Theresa Mieseler put her vast herb gardens and greenhouses at Shady Acres Herb Farm to bed for good in 2016.
That’s when Mieseler, and her husband, Jim, retired from their Chaska herb and vegetable-growing enterprise, which they opened in 1977.
Mieseler has channeled four decades of knowledge and know-how into her new book, “Beyond Rosemary, Basil and Thyme: Unusual, Interesting and Uncommon Herbs to Enjoy” ($24.95, available at shadyacres.com and local booksellers).
The guide includes detailed descriptions and photos of nearly 70 herbs for cooking, medicinal uses, aromatherapy and to enhance gardens with fragrance and beauty. Mieseler explains how to cultivate and propagate each kind of plant in an easy conversational tone as if she were at a plant society meeting.
Want to be surprised by a plant you’ve never heard of? Try the Vietnamese coriander, a milder version of cilantro. Or cultivate orach, a red-leafed spinach substitute to use on pizza, in stir fry or risotto.
“Gardening is hot right now, and people want to grow more than spearmint and Genovese basil,” said Mieseler. “Even recipes are including more unusual herbs.”
We chatted with Mieseler about three best bets for a kitchen garden, which herb soothes an upset stomach and pesto-perfect sea bass.
Q: While working at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in the 1970s, you were assigned the job of growing herbs for a new garden — even though you had zero knowledge. How did this spark your passion for these plants?
A: My mother was a basic farmer’s wife who cooked meat and potatoes. The only time we used herbs was chives in potato salad. Several women in the Minnesota Herb Society helped me out, and I became fascinated with the different varieties and endless uses for herbs. There was this whole world of plants to explore and learn about.
Q: Why did you write this guide to under-the-radar herbs?
A: In the 1970s, when we opened Shady Acres Herb Farm, people needed an education on growing herbs. Today you can pick up a magazine, and there’s all kinds of articles about plants and recipes with herbs. Now people are looking beyond the basics. Kathy Allen, the librarian at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, confirmed that there wasn’t a book like this.
Q: Besides saving money at the grocery store, why else should we grow some of these herbs?
A: Fresh is always best, and you know it’s grown without chemicals. But it’s not all about cooking — fragrance is huge. The Vietnamese gardenia is grown for the heavy perfume from the flower. And you can’t help but feel good when you smell lavender. The essential oil is used in hospitals for calming aromatherapy.
Q: Which three herbs are the best to grow in a kitchen garden?
A: Mrihani basil for its many uses, and fresh or dried — it holds its flavor. You can’t beat lemon verbena for flavor and fragrance. Chop it up and mix with a little olive oil, and brush it on chicken and fish. Shady Acres rosemary, a specialized cultivar now at Kelley and Kelley Nursery, is so versatile. Set a pot of plants on the deck by the door — smell and use them. Always store dried herbs in a glass jar in the cupboard.
Q: Which of the book’s recipes do you make the most often?
A: The grilled rosemary chicken is at the top of my list. Creamy roasted tomato soup, when tomatoes are ripe, and lemon verbena pound cake are excellent. Rhubarb sweet cicely dessert is so gooey and moist.
When I was working on the sea bass chervil recipe, Jim was my guinea pig, and ate it three mornings in a row. It was perfect with the right portion of pesto on top. I always add more herbs than a recipe calls for because I want to taste the flavor.
Q: You unearthed historical facts about herbs, such as that angelica was thought to give protection against witches, and chervil can make one feel merry and young. What’s another herb remedy?
A: Chew on the mild licorice-flavored seeds of sweet cicely, known to soothe a stomach ache and nauseous feeling.
Q: I didn’t know that fragrant star jasmine and scented geraniums were herbs. What others will readers be surprised by?
A: A lot of gardeners don’t know about bloody dock sorrel. It’s gorgeous, with red-veined green leaves. You can use it in a salad — and it’s pretty in a pot and in the garden.
Q: What are two herbs that attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds?
A: Cat’s whiskers and porter weed are fabulous. I had the plants in large pots on my deck, and hummingbirds and butterflies loved them.
Q: The garlic plant doesn’t produce the chunky white cloves we all cook with. Why not?
A: It is not a true garlic or allium. The vine grows wild in Mexico, and I chose it because the flowers are gorgeous and aromatic, and it’s a good substitute for the flavor of garlic.
Q: What are two good ornamental herbs to enhance a landscape or garden?
A: Sweet cicely is a perennial that gets about 3 feet tall and is beautiful for a shady area. Hardy perennial aromatic thyme [varieties] Lemon Frost and Hall’s Woolly hug the ground and are perfect for a rock garden.
Q: I like lemon grass in Asian dishes. Is it easy to grow in Minnesota?
A: You can grow it from a root in a pot. It looks like grass and gets 2 feet tall. The book has a recipe for lemon grass lemonade.
Q: How did you research the nearly 70 different herbs?
A: I grew every single plant to collect data on everything from leaf size to bloom times. I used many of my notes gathered from Shady Acres over the years.
Q: With the closing of Shady Acres, where can gardeners find the uncommon herbs in the book?
A: I still get e-mails from people asking where they can buy specific herbs we used to grow at Shady Acres. Kelley and Kelley Nursery in Long Lake has picked up a number of varieties, and Tonkadale has a wide selection. There are a lot more plants sold on the internet, and my book lists “Sources” in the back. Strictly Medicinal in Oregon discovered the Mrihani basil, which has superb fragrance and flavor and is a must in my garden.