STOCKBRIDGE — As daylight ebbs and temperatures drop, the plants, trees, herbs and vegetable crops of Berkshire Botanical Garden take well-earned time to rest after a busy summer growing season. But before the landscape settles in for winter, the Stockbridge landmark welcomes the community to its annual celebration of fall, the much-loved and much-anticipated Harvest Festival.
Now in its 87th year, after an absence of two years, the long-running event returns on Oct. 8 and 9 for two days filled with festive family fun. Beloved activities are joined by new attractions, creating enduring memories for generations of BBG visitors.
“It started out in 1934 as a few ladies from Stockbridge selling homemade breads and apples from their orchards from a little stand at the corner of 102 and 183,” said Dana Audia, director of special events at BBG, in a recent phone call. As more people offered to share the bounty from their gardens, she said, the festival grew in size and stature.
Now, between 10,000 and 12,000 people come through in two days, Audia reports; one year with almost perfect weather drawing almost 15,000 attendees to the 24-acre Garden.
Adults and children alike look forward to their favorite activities year after year. Top of the list is the pony rides, Audia reports.
“We’ll have a couple of horses continuously circling, it’s about a five-minute ride,” she said.
Hay features prominently throughout the grounds, with a hay ride, a hay jump where kids leap from a platform into a big bushel of hay, and a tot-friendly hay maze.
Plenty of fall activities celebrate the season, such as pressing apples in a cider press, painting pumpkins, and tossing pumpkins corn-hole style, plus a Guess-The-Weight giant pumpkin topping 1,000 pounds.
The popular plant sale offers perennials and bulbs ready to brighten gardens next spring, as well as mums, pumpkins and gourds fit for fall decoration.
The not-too-spooky haunted house will be back, with tickets sold in pairs as few venture inside alone, Audia noted.
New this year is a vintage fire truck for kids to explore, a 1938 antique apparatus made and still housed in Great Barrington. Also appearing for the first time is a 74-foot inflatable obstacle course.
“Kids start out on a slide that empties into a 35-foot obstacle course,” Audia explained, “they go through two at a time so they can compete against each other.”
A full schedule of live entertainment on the stage each day changes every hour, and includes many groups who performed at BBG’s evening concerts over the summer.
The lineup includes New Orleans Jazz from Andy Kelly’s Jazz Ambassadors, East African folk music by Zikina, and Robin Gerson Wong highlighting the Great American Songbook, plus Soul Magnet, The O-Tones, 1960s British Invasion tributes Union Jack and vintage Jump and R&B from Peter Poirier. Also appearing are local favorites Moonshine Holler, The Lucky 5, and Misty Blues Trio.
On the non-musical front are Tom Ricardi’s Birds of Prey, and comedian and juggler Bryson Lang. The popular Puppet Wagon from Berkshire Waldorf School will do two shows a day while bands are changing over.
Several performers will roam the grounds during the Festival. Berkcirque, of Great Barrington, will demonstrate circus skills such as plate spinning, stilt walking and aerial acts.
“The ‘Golden Lady’ is a giant puppet with a papier maché head that will walk around and be part of the activities, along with a Scarecrow that always shows up,” Audia said. “The Pocket Lady is returning, we’ve had so many people asking when is she coming back. She’ll have a new dress, with pockets filled with goodies for the kids.”
Nobody goes hungry at the Harvest Festival, with 10 vendors onsite serving up a variety of foods. “We have the Lunch Pail food truck from Lenox, CC’s Spiral Potatoes from Rhode Island, meatballs, Mediterranean and a hot dog cart.” Audia said.
The Red Lion Inn’s butternut squash autumn bisque will return, plus chili and beer from Barrington Brewery.
“We’ll have all sorts of home-made goodies for sale in the Center House Café, cookies and pies and cakes,” Audia said. “People can sit inside and out on the porch.”
There will also be coffee, cider donuts and more in the Schoolhouse across the street.
While the entertainment, roving performers and some activities such as making giant bubbles are free, most cost between one and five tickets, sold for $1 each at booths around the grounds. There are ATMs available on site, Audia said.
The event is also a prime shopping opportunity, with 60 artisan craft vendors, plus a Silent Auction of select experiences to bid on. The well-stocked "Tag Sale" offers gently-used clothing, jewelry, accessories, and household items.
“We have people dropping stuff off all the time,” Audia reports.
The BBG Herb Associates — “Herbies” as they’re known — will set up their traditional booth in front of the Center House. Up to ten of them spend two hours every Tuesday morning in the shiny new Center House kitchen making jams, vinegars, dressings and more, Audia said.
“They’ve been really busy making all this extra stuff to sell at the Festival. The new kitchen is just a great place to work in, it beats the old one they used, I can assure you.”
One of the primary attractions, naturally, is the Garden itself, all decked up in its fall foliage finery. “There’s still some color out there,” Audia promised. The heated greenhouses will be open, filled with exotic plants, cacti, even a banana tree. People love to go in there, she noted.
There are also a dozen whimsical topiaries on display, including a mighty elephant, sited near a garden gazebo, plus a rustic pond and a Children’s Garden.
Fountains will be flowing in the lotus sculpture encircled by benches by the entrance — a great spot for people to gather, Audia said, noting there will be additional seating throughout the grounds.
It takes upwards of 200 volunteers to put on such a large-scale event. “We can’t do this without them,” Audia said. “Some have been here a long time, a lot have been doing this for 20-plus years. They can remember volunteering when they first got married, then they would bring their little kids, then their grandkids.”
“It’s the largest fundraiser we do every year,” said Matt Larkin, board of trustees chair for the past 12 years. “And we’ve been doing it since 1934 with the exception of the last two years.”
People were disappointed when the Harvest Festival didn’t happen, he said. But regular attendance blossomed during the pandemic shutdown.
“We were one of the few places you could actually go,” Larkin said. “Our numbers went through the roof, and we’re getting increased membership [because of] the new population moving into the county.”
The Harvest Festival is the highlight of the year for many BBG visitors.
“People came when they were kids, and now they bring their kids and grandchildren. People just love it, it’s definitely family-friendly. There are food trucks and all the activities for the kids.
Funds raised at the festival support educational programing, which includes summer camps, botanical instruction and culinary classes such as canning and pasta making.
“Gardening is an art and a science,” Larkin said. “To have all those things that we can offer is fantastic.”
“The Harvest Festival is something we’ve been doing for so many years that people love, and we understand that. It’s our gift to the community.”
IF YOU GO
What: Berkshire Botanical Garden 87th annual Harvest Festival
Where: Berkshire Botanical Garden, 5 West Stockbridge Road, Stockbridge
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Oct. 8 and 9.
Tickets: $10, free under age 12. Free parking.
Information: 413-320-4795, berkshirebotanical.org