|"My beloved is gone down to his garden, to the beds of thyme, to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies."
-Song of Solomon 6:2
Leelanau County seems to be something of a mecca for herbs. In addition to numerous nurseries, three herb farms, Busha's Brae, Bellwether and Woodland Herbs make their home there. The owners of the three farms all had the same idea for why this abundance of farms is possible. Gail Ingraham of Bellwether offered, "I think that we've each always had our own niche and that this area is like the rest of the country. There are more gardens in America right now that at any other time in history, it's the number one hobby."
I spoke with Pat Bourdo who, with her husband John, ran the farm since it began over 20 years ago. Actually, she spoke while I trailed along, munching on the steady stream of edible herbs she picked as we walked. Woodland Herbs specialized in field-grown hardy perennials, especially of the edible sort.
The first plant I was introduced to was French sorrel, which has a lemony or green-apple flavor that makes it a perfect salad green. "Sorrel is like spinach -- cut it off to the ground and it will grow right back," Pat commented. "You can also make a wonderful soup with sorrel, potato, cream and plenty of onion."
Nearby was a waist high, light green plant. "Lovage," Pat explained, breaking off a leaf. "It's more celery than celery. It has a hollow stem and makes the perfect straw for a Bloody Mary."
People tend to think of herbs as the typical spices, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and the like, but technically an herb is a plant that dies down to the ground and does not have a persistent, woody stem. Pat prefers a more inclusive and personal definition:
"An herb is a plant from which the roots, flowers or leaves are used for flavoring, fragrance, medicine or magic, or any or all of the above."
The Bourdo's had an extensive collection of thyme with varieties that included Nutmeg, Caraway, Golden, Coconut, Lemon, Orange, Wild, Oregano and Wooly thymes and of course Thyme vulgaris -- plain old thyme. We spoke of companion planting, the practice of grouping plants that are beneficial to each other. "Dill is an excellent companion plant to tomato," Pat advised. "They taste good together and the dill repels some tomato parasites." Nasturtiums, of which watercress is a non-flowering member, have become very popular as a salad addition. The peppery flavor of the leaves and flowers will ensure that a salad which contains them will not pass unnoticed. There are many varieties, and all of them edible."
At Woodland Herbs, they were always organic growers, which means that they needed a lot of natural fertilizer. Pat confided that comfrey, an herb which can be put to a variety of uses, including a skin salve, is a great compost enricher. Comfrey is amazingly hardy, growing about four feet tall and coming back quickly when cut off. Hummingbirds like it and it is the only herb Pat knows of that will grow in clay.
You can contact Pat and John at Lavender Lane at 616-857-6111.
"My life seems to be about independence," Gail explained. "I've always been interested in gardening. I started with dried flowers for arrangements and when I discovered perennials, I couldn't get enough of them. I love the design aspect, there's a challenge to having a bloom all summer that you don't get with annuals and infinite possibilities."
Many faced with starting or expanding their garden may feel a bit overwhelmed: What should they grow? What can they grow? Gail advises:
"I teach garden design classes, and in them the first step is always a question: What do you want from your garden? Cut flowers? Dried flowers? Fragrance, edibility, teas? There are so many choices that it's mind-boggling. When you know what you want then you can start narrowing the possibilities and planning your garden."
Her garden design classes are offered through NMC's summer extension program as well as through the summer at Bellwether. You can call 271-3004 for more information.
One function that an herb garden can fulfill is the attraction of birds. At each of the farms there was a profusion of avian life, many songs and colors. While Gail and I were talking a pair of orioles performed a swirling springtime ballet. "Bart, they're doing their dance again," Gail called.
In addition to the greenhouses (and half the grounds) full of all manner of perennials small and large, there are several display gardens. One is also a novel heath and heather garden, containing hardy flowering grasses from Scotland that do quite nicely in Northern Michigan. The tough grasses surprise one with delicate sprays of color throughout the year.
Though Bellwether offers culinary herbs, Gail has made the focus of her gardens perennials that provide fragrant foliage and colorful blooms. In the small shop are examples of her work: bundle after bundle of dried flowers are suspended from the ceiling, exquisite dried flower wreaths hang upon the walls, as do dolls made from the yearly bounty provided by Bellwether.
As we spoke, we toured the farm that Dixie and Jim started, seeing old gardens that Danielle maintains and new gardens she is creating. The quotations that appear throughout the article were inspired by the Shakespeare and the Saint Anne's gardens at the Brae where tiny tags cite verse and line from the Bard and the Bible referring to humankind's long kinship with herbs. "I'm thinking of renaming this 'St. Elizabeth's Garden' (pictured in the photo above) in honor of my friend Betty who first told me that this place was up for sale," Danielle confided.
From these venerable beds, we walked to see some of Danielle's new projects. The "Pizza Garden" makes its home within an old wagon wheel, with parsley, rosemary, thyme, garlic, oregano, chives and basil occupying the "slices." In an old metal bucket upon the hub sits a tomato plant. Nearby, she was working on a sunflower house garden and a morning glory teepee.
Perhaps the most interesting was the Cosmetic Garden, a gathering of herbs with a variety of cosmetic uses. They can also be used to enhance the bathing experience aromatically and otherwise. Dotting the bed were lavender, calendula, bee balm, lady's mantle, rose geranium, chamomile, comfrey, fennel, purple sage, parsley and soapwort.
Soapwort can actually be used as a shampoo by pouring a pint of boiling water over one ounce of the chopped leaves, stems or roots. Fair-haired folk can add chamomile, hollyhock or mullen to the chopped soapwort, dark-haired ones rose or sage and for those with red hair, pot marigold will enhance the action. There are also Tea Gardens, which provide the prime ingredient for a Busha's Brae tradition -- the afternoon teas. Marsha Lambert, a storyteller and Shakespeare scholar will host one of the Afternoon Teas complete with homemade breads, herbal scones and cakes and jellies flavored with lavender, pineapple sage and other herbs. You can call 271-6284 or visit her web site at http://www.leelanau.com/shop/bushas/ for reservations. Danielle works with dried flowers as well and proudly displayed one of her latest creations, an "herb angel" complete with a circlet of woven thyme. She continues to make the herbal vinegars as her predecessor and is looking to expand into some more exotic flavors.
Gail provides a closing thought:
"Herb gardens are a great thing. They come back and get better every year. Instead of replanting annuals every year, you can build a perennial garden. It will save you money in the long run."