By Erica Paige Schumacher
The Hudson Valley is filled with important landscape artists, local nurseries, farmers, seed-savers, and stewards of its beautiful, mysterious ecosystem. But if you’ve ever felt the pull to explore the Tweefontein Herb Farm and apothecary, it’s worth the visit. Chris Boelsen and Jill Battista are herbalists and wildcrafters who offer a wealth of knowledge about herbs and their healing abilities, as well as the local ecosystem and its natural potential. They also experiment and grow herbs that would naturally grow elsewhere for specific purposes. For example, eucalyptus grows as a tree in California, but the tree also has medicinal properties and functions as a beautiful healing essential oil. They have been growing these stalks in small batches on the farm, using specific methods to craft more optimally beneficial environments for the eucalyptus—learning and watching as they go and grow.
Tweefontein (which translates as “two fountains”) has a rich history. Originally envisioned and built by Anne and Larry Salomon, and purchased from Bill and Mary (Jenkins) Nichols, who was a descendant of the French Huguenots (the original settlers of New Paltz), the farm is a living laboratory of plants and herbs that are being cultivated for birds, bees, wildlife, and for people. As the proprietor, Anne Salomon sold her crops to local people, restaurateurs, homeopaths, and in New York City to patrons of the Greenmarket where she was known as a pioneering organic herb farmer.
Prior to their management of the herb farm, Boelsen and Battista had been traveling in Arizona to markets while searching for a viable community enterprise. “We wanted to reach out to the community in some way and put our energy into something that would help people,” Boelsen stated. “We found the herb farm for rent, and had been looking into artist co-ops and other ideas.” Battista and Boelsen started out with a few plants, and tested their resourcefulness, along with assistance from many others locally. They committed to the learning process and its curves, obtaining hoses and shovels, and soil and potting practice and materials. “Twenty-five plants grew; now we have 200 plants,” thus carrying on an important mission dreamed of first by the Salomons, or perhaps in more mystical terms, the farm itself.
Battista reflected on what they are learning as they work with nature as their ultimate guide. “We learned to be really resourceful,” Battista states. “We learned that every weed has a medicinal property…we learned about the abundance of nature, and what nature really is. It wasn’t until we started working with nature that we started to thrive.” Boelsen and Battista are growing many things, but look first to what’s already here, wildcrafting and witnessing what wants to grow here, and how. “We’re growing hundreds of patches of plants, foraging…we learned to take advantage of the weeds that pop up seasonally and the variety and abundance of plants that nature offers up naturally.”
Both indicate the flowers that are blooming now or in the forthcoming warmer season as indigenous or added by European and other settlers over time, are important healing agents, and are also important for wildlife. These include: St. John’s wort, dandelion, nettle, and catnip. These herbs or plants support wellbeing throughout the seasons or for different ailments and purposes. For example, St. John’s wort is known as “the sunshine medicine;” the plant has bright yellow flowers, and for some, it assists to alleviate melancholy and nerve pain. St. John’s wort also is beneficial for some as a calming sedative, or to balance hormones. Others cite the herb as a nectar source. Finches eat the seeds during the winter months. And the plant is adaptive and beautiful to add to landscapes. Beyond catnip’s fame as a feline treat, for humans, it also is rumored to alleviate anxiety, promote sleep as a tea, assist with inflammation, and it may provide nutritional benefits when added to food dishes.
Of course, when using herbs and plants, or growing them for ecosystem variety, research is key. Every person is different, and ecosystems vary in terms of what is healthful or not. What is wonderful in a yard, might be dangerous to a farm. What heals some, may harm others. Boelsen has also learned a lot from growing herbs to treat the symptoms of intransigent Lyme. Stephen Buhner of New Mexico who works with Lyme patients and herbs to treat them, often orders herbs from Tweefontein, who assists those with Lyme who may need additional or nutritional support. “We’ve helped a few people locally,” Battista states. “It’s rewarding to see people get well.” Some of the herbs Tweefontein grows to lessen Lyme symptoms include: Japanese knotweed, motherwort, teasel and horsetail.
Boelsen and Battista also explain that non-native trees like Gingko can be very important for brain health—or purchased in herbal tinctures. In addition to the beautiful herb farm and New Paltz store, Tweefontein also has tinctures and wellness products they sell at Union Square’s Greenmarket (farmers’ market) in Manhattan. The local herb farm, store, and apothecary offer many unique gifts and healing products such as Ashwagandha—for family, friend, and community wellbeing throughout the seasons. It is a magical place to visit. In order to protect the local ecosystem, Boelsen and Battista are working with hundreds of patches of plants in specific places, with harmony of spirit and land in mind. “It’s like a symphony, especially as the plants come up at the right time,” Battista states. Apparently, wildlife agrees as Tweefontein has attracted bunnies, deer, owls, Cooper’s hawks, Black bears, and of course, birds and bees.
To visit Tweefontein during open hours or to learn more about its history and products check out: tweefonteinherbfarm.com
Growing Herbs in the Hudson Valley
Further down the road in Kerhonkson is Catskill Native Nursery. For those who want to learn more about native plants, our ecosystem, or native trees and flowers, it is a wonderful place to explore both for its beauty and for the owners’ deep exquisite knowledge of plants, trees, and flowers that grow naturally and well in the region. Walking into the nursery on a cloudy day is a bit like entering a living botanical library. It’s quiet, beautiful, and powerful. Don’t be afraid to bring your inner child here; he or she will learn many things just walking around and looking at the cataloging of many species that grow well here and nourish the lands, people, and wildlife.
–Diane Greenberg and her partner Francis Groeters have a combined knowledge of the area’s ecosystem that comes from years of study, passionate care, scientific and artistic education, and a deep well of hands-on experience. For laypeople or just for people who would like to learn more about the area’s native flowers, one can find the section in the nursery by its sign: “Native Perennials.” This would include: Echinacea purpurea/bee balm (used by Native American tribes in New York’s Oswego region); Amazing Grace (creeping phlox); black-eyed Susans (good for butterflies). There is also a section of the nursery for deer-resistant shrubs, and an important area that highlights native trees. Each tree is explained in detail. For example, the eastern red cedar is described as “an old field-colonizing species that tends to disappear as larger forests grow up around it—a valuable tree for wildlife.” In this area, one learns important things about trees; how they shelter birds and feed them, and what each plant or tree offers the ecosystem or its human family.
According to Greenberg, there isn’t “an ideal herb garden” for the Hudson Valley. Herbs tend to like dryer soils, but herb gardens can be created by designing the conditions “the herbs want.” “Our culinary herbs come from the Mediterranean (Italy, the South of France),” Greenberg said. “A lot of herbs will rot during our winter because they don’t like clay.” So, for example, people who want to grow certain herbs should use pots or conditioned soils with specific nutrients, or amend or lighten the soil itself, so herbs can grow in more optimal conditions. Greenberg says people can even just google queries like, “What does lavender want?” so they are not disappointed with soggy herbs that refuse to grow well here in existing soil. “Don’t guess,” she states. “Educate yourself about what you are planting” and what conditions it needs to thrive. So, one should be clear about why one is growing something, or not growing something.
Meander through the nursery, and one will discover signs that lead every age and ability toward something deeper in their relationship with plants, trees, and botanical inclinations. One area of the nursery has a sign that instructs “How to Place Owl Houses Correctly;” another has a region for “Herbs: Culinary, Fragrant, and Medicinal,” another map points birders towards “Hummingbird Attractors,” and there is even a sign that explains Thomas Jefferson’s favorite salad dressing (Vinaigre d’estragon) using the tarragon one can grow in pots or purchase reasonably from the nursery’s herbal section.
Coming down the winding road from Catskill Native Nursery on a foggy, boggy Sunday, the rain drizzled a light mist over the Shawangunk Mountain ridge under clouds that shone in their own ethereal light; birds tweeted happily and seemed to play a darting game on gentle wind currents amongst themselves. Yoshino cherry trees began to bloom in yards alongside the forsythia. One saw barns in pristine shape, and others being absorbed happily back into nature—the beauty of each being discerned by the eye of the beholder whether insect, bird, animal, or human being.
To visit or find out more about Catskill Native Nursery and more about crafting landscapes that support the local ecosystem for a better environment or for wildlife, visit: catskillnativenursery.com
Photo: Catskill Native Nursery herb garden.