Roaring traffic sped along the concrete corridor of westbound Highway 80 as it passed through Vacaville. The world got smaller and much less hectic when we exited at Peña Adobe Road, drove through peaceful farmland and found the fragrant oasis that is Morningsun Herb Farm.
A cool breeze swept through the trees, setting off tinkling wind chimes. Two cats peeked from a tangle of shrubs. A covey of quail lives in a blackberry bramble on the mini-farm, and coyotes are known to prowl the premises. The air smelled of damp earth, decomposing vegetation and something floral.
It was early April, and Rose Loveall-Sale was making the rounds of the 2.7-acre property she and husband Dan turned into a business 19 years ago. We have a lot of cleaning up to do to get ready for our open house in a month, she said, bending to pick up a handful of dried detritus. The work can be backbreaking, but I love driving around and seeing a garden and saying, Those are my plants.
Loveall-Sale is animated, quick to laugh and on intimate terms with plants. She knows their histories, folklore, characteristics, applications and even their Latin names. She took time to tour visitors around the organic herb farm, which is much more than a nursery and retail outlet. For one thing, its a dirt-under-your-fingernails learning center where garden clubs and UC Cooperative Extension master gardeners regularly hold seminars, talks and workshops, and where groups including schoolchildren, Future Farmers of America and Boy and Girl Scouts participate in hands-on projects.
For another, its simply a restorative environment. Once people come here and sit under the trees, they come back, Loveall-Sale said. Its a place where people just show up, and Im fine with that. Ill see people having a picnic or a giant birthday party, and Ill say, Whats going on? and theyll say, Here, have some cake.
Though Morningsun no longer sells wholesale, Loveall-Sale markets herbs and veggies at some farmers markets in Sacramento, Grass Valley and the town of Napa. One of her regular customers is chef Julie Logue-Riordan, who runs the Cooking With Julie school in Napa.
Rose is definitely my go-to source for herbs, for their quality and variety, Logue-Riordan said. One time, I was looking for zaatar (a type of oregano), a rare herb in the U.S. that I couldnt find anywhere. She got some seeds in Turkey and grew them (at the nursery), then surprised me the next time I saw her. I was like, No, you couldnt have it, nobody does!
The back story to that anecdote shows Loveall-Sales passion for plants. On that trip to Turkey in 2010, she was hiking in the coastal mountains when I happened to look around and spotted a zaatar plant growing in the middle of nowhere, she recalled. It had seed pods on it, so I harvested them and brought them back. She also has harvested sage in Peru and basil in Tanzania.
Gardeners old and new
We continued our walk, looking inside two high-humidity production greenhouses, where plants are started from seeds and cuttings. Older plants occupy eight smaller, more versatile greenhouses (called hoophouses), arranged according to their varieties. At the time of our visit, the farm was gearing up for the spring rush with thousands of potted herbs in more than 800 varieties, and hundreds of vegetable plants.
We do a huge variety of tomatoes (more than 100) and peppers (over 20), Loveall-Sale said as we toured another greenhouse. People are crazy for hot peppers, and some are scorchers. She pointed to containers of ghost and scorpion peppers. You can probably remove your fingerprints with those.
The air in one greenhouse was fragrant with the scents of oregano, tarragon, lemon verbena, Wild Magic purple basil, other basils, mints, lemongrass on and on. Morningsun grows 2,000 lavender plants just for their essential oil, which is sold in the farms gardening-supplies store/gift shop.
Loveall-Sale and her staff sort Morningsuns herbs based on their purpose culinary (for cooking), medicinal (for feel-good home remedies), fragrant (for the smell), ornamental (for the visuals) and insect-friendly (attractive to pollinators such as butterflies, bees and hummingbirds). They are further classified as sun-loving, shade-loving and drought-tolerant.
A lot of our herbs are all-purpose because people want them to do everything, Loveall-Sale said, picking her way between rows of starter eggplants. They want to be able to eat them or make a tea out of them, and they want them to be low-maintenance and drought-resistant. People say, Were ripping out the lawn, can we replace it with something that we can eat and walk on? Sometimes, yes.
A new demographic has moved into the garden, she noted, one that is younger and less experienced, more conscientious and ethnically diverse, and eager to practice the farm-to-fork template.
I was at a conference, and we were asked, Whats the trend youre seeing in gardening? I answered, More nose rings and more ink, she said with a laugh. Gardeners used to be middle-class women in their late 30s and into their 70s. Now theyre both men and women in their 20s. Still, everybody treats their plants like children. Theyll come back and tell me the stories. Remember that plant I bought here five years ago? I love that part of it.
On the property this day was retired community planner Donn Rainers of Sacramento, who bought some Turkish thyme and a butterfly bush. Ive been shopping here since they opened, he said. Im one of those nursery shoppers whos always looking for new and unique plants, and the staff has always been helpful. Also, being both a home cook and a horticulturist, its my ultimate destination for culinary and medicinal herbs.
Over the next few hours, we saw an overwhelming array of vegetables and herbs, including the delightfully named Tibetan wonderberry. The medicinal-herbs hoophouse was full of plants for teas to minister ailments such as migraine headache. Some are made into poultices to ease bee stings and infection. A few are used as sleep aids.
Sometimes well serve cookies and lemon catnip tea to groups of kids who visit, which they think is hilarious because everyone knows what a cat on catnip acts like, Loveall-Sale said. I tell the teachers ahead of time that its a very gentle, mild sedative. They say later, It was amazing how calm they were on the bus ride back home.
We stopped at the tiny store, crowded with bags of organic soil, candles and soaps, antique fruit crates sold for planters, hats, wind chimes, fertilizers, seeds and more. Loveall-Sale held up a vial of lavender essential oil. Place a drop or two behind your ears to help you sleep, or use it as a hand refresher and anti-bacterial, she said. In World War I, lavender was used to clean wounds and staunch bleeding, and was known as the Herb of War.
We continued strolling on earthen and wood chip-covered paths through the display and demonstration gardens, which are thick with bushes and mature plants.
Because we sell most of our plants in 3- and 4-inch pots, its hard for people to understand when we say, That Jerusalem sage youre buying is going to get five feet tall and six feet wide, Loveall-Sale said. A lot of the herbs we grow will be in your garden for 10 years to 100 years. These grown-up plants let people see the final results.
We took a break at a table in the shade. Earlier, Loveall-Sale had pointed out a towering, twisted tree with pods hanging from it. In 1958, my grandfather grafted an English walnut tree onto a black walnut tree, and this is the result, she said.
Like that tree, Loveall-Sale grew up on the land. Ive been on this property since I was 3 days old, she said. In 1956 my parents bought it from my grandparents, who had a farm across the street. I did farming and gardening with my parents and grandparents.
Lovall-Sale went on to get a degree in forestry in 1965 from UC Berkeley, and went to work for the California Department of Forestry. I decided I didnt want to mark timber the rest of my life, so I went to UC Davis, got a degree in horticulture, then went back to work for the forest service. I worked in its research greenhouse growing only five different species of things, which was boring.
Thats when she and her husband opened the nursery on the family property. I asked myself, What do I love growing in my own garden? It was herbs.
People love to work with herbs because they can interact with them. You think, What shall I cook with that? You dont interact with your camellia bush too much.
Morningsun customers buy more basil, oregano and lavender than any other herbs, but what about Loveall-Sales favorites? I like basil and oregano, but I cant live without lemon verbena, she said. Ill stuff a chicken with it, and its my main tea herb. It makes me calm, and I need that every day.
Morningsun demands most of Loveall-Sales time, and she sounds a bit wistful about that when the subject turns to her book project.
I was supposed to write a book when I turned 40, and then I was supposed to write it when I turned 50 two years ago, she said. It would be about fragrances in the garden and about the multiuses of herbs.
By days end, it had become clear that Loveall-Sale moves to the harmonies of the land and the living things that sprout from it.
Watching something grow from a seed is always exciting, she mused. Thats part of it, but I have to say I love being in the garden or in the greenhouses year-round.
I would be happy if I could just walk in my gardens and smell and touch things all day. Even the darn stinging nettle.
Call The Bees Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.