How Sweet (and Savory) it is: In the Herb Garden with Nancy Schleiger

Rich, minty, sagey and earthy pine fragrances waft around you as you walk through Nancy and David Schleiger’s 2 acre plus, close to 26 year old garden. Beneath the sheltering canopies of stately old oaks and black walnuts, native plants and aromatic, blooming herbs line the walkways and borders in room after garden room of the long narrow property. The front garden, which greets visitors and acts as a bridge between the quiet street and the Schleiger’s house, is just the beginning. Cross the threshold of the back garden gate and you find yourself craning to see beyond the next gate, around the next corner, over the next border. “How far does the garden go?” you might ask in anticipation, “Oh, a ways,” Nancy might reply, modestly. Nancy Schleiger likes her garden plants to smell good, to taste good, to feel good and to help you to feel good. And whether its the herbs she has been cultivating and selling in our region for so long, or the many, many natives she now cultivates as well – both for her home garden and for her Native Springs Nursery– her plants generally fill all her requirements. Photo: Ornamental oregano.

Nancy, and her husband David, an architect, started working on their Durham garden in the early 1980s, and Nancy first started going to local farmer’s markets shortly thereafter. “I first became interested in herbs as I got to know more growers – especially those from different cultures such as some of the Hmong gardeners – I began to learn how other people use different plants – for food, for medicine. I started to experiment with different herbs and growing new ones each season and soon people started to seek me out for interesting herb selections,” Nancy explained to me as we wandered from the back deck garden, through a native and perennial border room and through a gate into the official Herb Garden. Photo: Nancy Schleiger standing beneath an old oak which reigns over her front garden, much of which is planted with native shrubs and perennials as well as hardy and drought tolerant herbs.

Walking through her garden, Nancy pointed out to me the more traditional Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary and lavender, as well as less common ones – some specialty oreganos, a nicely shaped pale green and spiky arching lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), a ruffle-leaved stevia, also called Paraguayan sweet herb, (Stevia rebaudiana) – the sweetener of the same name is derived from the leaves of this plant. Eat a leaf – even a little one – and a burst of sweetness fills your mouth. Photo: Woolly thyme and rosemary.

The word herb is used variously, but to Nancy it refers to plants that are used for fragrance, taste, medicinal properties or any combination of the three. Herb gardens – those gardens wherein plants are specifically grown for these same characteristics – date back to ancient times, and well recorded in medieval times – and often called “physic gardens” around monasteries or other religious and/or medical venues. Photo: One of the display native and herb borders at Native Springs Nursery in Durham.

“Many herbs are are also good garden plants. Strong sun, poor soil and sharp drainage often help to increase or enhance the levels of their volatile and/or essential oils – which is often what gives herbs their distinctive fragrance or flavor or medicinal strength,” Nancy says. She mentions some of the traditional uses for different herbs as she passes them: the leaves of Hyssop officianalis are made into a tea that is supposed to help calm coughs or other respiratory issues; Eating a few leaves a day of the white feverfew is supposed to help prevent migraine headaches. Nancy is quick to point out that herbs got their reputations for real reasons and before you use any for cooking or medical purposes, you should do your homework and check with reputable resources and professionals.Photo: The surprisingly sweet leaves of Stevia rebaudiana.

Due to strong fragrance or flavor, many herbs are not bothered by pests and some even repel pests. A river guide on the Deschutes River in Oregon told my family recently that she rubbed the sagey-scented Artemisia tridenta foliage on her exposed skin to keep mosquitos away. Aromatic herbs are often planted as companions to roses or vegetables to help deter pests on these and increase beneficial predator insects and pollinators to them. Photo: Lemon balm (Melissa officianalis) beside a garden gate. Lemon balm is considered helpful in stabilizing mood and improving mental performance.

In her herb garden, Nancy has drip irrigation and waters at most every other day in the heat of the summer. She mulches with a high-organic matter and manure (from their own goats and chickens) compost and she cuts most of the plants back pretty hard in fall or winter. She sells at local farmer’s markets many, many plants that she grows and propagates herself at a peaceful potting table close to the back of their property, beneath the benevolent shade of a big old tree. An inquisitive barn owl has taken to roosting in one of the black walnuts that flank the drive to the back of the property and we looked at the owl pellets – and at him as we made our way back. He checked us out as well. Nancy showed me praying mantis cases that were close to hatching on the branch of a citrus tree in the herb garden. Photo: Clary sage (Salvia sclarea), tradtionally used to help clear the eyes.

Just as with her plants, Nancy likes her garden to multi-task: to be aesthetic and functional, and while she grows and tends and is fascinated by her many herbs and the ways in which they feed and care for us, her love of the natural world – its birds and bugs – has inspired her in the last decade to become more and more interested in learning about, growing and propagating native plants as well as herbs. Photos: Culinary sage and tarragon.

In late 2009, Nancy bought the small nursery business of a grower colleague, Deb Fau, who was relocating to Montana. All of Fau’s nursery stock was moved to the Durham site from Yankee Hill not long after and so now two new nursery “holding” areas sit just past the potting area with stock of all kinds of interesting native plants, “many of which would have had herbal, culinary or medicinal uses to the regional Native Americans,” Nancy told me with a clear enthusiasm for this intersection of her two strongest plant interests. Photo: Ornamental and fuzzy-leaved oregano.

Currently, Nancy sells her plants at the Chico Saturday morning market and at the Paradise Tuesday market in spring and early summer. Schleiger likes to take July off for summer dormancy and to prepare her fall crops. Native Springs is always open by appointment, and Nancy is hoping to develop a set of regular Open Days for her garden and nursery in the near future. Her native plants are available on-line at Native Springs Nursery (www.nativespringsnursery.com), and her herbs should be available there soon as well.

“The idea of the right plant in the right place, working with our climate and helping to provide functional use for us or habitat for our regional wildlife becomes more important to me all the time,” she says.

With that in mind, Nancy worked on the design and installation of the native plant gardens surrounding the newly opened laboratory and classroom building at the Chico Creek Nature Center, where she worked to incorporate plants from similar communities – or as we would see them grouped in the natural areas of Northern California. She uses the same concept in her home garden, which was featured on the Native Plant Garden Tour organized by the Mt. Lassen Chapter of the California Native Plant Society earlier this spring. Not only does she like to group plants with plants they might live near in the wild, but she also frequently incorporates companion rocks near many of her perennials. “I learned this on a plant walk with a native plant expert who kept pointing out how many well established plants in the wild – especially in dry, more exposed sites – often have a companion rock that shelters them a little, provides them with radiant heat and perhaps even excess moisture run-off, when moisture is available. The rocks look good and serve a purpose – even they multi-task. They are in good-looking, functional and aromatic company.

To contact Nancy Schleiger, call 530-774-4362.

For more information about growing and using herbs in your garden, many good books are available – old and new. Including relatively recent, “The Encyclopedia of Herbs,” by Arthur O. Tucker and Thomas DeBaggio (Timber Press, 2009) and “Native American Medicinal Plants,” by Daniel Moerman (Workman Press, 2009).

Many herb societies are avaiable as well, to find a chapter near you, visit: http://www.herbsociety.org/
Photo: According to the Herb Society, in 2010 Dill is the Herb of the year. This dill flower is one of the 6 note card images for my Edibles in the Garden: Herbs, it’s one of my favorites.

Jewellgarden.com’s new line of lovely little note cards are bite sized and ready to enjoy on-line or at local fine shops near you. As spring turns to summer and summer to fall, look for Edibles in the Garden blank journals, note cards featuring seeds and fruits as well as 2011 calendars and blank journals. A portion of all sales of the Edibles in the Garden note cards goes to Slow Food Shasta Cascade and the many projects it supports. All of Jewellgarden.com’s cards are printed in Chico by Quadco printing using 100% recycled paper and vegetable-based ink. Yum.

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To submit plant/gardening related events/classes to the Jewellgarden.com on-line Calendar of Regional Gardening Events, send the pertinent information to me at: Jennifer@jewellgarden.com

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

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