Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Field Trip



Last Sunday my wife and I visited Tower Hill Botanical Gardens in West Boylston. It was a hot day (air temperatures about 97°F/36°C). When we got out of the air-conditioned car, the heat radiating off the black asphalt made it an emergency situation. I was being broiled alive. We fled to the shade and lawn of the gardens where the heat was at least tolerable. Of course, my interest was in the demo Vegetable Garden behind the original farmhouse on the property. On several earlier visits this year, the garden was unplanted due to the lousy weather. Nice to see the professionals were just as flummoxed by the lousy spring conditions as us amateurs. The first thing to catch our attention was an interesting and attractive multi-celled vertical planter on the wall of the reception center, filled with lettuces, herbs and ornamental peppers, pictured above.


Then on to the gardens. The vegetable garden was pretty heat stressed, as I expected. Some things were doing fine, like the hot peppers. The lettuces were all bolting. What really surprised me was the poor condition of most, but not all, of the tomatoes. I think they suffered from the huge amount of rain we have received and needed a nitrogen kick.  It was interesting to see the garden and I always enjoy looking for new varieties of vegetables to try. Below I show some of the ones I found particularly attractive.


The gardeners at Tower Hill are fond of ornamental hot peppers because they add color and interest to a garden. This year they featured a pepper called Masquerade. It’s a beauty, with long, pointy peppers held upright on the plant. The fruit starts out purple, turns yellow, orange, then red when ripe. Seeds are grown by PanAmerican Seed and are carried by only a few seed companies. Most of their sales seem to be to commercial growers for potted ornamental plants.




OK, this one hurts. Might as well get right to it and my inability to grow kohlrabi. Look at these things, a whole row of them, beautiful, the size of a small melon! This is Azur Star, an open pollinated variety from Europe. It is claimed to be drought and bolt resistant and still edible at large sizes. The descriptions and photos I saw say the bulb is flattened on top, but these are definitely globe shaped. That’s Redbor kale in the background.






Another stunning vegetable was Marshall lettuce, a deep Burgundy red Romaine lettuce with contrasting green stalk and pink veins. Given the hot weather, it was obviously in the throws of bolting but still looked pretty good compared to my Romaine. It’s also supposed to have good flavor and mildness. Fedco and Territorial carry this one and it will be on my list for next year.




This is Magenta Sunset silverbeet/chard. They claim heat tolerance and these look pretty good for temperatures pushing 100.  Plus it is very attractive. It is more petite and the leaves are flatter and tenderer than other chards. It is particularly good for harvesting young for salad mixes.





The attractive plant below is Red Bull, a red Brussels sprout that is popular in Europe, particularly the UK. Supposedly the sprouts are smaller and the flavor is milder and nuttier than green sprouts, which may make them more palatable to sprout haters (like my wife). Hmmm.





This tomato is Indigo Rose, one of the new blue varieties now available. The fruit is beautiful but I have heard the flavor is bland. The plant was nice and healthy but the fruit set was not very prolific. Also note the garden’s use of steel reinforcing rods painted in colorful pastels as tomato stakes. These are not going to snap under a heavy load of tomatoes like a wood stake and are probably cheaper than wood.



Although the fruit on this tomato plant  have yet to ripen, what attracted me to it was the large cluster of perfect tomatoes and the health and robustness of the plant given the difficult weather. This is Sweet Treats, a Japanese F1 tomato hybrid developed by Sakata Seed America and claimed to be the first pink cherry tomato. I count at least 14 perfect, unblemished tomatoes in that cluster and the largest are at least an inch in diameter.  Flavor and texture are also supposed to be good. This is one I may try next year.





Finally, the plants that really rocked my day: Purple Peacock broccoli, a cross between Green Goliath broccoli and two kinds of kale, one obviously being  Red Russian. It was developed by Frank Morton of I tried some this year and have been unimpressed with my results. First, the cross is still quite variable (as in, unstable), with both green and purple plants in the mix. Secondly, they never attained any size and they produced small heads with very few side shoots. Looking at many of the online catalogs of seed vendors who carry it, most of their illustrations look pretty close to what I have growing. But Fedco’s description says it is an impressive plant, growing 2.5 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide with a large flower head. Like these at Tower Hill! Wow! The head on the plant below is easily 6 inches across, some of it is masked by some small leaves growing up through the head. I would like to know the secret to growing broccoli like this. I will have to see if I can talk to their gardener.







After touring some more of the grounds, we had to flee to the car ahead of a thunderstorm that made the idea of strolling on a hilltop seem like a a dangerous idea. But at least I got some great ideas to try next year. For me, that’s what makes gardening so interesting.


  1. Thanks for the tour, really enjoyed looking at the photos of all the unusual and beautiful vegetables!

    1. All the garden blogs are good sources of ideas but it is always nice to see plants actually growing in the field in your area. Planning a trip to Strawberry Banke when my MIL visits in August. The highlight to me is always their kitchen and herb gardens.


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