Get Going on the Garden

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.

| December/January 2006

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. 

Make a Request from the Midwest

Take the Midwest, for example. The Cornhusker State has never been a mecca for herbalists, but Martell, Nebraska, is home to Papa Geno’s , founded in 1993 by Gene Gage and Sharon Rose. Looking for caper bush (Capparis spinosa) so you can pickle a few buds? Papa Geno’s has it, along with hundreds of other herbs that may be impossible to find in garden centers. Like other herb nurseries that sell plants to distant customers, Papa Geno’s ships out most orders on Monday or Tuesday — the best way to make sure plants don’t end up marooned in a shipping box over the weekend.

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.

Needing Northeast Nurseries?

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.  

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