Polly Hill: 25 years and growing

Polly Hill celebrates its 25th year as a public garden. —Jeremy Driesen

Nearly 25 years ago, the Polly Hill Arboretum opened to the public. Next Saturday, Aug. 5, the horticultural institution plans to host a free event in celebration.

“This is kind of our opportunity to say thank you to our community of supporters,” said Polly Hill executive director Tim Boland. “Some have been supporting us the entirety of the 25 years.”

The event, which runs from 3 to 7 pm, boasts food trucks, lawn games, and live music. There will also be tours available throughout the event.

“It’s for everybody, really,” Boland said.

The 72-acre West Tisbury property traces back to 1669, when it was designated as one of the original “home lots” created in the town. After Henry Luce, the lot’s original settler, died, the property changed hands several times.

In 1926, it was sold to Polly Hill’s parents, Margaret and Howard Butcher Jr., as a summer home. Polly Hill and her husband Julian would go on to inherit the land.

In 1957, Polly Hill had taken over the property, and by 1958, she had planted her first tree: a European beech that still grows today. For 40 years, she kept planting.

Even though it was a private property at the time, she still welcomed people there, Boland said.

“Many of the local community members, particularly in West Tisbury, knew about Polly,” said Boland.

Although Polly Hill never received formal horticultural training, she was one of the first to computerize her plant records. “Her claim to fame was horticultural experimentation,” Boland said.

In 1997, Polly Hill met conservationist Dr. David H. Smith, and they worked to transform the property into a nonprofit. “He recognized that what she was doing here was very special,” Boland said.

Dr. Smith purchased a conservation restriction on the property for $1.8 million, creating the Polly Hill Arboretum, Inc. The arboretum officially opened as a nonprofit on June 30, 1998.

From then to 2011, the property’s acreage grew from 40 to 72, and in 2015, the National Park Service listed the arboretum in the National Register for Historic Places. 

Today, the arboretum features North Tisbury azaleas, magnolias, camellias, conifers, and more. It also contains several monkey-puzzle trees, which are endangered in their native Argentina and Chile. According to Boland, since the arboretum became a nonprofit, it has gotten more involved in plant conservation.

“Polly was growing things for her own general interest,” Boland said. “We realized we could have a bigger role.”

In 2004, the arboretum began working on conserving the Vineyard’s flora. 

Boland recognizes that climate change will complicate future conservation efforts. “With some of our native plants … they’re really going to be challenged by climate change,” Boland said. “Impacts on islands, because it’s a finite landmass, create more of a cause for concern and conservation action … the Island is going to continue to have challenges: drought, excessive winds, erosion, things unique to the Island that create additional challenges for us.”

Additionally, West Tisbury’s low-fertility soil poses additional challenges. The arboretum works on building soil back up with mulch created onsite.

“Polly used to say, ‘Don’t fight the site.’ We try to select plants that are tougher, because the Island has tougher growing conditions,” Boland said.

But climate change and soil fertility are not the arboretum’s only obstacles. The arboretum must also find ways to attract and retain staff.

Since many college botany programs have been cut, many people lack formal training, Boland said. The arboretum offers a curatorial internship program, where aspiring horticulturalists can develop their skills. 

Recently, the arboretum unveiled onsite staff housing in an effort to ensure that finding housing isn’t a barrier for potential employees.

One house is already complete, and another is slated to be done by the end of August. Both have two bedrooms, and are just over 1,000 square feet. They’re energy self-sufficient, and have denitrification septic systems. There is talk of building a third house for staff.

Although Polly Hill died in 2007 at the age of 100, her legacy certainly lives on through a world-class green space.

Boland, along with the rest of the arboretum’s staff, is looking forward to commemorating the anniversary.

“We encourage everyone to come,” Boland said. “It’s a place of extraordinary beauty. Polly Hill used to say, ‘This whole place is soul food.’ People walk around here, see the beautiful flowering plants … it makes them feel better.”