Monday, March 31, 2008

Thyme & Seasons: China’s Shop and Gardens

The farm blog is all a buzz today with the virtual visit by China Bayles author, Susan Wittig Albert. As a China reader for many years, I am especially honored that Susan has included Possum Creek on her blog tour to introduce her new book. We have swept the porch, put on tea, watered the herbs and mulched the gardens in honor of her visit. Join us throughout the day by posting your comments and questions to Susan. You might even be chosen to win an autographed book from Susan and China. Here's Susan....

A big thanks, Michele, for hosting me here at Possum Creek today. I’ve wanted to visit your farm for ages, but Tennessee is a long way from Texas. A virtual visit is the next best thing!

This blog tour celebrates the launch of Nightshade, the sixteenth China Bayles mystery.

China is a former criminal defense attorney who has opted for a quieter life as the owner of an herb shop in Pecan Springs TX. Of course, her life isn’t really very quiet (there are all those dead bodies!) but she loves her herb shop and gardens—and so do I. In this post, I’d like to tell you how Thyme & Seasons came into being. (For posts on other subjects, check out the tour calendar.)

Thyme & Seasons: The Shop
If you’ve been reading the China Bayles series, you know how important the herb shop is to China. Like many of us, she had an active and demanding career that left no time for the simpler pleasures in life. She was doing well, but she knew that something was lacking: something that came from the heart. So she jettisoned her career (“People thought I’d gone crazy,” she says in Thyme of Death. “Me, I knew I’d gone sane.”) and headed for the Hill Country, where she bought an herb shop in a century-old stone building surrounded with herb gardens.

Why herbs? “I have a stock answer,” China says, remembering her experiences as a lawyer. “Plants don't argue. They also don't lie, cheat, connive, or hit below the belt.” There’s more, of course. China has loved plants all her life, as have many of us. When—in desperation, as I imagine it—she looked around for some meaningful purpose for her life, herbs beckoned. She accepted the invitation and has never looked back.

I’m sure (aren’t you?) that her shop has a great deal to do with the pleasure China has found in this way of life. I love the way she describes it in that first book.

Floor-to-ceiling shelves along the back wall hold jars and bottles of dried herbs, tinctures, salves, and ointments. Herb books are neatly racked in the corner, and shelves on another wall are full of potpourri and potpourri makings. A wooden display case houses essential oils, bottles, and perfume supplies. Other shelves hold various herb products that I make or buy from local crafts-people--gift-baskets, vinegars, seasoning blends, jellies, soaps, candles. Hand-made baskets are stacked in the corners and spill onto the floor. Dried flowers are everywhere, bunched in jars and hanging from the wooden beams, and braided ropes of red peppers and garlic hang on the stone walls.

It sounds almost too good to be true? It isn’t. This description is derived from the real-life herb shops I’ve visited all over the country, where the owners have put their hearts into their shops. Visit one, if you can, and see for yourself. In Pennsylvania, drop in at The Rosemary House. In Ohio, the Village Herb Shop is wonderful. In Indiana, stop at Carolee’s Herb Farm, where the shop is located in a big barn. There’s the Herb Bar, in Austin TX, where I used to sell the herbal wreaths I made from my garden. China’s fictional shop, Thyme & Seasons, borrows from all of these real shops—and more.

In the first three books, China’s shop is small, and she lives in an apartment at the back. But by Book 4, Rosemary Remembered, she has moved in with McQuaid and his son Brian and expanded the shop into what used to be her living room and bedroom. “Thyme and Seasons is just about perfect,” she says, looking around at her renovated space.

But not quite, for her friend Ruby Wilcox (Ruby rents the other half of China’s building for her own shop, the Crystal Cave) proposes that they open a tea room at the back of the building. Ruby has won the lottery, you see, and wants to make a good investment. At first, China doesn’t think this is a good idea, but she comes around, and Thyme for Tea is ready for business in Mistletoe Man (where there is a slight problem with the new kitchen help, who turns out to be a murderer). The tea room thrives, but by now (Nightshade), it is mostly Ruby’s baby, with the able assistance of a new partner, Cass Wilde, a gourmet chef. This leaves China a bit more time to spend in the gardens.

China’s Herb Gardens
When China opened the shop, she turned the grassy yard into display gardens, front and back, so customers could see herbs growing and blooming. Mentioned in various books are her apothecary (medicinal) and culinary gardens, beverage garden (all those wonderful tea herbs!), dye garden, fragrance garden, and the native herb garden. I know you’ve never been able to visit Pecan Springs (except in China’s books), but if you’ve been to the National Herb Garden at the Arboretum in Washington D.C., you have an idea of how beautiful herb display gardens can be.

But the display gardens can’t produce the herbs China sells in her shop. In Dead Man’s Bones, she says: “Every year, I seem to want more of something--more lavender, more sage, more parsley, more thyme.” She buys wholesale (from herb farmers like Michele Brown here at Possum Creek), and she has a large garden behind her house, where she grows many of the herbs she packages fresh and sell in the produce section at Cavette's Grocery in Pecan Springs. “I always smile,” she says, “when I see those neat little raffia-tied cellophane packages of Thyme and Seasons basil and rosemary and marjoram, and think of somebody cooking with them, making soup, maybe, or a salad, or a main dish. Somehow, it's like spreading the wealth.” I imagine that Michele and Pat feel the same way about the herbs they grow at Possum Creek.

Of course, China is a fictional character, and her gardens are entirely imaginary. If you want to see how a real herb farm works, Possum Creek is a good example. As Michele tells us on her “About Us” page, her farm began with display gardens and a retail shop, but over the past nine years, her customer base has changed from retail to wholesale. She and her business partner, Pat Stewart, grow the young plants in their six greenhouses, pot them up, and ship them out to buyers all over the country. “The shop is now our shipping department,” she emailed me, adding a smiley face. The ladies retail their plants and other herb products at the Chattanooga Market—an important “buy locally” venue—and offers retail products from the website. Michele and Pat, are two extraordinarily busy people (especially at this time of year), but the greenhouse work will soon slack up enough to allow them to work in their own gardens.

Bet if you asked Michele, she’d say that China’s life as a fictional character may be fun (except, of course, for those dead bodies), but real life is a lot more work! And yet Michele has taken time away from the greenhouses and plant shipments to host me on her blog. That’s an herbalist for you—always generous and helpful.

Thanks, Michele. And thanks to all the readers who are following this blog tour through cyberspace. I appreciate your notes and comments—I’ll hang around today to answer questions. I’ve got to be out of town (really, not virtually) on Wednesday and Thursday, but I’ll check back at the end of the week.

About the book drawing and Susan’s blog tour
If you’d like to enter the drawing for a copy of Nightshade go here to register. But you’d better hurry. The drawing for Possum Creek closes at noon on April 10, 2008.

Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here.


CarInUtah said...

What a treat to be able to talk to China's creator today--I love the internet!
As I am reading your books, Susan, I always notice that there is a perceptible shift whenever China enters her shop. The tough, no-nonsense woman seems to melt with affection whenever she enters, seeing and smelling things that give her so much pleasure. It is wonderful to read about the shop and how China's business interests expand. I do take note of the descriptions of soaps, vinegars, garlic braids and ristras and in fact I am growing lots of chili peppers and will attempt making ristras this year because of the China series.
I have 2 questions for Susan. First, have you been to a shop that sells all the items China's shop does or is it a collection you have created in your own imagination? I'm asking because I've never seen an herb shop & would love to visit one! Second, China's interior dialog shifts between being a regular citizen and being an attorney so seamlessly. How do you do this so well? I have read your bio and don't see "attorney" listed in your long list of accomplishments --how do you do legalspeak so realistically? My brother is a newly-minted attorney and legal procedure seems to have changed the way he perceives the world and China's character certainly seems hardwired in that way!
Thank you for your books. I pre-ordered Nightshade on Amazon and am anxiously awaiting its arrival!

susanalbert said...

Great questions--thanks!

In its stock, China's shop is a lot like Rosemary House, in Mechanicsburg PA, or the Herb Bar, in Austin TX (at least as it was in the 90s--I haven't been there recently), or the Village Herb Shop in Chagrin Falls OH. Herb shops are wonderful places, and I try to make Thyme & Seasons as evocative as the real thing. And yes, I do think China feels like a different person when she goes into her shop!

Re: China's "lawyer" talk. I'm not very comfortable with that part of her character, since (as you've spotted) I haven't had any legal training. I think I'm a bit like a mockingbird--you know, the bird that can incorporate odd bits of other bird-talk (and even water dripping, doors slamming, and children crying) in his song. When I'm writing China and need her to "talk law," I read law talk and try to mimic it. And I'm with you--I LOVE the Internet. That's where I do a lot of my research these days.

Hope you enjoy NIGHTSHADE!

Herbfarmer said...

We are so glad to have Susan stop by and visit the Possum Creek blog. Like I shared with Susan a few days ago, we're at our peak season with wholesale and getting to the computer during the day can be a little tough. However, I hope my fellow herb and mystery lovers stop by this evening with a cup of their favorite beverage and leave a comment or two.

Mary said...

How do you choose the businesses China choooses t oexpand her Thyme and Seasons empire? Do you plan plots then develop a business or a business the a plot to go with them?

It seems very natural that a small business woman would expand to meet the hardships that all small business owners hit sometimes. The tea shop was a great way to bring suspects into the shop but when a murderer was right in our in the kitchen I was floored.

In Bleeding Hearts, the way Party Thyme allowed China to observe Coach and Mrs. Duffy was great. It made me, as the reader, view the two of them with a wary eye.

I have noticed that through the business China has been commenting on the status of hispanic workers in Pecan Springs. Is something more going to come of that?

Susan said...

Susan, hi! It's such fun to follow you around the internet :-) While I'm really looking forward to reading the new book, today I started rereading (for the eleventyth time) Indigo Dying. I had the opportunity to actually get to participate in some natural dyeing this weekend and am totally smitten with indigo. Now that's magic!

If I could have a magical vacation part of the time would be spent in China's shop, part of the time with Beatrix and also a stop at the shop in Practical Magic! Fortunately, there's always magic in books and film.

susanalbert said...

Mary--I love it that you are giving the books such a close reading, and following China's "business plan" with interest! Choosing the business is a combination of plot possibilities (Cass's traveling gourmet seems to offer dozens of opportunities for stumbling across mysteries) and my own interests. Also, I'm always fascinated by the way women develop their businesses, so that's part of it, too. Look for more along those lines, especially in fiber crafts. And there's that bookstore next door and . . . Too many ideas here!

Re: non-resident (possibly undocumented) workers. That's always a problematic situation for small businesses, isn't it? Especially these days. So yes, there may be other plot situations where this will work out.

susanalbert said...

Re: Indigo. I'll be posting a link to an indigo dyeing workshop on Friday, at Crafty Gardener. You might want to stick around for that. Dye workshops are so much fun! I'm glad you got to do that, and that you're enjoying Indigo Dying. Also Beatrix. She is such a great character--but I admit to loving Bosworth Badger, Winston the pony, and Jemima Puddle-duck almost as much!

Crafty Gardener said...

I'm catching up with the blog tour this morning. I love reading about the various books in the series. I love the idea of herb gardens by the store and wish I could come across a place like that in 'real life'.