The weather might keep you out of the dirt, but you can start planning with these great mail-order nurseries -- for hard-to-find herbs and expert guidance no matter where you live.
In an ideal world, you could put on your shoes and walk a short way to visit with your neighbor, the herb grower, who would happily answer all of your questions as she loaded up your basket with exactly the plants you’ve been longing to grow. Such helpful people really do exist, and perhaps you are fortunate enough to have one in your community. If you don’t, simply take your quest a little farther down the road, to an herb-growing expert who’s also in the business of shipping plants to your door. These days, there are excellent mail-order herb nurseries in every region, which often offer organically grown plants impossible to find in retail stores.
Gene Gage is not the first heartland herb lover to set up shop as a mail-order nursery. In Athens, Ohio, Peter Borchard, owner of Companion Plants , has been growing and shipping herbs and other useful plants for 24 years. “I still get excited when I find a plant that has a useful and special purpose,” Borchard says. Every new plant is an adventure for Borchard, who, along with many gardeners, has the tendency to become slightly obsessed with the scents, flavors and uses of herbs. Old world galangals (Alpinia and Kaempferia species), for example, which resemble gingers, are among the many plants in Borchard’s collection he thinks more people should enjoy.
A bit farther north, on Lake Erie, west of Cleveland, Ohio, Karen and Mark Langan, owners of certified organic Mulberry Creek Herb Farm , grow and sell 500 different herbs, including many miniatures, their newest specialty. “Anyone can enjoy a miniature garden, because there are no physical or spatial limitations,” Karen says. Mulberry Creek has a 48-page catalog as well as an online version that includes five colors of elfin herb (Cuphea hyssopifolia), a favorite tree-shaped miniature that often continues to bloom when brought indoors for the winter.
At Shady Acres Herb Farm in Chaska, Minnesota, Theresa and Jim Mieseler take pride in growing chemical-free plants, too, and they hope their customers continue this practice in their gardens. “We love growing herbs because of the variety of fragrances and the way herbs can enhance your life — whether it is fresh herbs in a favorite recipe or watching a butterfly or hummingbird in the herb garden,” Theresa says. She suggests using the large leaves of ‘Napoletano’ basil in place of lettuce on BLT sandwiches, and thinks ‘Mulberry Jam’ sage (Salvia involucrata) is among the best herbs for attracting hummingbirds.
With a population of only 800, Dongola, Illinois, merits a star on the map of every mint-minded gardener’s map. Here, Fragrant Fields , an established online wholesale herb nursery, is propagating the new, deliciously named Westerfield hybrid mints, including ‘Marshmallow’ and ‘Fruit Salad’. Owner Carol Hanson has been growing and selling herbs to restaurants for 30 years, and now also grows a huge variety of herbs for individual orders, including hops, hyssop and numerous flowering vines.
Like Fragrant Fields, the folks at Always Summer Herbs in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, grow and sell wholesale herbs by the truckload, but find it’s more fun to place straight-from-the-grower plants in the hands of herb lovers through their online store. Owners Teresa Royek and her husband, Jeff Berta, encourage people to try combining scented thymes with flowers in hanging baskets, or to make room on the patio for a robust pot of patchouli, which can grow 4 to 6 feet tall in a warm summer. “It’s as aromatic as rosemary, so all you have to do is brush up against it to release its scent,” Berta says.
In Port Murray, New Jersey, the 35 years of work that Cyrus and Louise Hyde — and now their son, David Hyde — have put into Well-Sweep Herb Farm have turned it into a dream destination for herb enthusiasts. When David Hyde looks at beds edged with 100 types of thyme, he sees a trial garden where the herbs can be evaluated, but visitors see a wonderland of herbs from around the world. Looking for something new to have delivered to your door in a Well-Sweep box? David suggests zatar (Thymbra spicata), sometimes called hop-headed thyme because of its blue flower clusters, or curry leaf (Murraya koenigii), a Himalayan shrub with edible, curry-flavored leaves.
In the rolling hills of central Tennessee, owner Michele Brown sees her Possum Creek Herb Farm as a destination, noting that, “You have to plan to come because we are so far off the beaten path.” During the last seven years, Brown has steadily increased her stock of organically grown culinary and fragrant herbs, and this year has added medicinal herbs to the mix. She thinks all gardeners should grow herbs not only for themselves, but for the benefit of bees and butterflies. In Brown’s ideal world, every herb garden would include wildlife-friendly herbs such as anise hyssop, bergamot and plenty of sages.
At Sandy Mush Herb Farm near Asheville, North Carolina, owners Kate and Fairman Jayne apparently agree with Brown, because they grow and sell nearly 100 types of sage. Their 30 years of experience with herbs shows in their 88-page catalog, which includes planting plans for special gardens, recipes and handy reference lists of common and botanical names. Sandy Mush is also a great source of herbs native to the eastern mountains, such as evergreen wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) for shady spots, or mountain mint (Pycnanthemum spp.) for sunny sites.
In Texas, midway between San Antonio and Houston, Cindy Meredith has been growing her mail-order business, The Herb Cottage , steadily for eight years. Naturally, she veers toward herbs that thrive in warm weather, such as basil, as well as those that tolerate drought. “I think people should grow winter savory more. In the humid South where thyme is difficult to grow, winter savory is a good substitute.” Cindy also recommends lemon savory, a type of summer savory, for its zingy lemony flavor.
California and some other western states restrict the sale of incoming plants, but finding great herbs from in-state growers is easy thanks to the many wonderful mail-order nurseries there such as Mountain Valley Growers in Squaw Valley, Crimson Sage Nursery in the northern mountains near Orleans, and Lingle’s Herbs in Long Beach. A beginning gardener can get a big leg-up by starting with one of Mountain Valley’s certified organic herb garden kits, or you can choose from their long list of herbs grown in 3-inch pots.
Crimson Sage owner Tina Glaessner is proud of her extensive selection of medicinal herbs, including many hard-to-find plants that are used in Chinese, Ayervedic and Native American medicine. “I want to see people growing their own herbs and developing a relationship with the plants. That is healing in and of itself,” Glaessner says.
Lingle’s Herbs sells organically grown medicinal herbs, too, but they specialize in fine herbs for the table, such as lime-scented lemon balm, Syrian oregano (Origanum syriacum) and Jamaican moujean tea shrub (Nashia inaguensis). John Lingle’s enthusiasm for herb cookery is infectious and inspiring, and he seems incapable of describing an herb without also suggesting several great ways to use it in the kitchen.
Many of the people who grow herbs for a living also nurture dreams of what their plants can do when shared with others. At The Thyme Garden in Alsea, Oregon, owners Rolfe and Janet Hagen stay busy nurturing 650 types of herbs, welcoming visitors to their display gardens and aromatherapy conservatory, and hosting workshops, weddings and group luncheons. “We are quietly growing our visitors’ spirit and conscience,” Rolfe says. “Our mission is to bring the people back into contact with the Earth that supports and takes care of us.” The Thyme Garden makes plenty of plant-people connections by selling 48 types of lavender, 26 sages, 25 basils and 24 types of rosemary.
Sometimes growing all those herbs is too much of a good thing. On Mercer Island, Washington, No Thyme Productions owner Nancy Mencke found herself feeling slightly brain dead from 10 years of propagating scented geraniums, oreganos and a dozen types of thyme. “I have fallen in love again,” Nancy says. This time, the plant that has captured her heart is hen and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum), which can be used medicinally just like aloe. “I just love these guys,” Nancy says. “We’re propagating 30 different kinds.”
As Nancy Mencke has found, there is always something new to discover in the world of herbs. This sentiment is echoed by Jim and Dotti Becker, owners of Goodwin Creek Gardens in Williams, Oregon. The Beckers started out growing and drying flowers, but one plant discovery led to another, and they now offer plants for tea, topiary or even weddings. They also have written books on everlasting flowers and scented geraniums, craft hearts and lavender wands, and have become avid propagators of native herbs and flowers such as fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium). What more could you ask for in a mail-order mentor?
Barbara Pleasant loves seeking out interesting herbs for her garden in western North Carolina.
Not so long ago, the main tool for selling mail-order plants was a beautiful catalog, and some herb nurseries still rely on paper catalogs for most of their sales. Yet, online catalogs have advantages for the merchant, the customer and the environment. The merchant is spared the expense of printing and mailing catalogs, the customer can know instantly if plants are available for shipment, and then there are all those trees that don’t get processed into paper. Most nurseries that still print catalogs update them only every three to four years.Midwest