I’ve spent much of this May feeling out of place, with a scarf around my neck and a breath that turns white before disappearing into the early evening. Don’t get me wrong: as a farmer, gardener, and fighter for New England’s ecological health I am relieved that we’ve finally gotten enough rain to sate Massachusetts out of a devastating drought. However, I’m also anxious for soil that is dry and warm enough to start our field work. Despite the nippy weather and sunless days I’ve recognized this sweet month for its heavy blossoms, breezes that smell like pine and lilac, and the annual tradition planting the Herbstalk Community Gardens.
For four years Steph and I have been joined by a group of lovely women who have helped us design, create, and tend tiny herb gardens throughout the Boston area. A few of the gardens live in full raised beds lovingly built by members of our crew while others consist of a few terracotta pots and window boxes. Regardless of size each plot is unique and jam-packed with dearly loved medicinal (and often delectable) plant friends. Elissa’s raised bed at Saint Mary’s in Dorchester is calm and simple; a reverie nestled into a corner of the church’s stone walls and elegantly planted with lavender, calendula, chamomile, and mugwort (which found its own way into the garden on its own). Maggie’s garden is in the playground across from Chilacates in Jamaica Plain, packed with seedlings from calendula, feverfew, and marshmallow mothers planted years ago that keep on providing us with leafy daughters.
My own garden at ZAZ in Hyde Park consists of a collection of two window boxes and two wide and elegantly squat terracotta pots, brimming over with culinary herbs used by ZAZ’s chef, Olrie Roberts, in his new American fusion dishes. This year we set him up with ginger mint, lemon and English thyme, holy basil grown from seed, lemongrass, and other deliciously healing plants.
While the women of the garden crew each have our “own” gardens we are merely stewards of plots that we maintain for the greater Boston community. We welcome visitors and passersby to harvest handfuls for their own use—a wee sprig of tulsi from Mal’s vertical garden at Somerville’s Bloc 11, say, or some anise hyssop from boxes and barrels at Gail Ann’s in Arlington Center. Soon the chamomile flowers in JP and Dorchester will be ready for the plucking, and in about a month Maggie’s Stonybrook garden (our flagship bed) will have lemon balm that’s big enough to start pinching for the iced teas of summer.
Whether you are new to herbs, a practicing herbalist, or a dabbling cook or tea maker, we hope that you visit our gardens this year and take some time to smell their sweetness and perhaps take a little souvenir home for your teapot, saucepan, or salad bowl. For more information on the Herbstalk Community Gardens Project, including ways to volunteer, please visit our gardens page.