A Garden Story: The Ultimate Herb Grower

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WESTPORT, New York–If winter has you indoors and looking for something to satisfy the garden itch, you’ll find plenty of inspiration in a garden story of my favorite herb grower. Gertrude Foster, or Bunny as her friends knew her, was the antithesis of renowned herb expert Adelma Simmons in every way, except for their shared passion for herbs. Bunny was quiet, conservative and earnest, qualities that were leavened by a sense of humor. Where Adelma inspired a generation by her stimulating herbal luncheons at Caprilands Herb Farm in Coventry, Connecticut, her flamboyant appearance and atmospheric plantings, Bunny was a private person, immersed in her family, correspondence and her gardens in Falls Village, Connecticut. She conveyed her knowledge through two books — It Is Easy to Grow Herbs (1943) and Herbs For Every Garden (1966) — and another with her daughter, Rosemary Louden, Park Seed’s Success With Herbs (1980). For four decades she and her husband Phil produced the quarterly magazine, The Herb Grower. It was a labor of love. When asked why they didn’t try to make the magazine profitable by taking advertising, she said the magazine was too small and they preferred not to cut it up with ads. “Also,” she wrote in the winter 1977 issue, “we do not wish to cater to a source of revenue.” Evidently, herbs were not the source of their living –at least not through the magazine.

In that same winter issue Bunny relates her and Phil’s journey down the herbal path. Theirs was a true partnership that began even before their marriage in 1938, when they started growing herbs for fun. They were influenced by an earlier generation of pioneers like Helen Fox and Rosetta Clarkson, who began growing, using and writing about herbs in the early 1930s, before there was widespread information and few sources for seeds or plants available. In Clarkson’s 1936 issue of The Herb Journal (forerunner of The Herb Grower), she listed 28 companies that were carrying some variety of seeds. Of the 16 plant sources, only eight specialized in herbs.

Month after month in the pages of The Herb Grower, which was published from 1947 through 1984, Bunny taught what she had learned from the careful study of herbs. The stack I own, dating from 1950, is never far from reach for my own research and writing. When I made my debut in The Herb Grower in the late 1970s, I used to wonder how I could ever attain such knowledge and what herbs were left for me to write about when Bunny and her contributors (among them Fox and Clarkson) seemed to have covered the field. But as I learned over the years from my own experience, there is always something new to learn, some fresh insight to share. Writing for The Herb Grower, striving to attain the high level Bunny expected, was a great education.

Bunny contributed five articles to the winter 1977 issue that show the range of her interests: There are two detailed pieces on ambrosias (Chenopodium spp.), another on herbal annuals for color, an informative piece about when and how to water potted plants (helpful to me at this season) and another on sprouting fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum). The Herb Grower may have been small in size, but it packed an incredible amount of solid information and ideas into its pages. Many articles, like the one on fenugreek, were illustrated with Phil’s photos. If you were a novice at sprouting and wondered what you should be looking for, Phil’s small black-and-white photo of sprouted fenugreek seeds showed them with their crunchy tails, just ready to eat in salads. I’ve never sprouted these, but I have sprouted other seeds and can vouch for the enjoyment of producing something fresh and edible on the windowsill in winter just by soaking seeds in water in a canning jar.

In Herbs for Every Garden, Bunny wrote about wildflowers, as well as classic herbs. She considered agrimony, skullcap, coltsfoot, cornflower, eyebright and red clover for their past and present uses. Among the classics, rosemary, the name the Fosters bestowed on their daughter, was a favorite. The opening sentence shows how, in a few words, she summons up the plant as if it were before our eyes. “It is hard to describe the loveliness of rosemary, for its beauty stems from its bushy, erect growth, so like a miniature fir tree, as well as its fragrance,” she wrote. The Park Seed book is a gem, still sought by herb novices and the experienced. Each entry is preceded by one of Phil’s photos, showing the plant as a seedling, then in mature growth. Growing instructions, based on her experience, include all the details usually glossed over in more glamorous books. “It looks like a textbook,” Bunny complained in a letter to me, but like The Herb Grower, it is of inestimable value.

Bunny went on to write occasionally for The Herb Companion in its early years (see October/November 1989 and October/November 1990). Today there is a plethora of information about herbs, seeds and plants, even the most obscure are available, and herb-inspired products and crafts abound in gift stores. Our herbal cup runneth over, yet I am glad I experienced the excitement of discovery of the second-generation pioneers like the Fosters. Bunny passed away in 1997, but if you don’t own a Foster book, go online, search for “used herb books” and discover a treasure trove.

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