Tower Hill Botanic Farm

Photo by Adam Detour

Every summer Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston puts on a display that artfully combines agriculture and gastronomy while providing hands-on lessons in sustainability. Among the many exhibits of plants, flowers and trees on its 132 acres in Central Massachusetts is the vegetable garden, a gorgeous palette of colorful and edible plants arranged according to a theme that changes every year.

The masterful project is the culmination of months of research and planning by Dawn Davies, outdoor horticulturist, who has created Tower Hill’s vegetable displays for the past 14 years. “Every year is a challenge,” Dawn said, “as I try to outdo myself.” Last summer’s garden theme, “Vegging Out” featured edibles and accent plants in shades of purple, blue, green and burgundy with touches of yellow and white.

The garden is a showcase for unusual varieties such as the Indigo Rosetomato, striking in its deep purple color. Not an heirloom, this tomato was developed using traditional plant breeding techniques. Dawn noted the Indigo Rose is also high in cyanine, pigmentation that not only makes it a colorful addition to the garden, but also is linked to a range of health benefits.

Among other healthy and color coordinated edibles, the garden featured stately Redbor kale, a four foot tall specimen “that’s not only lush, but makes the best kale chips you ever tasted,” Dawn said. Purple peacock, a broccoli-kale cross, was as showy as its namesake, and Wirosa cabbage provided a curly emerald contrast.

There was amethyst basil, a deep purple type of Genovese, and burgundy-hued Polish amaranth, an ornamental grain with high protein seeds and edible leaves.

The 3,000 square feet of plants and pathways are the annual culmination of months of research, planning and planting. “I spend a lot of time during the winter going through seed catalogs,” Dawn said, though with an eye to the budget she uses many seeds saved from previous plantings. She designs the garden on her computer. “I use very simple designs but the rhythm of the layout is important,” she said. Even the supports for tomato plants and pole beans were included in the color scheme. Dawn’s garden plan also includes elements such as companion planting. “If you have tomatoes, for example, plant beans next to them to replenish nitrogen,” she said. Crop rotation is another Tower Hill imperative. “Nothing stays in the same place two years in a row in order to prevent disease, ” she added.

The vegetable garden has a loyal following of fans and Dawn honored their ongoing interest by including well-loved varieties such as merlot lettuce, Yellowstone carrots and the heirloom purple pole beans, Trionfo violetto.

The garden design becomes reality in early to mid-May as 200 to 300 vegetables and 100 flowering plants are put in place by staff and volunteers.

Though she focuses on aesthetics, Dawn’s purpose is to showcase edible plants. “I tell people you don’t have to limit yourself to petunias and marigolds; plant something edible instead,” she said. “It’s beautiful and you have the bonus of something good to eat.”

The garden is also a living textbook of Tower Hill’s organic gardening techniques, such as avoiding pesticides. On a sunny summer afternoon, you’re likely to encounter a volunteer patiently picking Japanese beetles off plant leaves, one a time, and placing them in a saucer of sudsy water. Earlier in the season volunteers sustainably mulch the garden with grass clippings from Tower Hill mowers.

Despite their best efforts, the gardens of Tower Hill are not immune to invasions of pests or critters. Years of experience have taught Dawn the value of back up seeds or plants. “In case of emergency I’ll plant radishes," she said. “They’ll come up within 30 days.” She also keeps a supply of substitute plants. “I don’t like empty spots in the garden,” Dawn said.

Visitors to the garden frequently ask if the vegetables are featured in Tower Hill’s on-site café, Twigs. “We don’t grow enough to use them consistently," Dawn explained, “but we donate fresh vegetables to Rachel’s Table, a local food pantry.”

If you missed last summer’s colorful display in the vegetable garden at Tower Hill, there is still time to catch this summer’s exhibit. The theme is “Hot, Hot, Hot” with spicy plants from mustard greens to hot peppers. Dawn’s design will also showcase how temperature affects vegetable growth.

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This story appeared in the Summer 2015 issue.