Herb business and pleasure in British Columbia
Early in the morning, as I walked about the quiet grounds of Tuscan Farm Gardens, I could imagine myself in northern Italy— breathing in the scent of lavender or strolling beneath a pergola heavily laden with scrambling grapes, flowering vines, and climbing roses or following pathways to one billowing herb garden after another.
These scenes actually demanded quite a bit of imagination because I was visiting in February, when little was blooming, and this was British Columbia, not Italy. But even in the off-season, Tuscan Farm Gardens, on eighty acres in Langley, about an hour southeast of Vancouver, captures the look and feel of another time, another continent. It’s a business but also a place of beauty, and its owners, Arleigh and Heather Fair, offer their customers the same respite they themselves find in the peaceful surroundings.
As we walk the grounds, the Fairs trace for me the path that has brought them here. They tell me often, sometimes with a note of wonder: “We didn’t know what we were doing.” The story that unfolds started a few years ago, when Arleigh and Heather looked at their lives and imagined something else. They set out to create a fantasy place where the two of them could live and work together. They had a vision but no blueprint, a plan with no details. Now, five years later, they have a working farm of herb crops that they sell wholesale, a bed and breakfast inn with Old World charm, a gift shop of products made from the harvests of the fields, and beautiful gardens open for tours. Heather blames it largely on menopause.
Arleigh, now fifty-four, had retired early from a fast-paced, high-stress job as a natural gas distributor, and the Fairs had bought a luxury apartment in a highrise overlooking False Creek in downtown Vancouver; they lived there for 4 1/2 years. They hiked and biked and enjoyed both the pace of the city and the leisure of their new life. One day, Heather watched from her bicycle as farm trucks brought their fresh vegetables to the market on Granville Island. “That’s when I started thinking about dirt,” she says. She and Arleigh turned their gaze from the city to the country.
Arleigh began driving around the Fraser Valley countryside, where he had been raised, “looking for a view.” One day, he came home and announced: “I found it.” He bought the property—eighty acres of rugged, heavily wooded land with ravines, creeks, and ponds, framed by views of Mount Baker and a set of mountains called the Golden Ears. He moved into a trailer on the land, and Heather stayed in the city. He plowed a road, put in a fence, and planted tulips in the shape of Heather’s initials so that when she came to see the place in the spring, she’d want to come live there. It didn’t take that long to bring her around.
“I was pulled two ways,” Heather explains. As much as she loved her life in the city, she was also intrigued by the medicinal herbs that she had begun taking to help her cope with side effects of menopause, and she wanted to grow them. A stay-at-home mom whose children had grown and who was ready to get out of the house, she admits: “Actually I just wanted a cottage with white curtains at the window and a little herb garden out front. I got carried away.”
Arleigh confesses that he thought his wife’s use of herbs bordered on witchcraft, but he nonetheless tried to be supportive. He went with her to an annual conference of the International Herb Association in Chicago. “I even took a tussie-mussie class,” he says, laughing at the memory. The Fairs came home from the conference energized and with a plan for the land: they’d build an herb farm. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” Heather adds.
How do you build a dream like Tuscan Farm Gardens? From the ground up. In May 1993, Arleigh starting clearing land, one acre at a time. With the help of his brother Keith, as well as an excavator and a backhoe with a jaw bucket, he selectively felled elder, birch, and other second-growth trees from the area where the main house and gardens would be, leaving only the best of the cedars and other evergreens. Chopping trees, grubbing out roots and debris by hand, burning the refuse—Arleigh accomplished this muscle-and-sweat work as Heather concocted ambitious plans for the gardens.
Now, some five years later, they’ve cleared about ten acres for the house, gardens, crop fields, and farmhouse. In March 1994, Arleigh started building the house and the farmhouse, graceful stucco shapes with red tile roofs that suggest a Mediterranean scene. The Fairs moved into the house the following October and laid about an acre of turf “for instant gratification.”
They started mapping out the garden spaces and rototilling but left most of the land alone to become a naturalistic, parklike setting traversed by miles of rugged hiking trails. As fast as Arleigh and his brothers could get one project completed, Heather would dream up another.
The farmhouse creates its atmosphere with traditional Tuscan architecture, colors, and furnishings. The gift shop on the ground floor offers soapmaking kits, beeswax candles, bath oils, pillows and sachets, and both fresh and dried herbs and flowers. There is space for workshops and lectures. Outside is a flagstone courtyard enclosed by chest-high brick walls; the thymes growing between the stones look as if they planted themselves.
Upstairs, the rooms are comfortable and welcoming, some with balconies with panoramic views of the gardens. Bright watercolors by a local artist decorate the walls. Fresh bread is delivered each morning, and the sounds of birds and tinkling water replace television.
The gardens’ carefree abundance belies the careful planning and hard work that produced it. Eighty young cherry trees line the walkway to the gazebo and provide a brief period of magnificence in spring. In summer, clematis, climbing roses, wisteria, honeysuckle, and a profusion of other blooms cover a wooden pergola, creating a fragrant walkway in dappled light.
Beyond the pergola, Heather has planted a large potagerie of herbs, fruit, and vegetables in raised beds with bark-mulch pathways and trellises at the corners. The beds contain sections for culinary, medicinal, dye plants, tea plants, edible flowers, and everlastings (“dried things that look as good dead as alive”) and flourish with a gay abandon within their formal structures, mingling strawberries and blackberries with chives, runner beans, sweet peas, lavender, beets, and many other plants.
Curving around a cedar hedge is a small Mediterranean garden that thrives with no water other than rainfall. It is silvery and blue with sages, dianthuses, gray santolina, lavenders, and euphorbias. At one end, an iron gate opens to a rose arbor that leads to a secret garden enclosed by the cedar hedges. This garden is a cool place of quiet discovery, with sculptures tucked into unexpected corners, a knot garden of santolinas planted in interlocking figure eights, and flower borders that move from hot to cool colors, with the green walls of cedar giving everything a hush.
Beyond lies what the Fairs call Rhodeo Drive, a walkway lined with sixty rhododendrons (with eventual plans for two hundred). There’s also a moon garden filled with luminescent plants of silver and variegated leaves and white flowers.
Most spectacular are the breathtaking sweeps of lavender and echinacea. New in 1998 is a field of sunflowers, whose big, happy flower faces form a backdrop for the echinacea in late summer and early fall. These are the working gardens.
Two years ago last spring, the Fairs were ready to start thinking about herb crops, and these plans were as grandiose as all the others. After clearing the land, they raked, rototilled, and worked in aged manure. Ginseng didn’t work out, so they plowed it under. They planted swaths of lavender propagated by a local nursery—900 plants in 4-inch pots the first year, 1,200 the second. The Fairs currently have about half an acre in lavender, with plans for even more.
Then came 37,500 plugs of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). “Brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, their kids, our kids, brother-in-law,” and Arleigh and Heather spent six weeks on their hands and knees planting the plugs in wide sweeps circled by grass paths over four acres, giving visitors plenty of room to stroll among the crops.
In the echinacea’s second summer, the Fairs realized the scope of their vision. In late June 1997, their echinacea fields burst into bloom, a riot of magenta blossoms standing shoulder high, a celebration of color and cheer, an event. “It was like the echinacea was throwing a party,” Heather explains. “It was growing like crazy, and that’s when we realized, we’ve got a crop here! We had to harvest it, but it was too beautiful. We couldn’t cut it without showing it off first.”
She held an open house, the local newspaper did a story, and hundreds of people came to see the sight. The Fairs had note cards and brochures printed with photographs of the echinacea; an artist came out to paint the scene. “Even an elegant Italian lady from Tuscany came, and she said, ‘This is like home’,” Heather says. The field of blooming echinacea became a marketing tool and metaphor for Tuscan Farm Gardens.
After finding a buyer for their crop, a New York cough-drop manufacturer, the Fair family began the harvest. They lopped off the top 2 feet of the young plants by hand, harvesting only the leaves and flowers. In a few years, they plan to harvest both roots and tops of part of the field and replant that section. As the new plants grow, they’ll harvest and replant the other parts of the field in a four-year rotation.
For days, they cut and hauled some 10,000 pounds of fresh tops to Arleigh’s brother Lyle’s storage sheds, where they spread the stalks out on wire racks. Then they hovered anxiously, waiting for it to dry.
“We waited ten or twelve days. It would almost get dry, then the dew at night would wet it again. I rented five big fans, and I stirred it all up every day,” Arleigh says. Finally, they gave up and hauled the harvest 250 miles north to a commercial ginseng dryer. When they were finished, the Fairs had 2 tons of dried echinacea.
Asked about the profitability of their dream venture, Arleigh laughs. “A profit? Well, we made a profit, not a living. No person in their right mind would farm the way we are.”
The lavender beds yielded hundreds of pounds of dried flowers for the gift shop, which Heather sold in bulk or made into pillows, sachets, and potpourris. The gift shop has done well, but this is the first year that the B and B has been open full time. For the first time, the Fairs have hired extra help in the farmhouse. They expect to add another crop this fall, possibly a field of garlic.
“Our crops have to be conducive to the setting and the look of the gardens. We want it to look pretty but also have the potential for harvest. Things do have to add up and make sense,” Arleigh says.
Like many other people who have started herb businesses, the Fairs made a lifestyle choice. They wanted to combine their interests, including herbs and gardens and farming. They have a peaceful, productive existence and what they hope will someday be a profitable business. They also have a lot of fun.
Heather is still bubbling over with projects and ideas, as is Arleigh in his quieter, more methodical way. He’s mulling the idea of building a suspension bridge over a 90-foot-deep, 400-foot-wide ravine and has started carving five miles of hiking trails through the roughest terrain, lined with huckleberries, wild Alberta roses, native dogwoods, and wildflowers. He showed me a grove of huge cedar trees where he’s planning to build a 500-square-foot treehouse with three rooms connected by walkways.
Heather and Arleigh have been married for thirty-four years, since they were teenagers. The ongoing creation of Tuscan Farm Gardens makes every day new and exciting for them. “It’s amazing the things we’re still discovering about each other,” Heather says. She can hardly wait for the day when one of the kids calls and asks why they weren’t answering their phone and she can reply, “Dad and I were out in the treehouse."
Kathleen Halloran is the editor of The Herb Companion. She met the Fairs at an herb conference when they were just starting their business, then spent a few days with them in British Columbia last winter.
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