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.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Happy Spring...thyme to plant seeds

Starting Herbs from Seed

There are a great many reasons for starting your own herb plants from seed. Most gardeners are first prompted to venture down this road by this motivator: necessity. How many of you have wished for the perfect herb to fill in that one last spot in the garden or the perfect shade of pink in your flower border and then have gone to your local garden center only to find out that it is not available locally? Economics is another motivator for starting your own seed. Plants, especially exotic, can be expensive even to buy just one and often one is not enough. Starting plants from seed often gives us more plants than we need. Quality is another motivator for seed starting. Often the plants found at the local big box stores have been sitting around at the mercy of whoever remembers to water it. Starting plants from seed at home insures that plant health is controlled which gives the plant a good start for a long life.

For me, winter begins when the onslaught of seed catalogs hit my mailbox. I am like a kid in a candy store with wonderland stretched out in front of me. And all of this in the luxury of my nice warm easy chair. When the catalogs start rolling in, I take a few minutes with each one and circle whatever suits my fancy with a black magic marker. I go through all of the seed suppliers since there is a likelihood that one of the suppliers has the perfect basil or oregano that I don’t have yet. I then whittle down my selections to the chosen few and place the orders. Place your orders right after the first of the year because by March most supplies are starting to dwindle.

Finding the space to start your seeds could pose some logistic problems, so before you actually begin, decide where you plan to keep the trays. Seeds need warmth and moisture to germinate and once germinated they will need light. My suggestion is that if you don’t have plant lights or fluorescent lights use what you have in the house. Seed germinates between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The top of the refrigerator or the top of the TV. or a warm windowsill are all good places to start the germination process. Before you begin your seed starting adventure gather a few key items. Containers can be of various shapes and sizes. From propagation trays with domes to clean egg cartons, these will work as long as they can hold a little seed starting mix and can handle a little moisture. They must be clean and free of contaminates. Wash the trays with one part Clorox to 9 parts water and rinse well. As with anything else in life the preparation of growing medium for seeds can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. We chose to be as simple as possible with our growing mix opting to pick up several bags of the Jiffy like mix at our local home improvement stores. Pre-moisten your growing mix before using will kept the dust down and make sowing those tiny, tiny seeds a whole lot easier.

Most seeds can be sown straight from the packet, but on occasion seed jackets are too tough and germination is virtually impossible. By chipping, nicking or soaking the seeds for a period of time in warm water, the jackets will more likely open up and receive the moisture needed to germinate. Most seed companies give you some information about the best method of preparation so read the back of the package carefully.
Eliminate confusion at sprouting time by marking your trays with its contents. Little white tags with name of seed, when sown and any other pertinent information can be written down. Tamp down the medium and level off in the container. Make indentations or rows for the seed keeping the depth according to package instructions or your own experience. Either with a pinch of two fingers or a gentle shake of the package those tiny seeds will be on the growing medium. Tamp down the seed to make contact with the medium. Cover your seed trays with plastic wrap or plastic domes to retain moisture. Place under growing lights or on top of refrigerator. Most seeds will germinate in 7-10 days with some exceptions. There are some herb seed that requires refrigeration before sowing. Again, experience and a little research will give you the information needed to reach a high rate of germination.

Once germination has occurred take the domes and plastic wrap off the seedlings. Place seed trays under grow lights or near a sunny window. Turn the trays often to insure that the seedlings are receiving enough light and watch for drying out which occurs quickly. Damping off occurs when the stems of the seedlings rot at the soil surface. The seedling falls over and dies. Water the seedlings by sitting the tray in a pan of water or the sink and let the moisture absorb from the bottom. Once the herb seedlings have a true set or their second set of leaves it is time to transplant to their new homes. Pot up the new herb babies in clean and sterile pots. Use a potting mix that is friable and light. Poke a small hole in the potting mix. Gently pry your seedling out with a popsicle stick under the roots and gently place into hole in potting mix. Lightly tamp soil down and gently mist. Water until well established.

Excerpt from “Starting Herbs from Seeds” by Michele Brown, 2002.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Spring Tease...a sea of green

While a major portion of the U.S. is under a blanket of winter snow, I thought it might be nice to send a little springtime tease to our blog buddies. Something to get that green thumb itching for the soil... The daffs came through right on time. Always in bloom by the third week in February, even in the ice, wind and cold.

Up close and personal in the greenhouses. The following images are from Possum Creek's greenhouses. Butterfly bush, chive, coral bells, basil, rosemary and Echinacea all lined up and ready for their new homes.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

China Bayles author Susan Wittig Albert does it again

Nightshade, the newest China Bayles novel from author, Susan Wittig Albert, hits the bookstores on April 1, 2008. But, you can get a sneak peek into China's life by visiting here on March 31, 2008. Susan, herself, will visit our blog during her nationwide blog tour promoting her newest book.

Susan Wittig Albert is a nationally-recognized speaker on the history and lore of herbs and the creator of the critically-acclaimed China Bayles herbal mysteries. Her latest book is titled Nightshade. Albert's novels have catapulted her into national bestseller circles and onto "must-read" booklists across the country. Publishers Weekly says that China Bayles is "in a class with lady sleuths V.I. Warshawski and Stephanie Plum," and the Dallas Morning News calls them "engaging, entertaining, interesting, and instructive." Ms. Albert's enormously popular books are known for their snappy dialogue, humor, and regional background, as well as for the information about herbs that is woven into each book.
So, be sure to mark your calendars for March 31, 2008. Visit our blog throughout the day and as often as you like. Be sure to post comments and questions for Susan as she talks about China's gardens and her shop Thyme and Season.

Chattanooga Market will Open!

Good news came early this morning with a phone call imploring me to read the headlines of the Sunday paper. "Second Life for Chattanooga Market" screamed the headlines. Finally, some good news regarding our retail venue. A new owner has taken on the task of organizing the market while his partner will run the day to day end of things. Plans are to keep the market similar to the one which ended in December, 2007 which highlights the farmers, artists and charities which utilize the market for fundraising.

So, now it is up to Chattanooga and the surrounding communities to really come support the market. We have all been given a second chance to buy our produce, cheese, bread, meat and gift items locally instead of reading the "made in China or (you choose which country)" labels. We'll be at the market April 27, 2008....will you?