The morning dew sparkles on the tufts of bronze fennel in the garden behind Shady Acres Herb Farm. Although the fennel makes a savory addition to vegetables at mealtime, on this particular morning it’s strikingly beautiful as a focal point in the garden.
Like the fennel, just about everything and everyone at Shady Acres Herb Farm ready for multi-tasking — including owners Jim and Theresa Mieseler. The couple operated the farm while maintaining full-time jobs for years, and they’ve designed and built everything from their greenhouses to the plant carts they take to the farmers’ market to work for their specific needs.
As a result, Shady Acres operates on a striking blend of ingenuity and creativity that has positioned the farm well ahead of the trends of the day. The Mieselers started growing fresh herbs in the late ’70s—when their customers were surprised to learn that sage came from a plant, not just a jar. They partnered with chefs from a local restaurant and hosted elaborate dinners (called Dinner in the Garden) on their farm, and their open house and lecture event called Herbfest became a staple for farms and locavore restaurants.
Yet the couple has never set out to be trendsetters—and they still don’t.
Theresa and Jim met in 1970 while they were working at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and were married there three years later. They started their business in 1977, growing and selling wildflowers, while maintaining their full-time jobs at the arboretum.
A year later the Mieselers added herbs to their business plan, and eventually the herbs overtook the wildflowers. Jim recalls being swarmed at the Minneapolis farmers’ market with enthusiastic customers looking for herbs. “We got into it at the right time,” Theresa says. “We had a niche; we built a clientele.”
Throughout the history of Shady Acres, Theresa and Jim have explored numerous business avenues. “We had a lot of energy for the business because we loved the herbs and the people,” says Theresa, explaining how both she and Jim kept full time jobs for most of their tenure at the herb farm. They’ve dabbled in wholesale and forayed into shipping plants across the country, but in the interest of streamlining business—and simplifying their lives—they’ve scaled back in the past few years.
Now the couple sells about 150 varieties of herbs and about 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables at their farm in Chaska and the Minneapolis farmers’ market. In addition to the plants, they also operate a gift shop stocked with soaps, sun hats, bird feeders, gardening books and other gardening items at their farm in Chaska.
They also maintain several display gardens, including a Minnesota native wildflower garden, rock garden, heirloom tomato demonstration garden, fairy garden and more. The gardens surround a scenic pond, which does double-duty, providing a water supply for the greenhouses and drainage for what was previously swampy land. Like most everything on the farm, the pond was designed and built by Jim.
Theresa says the gardens aren’t overly planned, once the lines are drawn for them, she just “plunks plants down,” but any observer will notice that Theresa “plunks plants” with the knowledge and art of master pianist plunking piano keys.
Enter the herb farm at the height of the season, and the first thing you’ll notice is a green house overflowing with herbs ready for plants. As you drift to the left behind the green house, you’ll be drawn into a picturesque scene with a small pond surrounded by a grassy knoll perfect for picnicking, which visitors are invited to do, and round, curvy beds teaming with herbs, wild flowers and Minnesota-native plants. Informal and lush, the gardens offer inspiration to anyone who dreams of lush, cottage gardens.
A bank of trees and hedges planted between the Meiseler’s home—where they have more gardens—and their retail space, including the greenhouses, gift shop and display gardens. Theresa, who left her job at the arboretum in 1991, says the hedges keep her work life and home life neatly separated.
But Theresa’s passion for plants isn’t so segmented—it extends into almost everything she does. Theresa teaches classes and gives horticultural lectures around the country. She’s written articles for Fine Gardening. She’s active with the Minnesota Herb Society, serves on the board for the Herb Society of America, and was recognized by the Herb Society of America with the 2010 Nancy Putnam Howard Award for Excellence in Horticulture.
This passion shines when it comes to teaching Shady Acres customers about the plants they’re buying. Each year, Theresa writes up an extensive catalog/plant list (the 2010 version was 46 pages long) that includes common names, botanical names and detailed descriptions of each plant grown on the farm. In addition to the catalog, the Meiselers create detailed signs for both their greenhouses on the farm and at their booth in the farmers market, directing customers to culinary herbs and ornamental herbs.
While the books and the signs provide plenty of information for herb enthusiasts, one look at the Shady Acres herb gardens—whether it’s a glimpse of dew sparkling on fennel fronds or butterflies dancing from one flower to the next—will have them seeing the plants in a whole new light.
Shady Acres Herb Farm (7815 Hwy. 212, Chaska) opens for business in April and closes for the season in June. Find store hours and the Shady Acres Herb Farm 2011 plant catalog by calling 952.466.3391.
Sometimes it’s enough just to be beautiful. These herbs are great for gardeners without culinary aspirations:
Ornamental Onion, Allium senescens 'Glaucum'
Mulberry Jam Sage
Thyme, Bressingham Pink
Theresa Meiseler recommends cultivating these herbs in your garden if you love spending time in the kitchen:
Silver Posie Thyme
Magical Michael Basil
Shady Acres Rosemary
In 1999, the farm introduced Rosmarinus officinalis or Shady Acres rosemary. Known for its dark green leaves, which grow up to 1 inch long, and it’s strong aroma, the rosemary is excellent for cooking. It even made the Herb Society of America’s 2008 “promising plants” list.