Sunday, July 1, 2007

Herb farmer Jill Yeck builds a rewarding life of fragrant leaves and gentle living

In Brava magazine, July 2007
Column: Around the Table
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

Recipe: Lemon Verbena with Peaches

Some years ago, I found myself shifting from vegetable to culinary herb gardening, largely because the latter is just so darn easy. No worries about pushing sacks of overabundant crop on co-workers and friends, or combing the garden for rotting, bug-eaten veggies. Drying and freezing the harvest are simple tasks with virtually no cleanup, and the results take up little storage space. Holiday gifts of beribboned dried sprigs or frozen pesto are laughably easy to assemble, compared to how well received they are. (“You grew this yourself?”)

In fact, just rubbing a sun-warmed leaf between my fingers and breathing in the resulting explosion of essential oils is enough incentive for me to grow any fragrant herb, whether or not I expect to ever use it in cooking. That’s why herb gardening has become my favorite kind of all.

But, inconveniently for me, culinary herb plants typically get little shelf space at nurseries or market vendor tables. So I was thrilled to discover farmer Jill Yeck, with her wide selection of kitchen standards and offbeat varieties at the Northside Farmers’ Market, where I like to bike on summer Sundays.

Jill is the proprietor of Harvest Moon Herb Farm, a small greenhouse business located about halfway between Stoughton and Deerfield. ““There’s something magical about picking an herb that you’ve grown and immediately tossing it into a dish,” she says. “Fresh herbs from the garden have a unique, invigorating taste that you cannot get from dried. Even store-bought, fresh-cut herbs have lost some of their flavor by the time they get home.”

Jill sells her wares at farmers’ markets at Madison’s Northside, Eastside and Westside markets. “We specialize in culinary herb plants that people can plant in a garden or pot. We also grow plants that attract butterflies,” she says. This spring, after three years on the waiting list, Harvest Moon was admitted into the grandmama of them all, Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Capitol Square, where she now sets up between W. Wash and M.L.K. Boulevard. “It was exciting,” she says, smiling at the memory of her first Saturday morning there. “I sold out of so many plants in one morning.”

At home, Jill is fulfilling her longtime dream of “living gently on a few acres” with Harvest Moon, which she named after the 1992 song by Neil Young. Ponds, a creek, beehives, a vegetable garden – and of course, a greenhouse and outdoor garden for the herbs – form the idyllic setting where she can create what she describes as “a peaceful, beautiful and safe atmosphere providing a refuge to look within.”

VVK: What’s your enterprise all about?

JY: Harvest Moon Herb Farm is a place of peace, healing, and wholeness. Our mission is to provide healthy, unique potted plants, and to provide knowledge on how to grow, use and enjoy plants in both practical and meditative ways. People who participate in this farm – both creators and visitors – can connect with our source on a physical level as we commune with the beautiful Mother Earth and all the abundant wonders provided.

I enjoy connecting with people at the farmers’ markets, and talking about gardening, herbs and the meaning of life. I also enjoy the quiet, meditative times I can spend in the greenhouse and gardens. I appreciate the simple pleasures of the earth.

VVK: How did you get into growing herbs?

I’ve enjoyed cooking and gardening since childhood. These activities, along with eating good food, were an important part of my family in Normal, Ill. Living in Thailand in the early 1980s (my former husband was a Peace Corps volunteer, so I followed love and became a teacher in Udornthani, Thailand), I fell in love with Thai cooking. At that time herbs like cilantro, Thai basil, and Thai peppers were hard to find [back in the U.S.]. I began growing them so I could prepare authentic Thai food.

While living on Long Island [in the 1990s] I was canoeing with my family down the Peconic River when I spotted a beat-up, hand-painted sign that read “Herb Farm.” We pulled the canoe ashore to find a beautiful, peaceful, greenhouse business. I picked up a brochure and a curry plant. The next week I felt the energy of the place pull me back. I became an apprentice and worked there for seven seasons, in food production – herbal jellies, vinegars, salsa – educational workshops and festivals as well as weeding, planting and plain good living. All women worked at the farm. The community we developed supported each one of us.

In 1994 – at that time, I also taught workshops on herbal and cooking topics at several venues – I [began making] herbal egg dye kits using ingredients like nettles, annatto and red cabbage and selling them to Whole Foods and local gourmet-type shops and health food stores. We moved to the Chicago area, where we put up a greenhouse in the back of our suburban home. For four years I sold organic herbs at local farmers’ markets. In 2004 I moved to Utica, Wis., and Harvest Moon Farm found its home.

VVK: Do you work outside the farm, as well?

JY: I have a full-time adjunct faculty position in the Educational Psychology department at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, one hour and 15 minutes from my farm. I teach classroom management and discipline to all the elementary education students – the focus of the course is relationship building, community and nonviolent communication. My last class in the spring is the week before farmers’ markets begin.

VVK: Can you describe your operation? Are your herbs organic?

Every morning I thank the plants for enhancing my life. On the practical side, I use organic methods on the farm which includes no sprays or synthetic fertilizers. I hand mix my soil using the finest ingredients. I was certified organic in Illinois but I decided the paperwork and cost wasn’t worth it. I continue to do things in the same way as when I was certified.

I start some seeds in the basement using grow lights. I have a 13' x 44' heated greenhouse and a small field to grow perennials. Most of the seeds I get from catalogs, but my favorite seeds are ones that friends share with me.

VVK: How many types of herbs do you carry, and what are some of them like?

I grew over 60 types of herbs and flowers this spring. The most popular include basil, lavender, rosemary and thyme. The more unusual include pineapple sage, Valentino basil – my favorite basil – sorrel, scented geraniums and orange mint. Lemon and cinnamon basil have a tad of the flavor of their names. Thai basil has a bit of an anise taste. Fino Verde basil has a stronger flavor and is good for drying. Genovese is the basic pesto basil, although all can be made into a pesto –– pesto simply means “paste” in Italian. Napolitano and Valentino are large-leaf types of basil; both have a typical sweet basil taste;

I particularly enjoy trying new things. My customers know that they can find unusual varieties of herbs. Many enjoy cooking and know that there’s nothing like fresh-cut herbs from the garden. Others just like the texture and aromas of the different plants. Gardening herbs is a sensual experience.

VVK: What misconceptions do people have about growing their own culinary herbs?

JY: That it’s difficult to do. Growing herbs is easy and rewarding. And food never tasted so good.

VVK: Are you ever surprised by what herbs become popular? How about herbs you think will be a hit, but just don’t take off?

JY: Orange mint is very popular. Since it’s an aggressive plant, like other mints, I thought that people would shy away from it, but that’s not the case. I really like sorrel – it’s easy to grow and makes great soup and sauces, but it’s not one of the popular herbs at the markets.

VVK: I’m mystified that stevia – the plant that natural, no-calorie sweetener is made from – doesn’t fly off your table. The one I bought from you last year was a great conversation piece in my garden because of the sweet-tasting leaves that you could roll up with mints and lemony herbs to make on-the-spot flavor combinations.

JY: The plant in the pot isn’t as attractive and it’s not hardy here, so many were afraid to try it. This year I decided to not grow it and disappointed a few stevia converts. I’ll bring it back next spring.

VVK: What plans do you have for the future of Harvest Moon Herb Farm?

JY: I hope to make the farm a place where people come to enjoy the gardens, an herbal walk, an herbal lunch, a workshop. The workshops I would teach would include herb gardening, butterfly gardening, cooking, herbal cosmetics. I’d also like to expand into yoga, nonviolent communication, painting, pottery, poetry – really, anything that someone has a passion for and would like to offer.

Lemon Verbena with Peaches

Recipe from Herb farmer Jill Yeck builds a rewarding life of fragrant leaves and gentle living
In Brava magazine, July 2007
Column: Around the Table
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

“Lemon verbena is amazing!” says Jill of this, her favorite herb of all. “It makes a great tea, and it can be minced into fruit salads or tossed into the bath for a relaxing soak. I just love smelling it while wandering the garden. In tropical climates it’s a bush. It’s a tender perennial, so it needs to go in the house in winter.”

Desserts featuring the crisp, refreshing quality of this intensely lemony herb were all the rage in Victorian times. This example is “also great with blueberries, strawberries or other fresh fruits,” Jill says. If you can’t find lemon verbena, try substituting another lemony herb – or, in a pinch, juice and zest from a fresh lemon.

2 tablespoons fresh lemon verbena, plus additional leaves for garnish
1/4 cup honey
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
Fresh peaches

Process honey and lemon verbena in a food processor for about one minute. Add cream cheese. Process until smooth. Cut peaches in half and remove pits. Place a dollop of the cream cheese mixture in the hollow of the peach. Garnish with lemon verbena leaves.