Malabar spinach, Basella alba, twines its way up a 7-foot trellis in the Vegetable Garden. Adjacent to our historic Farmhouse, this garden is a visitor favorite. Heirloom crops featured here remind us of the region’s agricultural roots, while vegetable varieties originating around the world celebrate the ways food and gardening bring people together. 

Malabar spinach twines its way up a 7-foot trellis in the Vegetable Garden.

The Vegetable Garden’s design and the specific crops grown here change annually. Each year, Dawn Davies, New England Botanic Garden’s Formal Gardens Manager, lays out a plan for the 12,000 square foot space with the hope of educating, inspiring, and of course, producing lots of fresh, healthy produce. That’s because much of what’s harvested is donated to the South Worcester Neighborhood Center to support local individuals and families facing food insecurity. This year, the Malabar spinach, though not grown in quantity, acts as a special highlight.  

Native to Asia and Africa, Malabar spinach has deep purple, vining stems, glossy green heart-shaped leaves, and pinkish-white flowers that cluster on stems like tiny bunches of grapes. It’s such a beauty of a plant you’d be forgiven if you thought it was purely ornamental. Like other leafy greens, this interesting edible packs a nutritious punch when eaten fresh or cooked in stews or stir fries. But after enduring this summer’s grueling weather — below average precipitation paired with above average temperatures — what seems most special about the Malabar spinach in the Vegetable Garden is its ability to withstand extremes. 

The Central Massachusetts region has been in a Stage 3 Critical Drought since August 9, 2022. The state’s drought status levels range from zero to four. At the Garden, we’re fortunate that we can keep to our water regimen in order to maintain our plant collection. Still, we can see the damage inflicted by months of minimal rainfall.  

Recently, Dawn, who’s been with the Garden for over 20 years, spoke to local news anchor Cam Jandrow about what we’re noticing in the Vegetable Garden and beyond. Significantly low water levels in the Wildlife Refuge Pond. Summer blooms withering quickly. Trees along the woodland edges are showing autumn colors early. In the Vegetable Garden, high heat means some crops haven’t been as productive as they have been in the past. Weather extremes like drought and heat waves are realities we are bound to face as a result of human-induced climate change.  

While Dawn says that no drought year in memory feels quite like this one, there are things gardeners can do to help build resiliency into their home gardens. Here are a few of our favorites.

Six Strategies to Improve Dro