mindful gardening’ classes. … It’s very important in these frantic times.”

Across the highway lie more gardens, a woodland preserve, greenhouses, an older education building used for larger lectures, small classrooms for evening and weekend events, and the visitors center, where guests check in and can browse the gift selection. The Education Center is used for events such as the garden’s annual plant sale in May and the Harvest Festival tag sale, which takes place Columbus Day weekend. In the summer months, a menagerie of goats, sheep, chicks, an Angora rabbit and a llama frolic near the Children’s Herb Garden -- part of Garden Camp for children 5-14.


Sustained by members, volunteers
As one of the oldest cultural nonprofits in the Berkshires, the botanical garden is supported by membership dues and buoyed by a loyal contingent of volunteers. Beck said there are currently 1,200 active members, with the number having increased by 20 percent over the past three years.

Lauretta Harris, the garden’s volunteer coordinator, said nearly 600 volunteers lend their hands and skills during the peak season, with duties ranging from office work and marketing efforts to docent tours in the gallery, creating and maintaining plant signs, and weeding garden beds.
“The garden was founded on the spirit of volunteerism and is more than just a pretty place,” Harris said. “It’s also a center of culture, an art destination, and a place with a huge educational component.”

Starting at age 5 with Farm Camp, she said, children learn to grow, harvest and cook with vegetables and herbs.

“Parents say to us, ‘How did you get them to do that?’” Harris said.
Adult educational opportunities range from plein air painting to mushroom foraging and tree identification.

“On top of that, there’s a very serious educational component for horticulture,” Harris said. “And we provide outreach to high school students, so young people can learn about careers in agribusiness.”

Since the 1950s, a volunteer group of “herb associates” has tended the herb gardens that surround Center House. The harvest is transported indoors to the teaching kitchen for the preparation of dressings, mustards and herb mixes sold at the visitors center.

Admission ($15 for adults) is charged May 1 through Columbus Day weekend. But the grounds remain open year-round for visitors to explore the property, weather permitting.

“We keep pathways to the buildings plowed, but the big loop that goes down to the main gardens isn’t plowed,” Beck said. “But some visitors bring snowshoes.”

To compensate for the gardens being in winter repose, the organization offers more classes and workshops in the off-season.

“As soon as the snow starts flying, we offer lots of classes on both sides of the road,” he said. “And the Center House has exhibitions 12 months a year. We want people to know there’s lots going on in the winter here.”

Harris said she has been volunteering at the garden for nearly a decade and has no plans to scale back.

“I’ve seen this garden grow so much in the time I’ve been here,” Harris said. “It’s a gorgeous place, but also a force of ecological good. People are coming here and learning about the role of nature and things like the pollinator population and why it’s important to save them. I began here as a regular volunteer and got drawn deeper and deeper into the mission. … Anytime I’m here, I’m smiling.”


The Berkshire Botanical Garden is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $15 for adults, with discounts for seniors, students and military service members; children under 12 are free. The annual Harvest Fest, scheduled this year for Oct. 12-13, features more than 100 vendors and artisans, live entertainment, children’s activities, and educational opportunities. For more information, visit www.BerkshireBotanical.org or call (413) 298-3926.