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Brooklet resident finds solace in herb garden


July 10, 2018

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Many people have a “happy place.” It’s where they can go to escape the everyday pressures of life.

For Brooklet resident Donna McKenna, that happy place is in her own backyard. Known as “The Herb Lady,” McKenna has been raising her own herbs, along with flowers, fruits and nuts, for most of her life. Her love of gardening is in her genes.

“I’ve always loved to garden. My grandmother always had a big garden, and my grandfather used to garden. My mother’s father used to love to grow fruit trees. I think I inherited all of that,” she said.

McKenna was born and raised in the Northeast, and moved to Georgia in 1995 when her husband went south seeking work. The economy in Maine, where they lived at the time, was extremely depressed, and her husband, John, headed south at the suggestion of his brother. And while John found work and a place to live, she finished the school year as a teacher in Maine and packed up the house. She was in for a shock when she reached her humid new home.

“I stepped out of the truck and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ It was like an oven. I was like, ‘What did I do?’ But I love it. It’s a wonderful place to bring up your kids,” she said.

McKenna began teaching at Trinity Christian School in November 1995. She’s still there, and currently teaches chemistry, math and physics.

When she’s not in the classroom, you can find her in her garden. She merged her love of her students and her love of her garden in 2010. Each year, the seniors at Trinity take a trip to Europe, and McKenna suggested that the students bag up and sell some of her herbs at the Main Street Farmers Market in Statesboro as a fundraiser. The students jumped at the idea, and even included recipes with the herbs.

Once that season was over, McKenna decided to keep selling her herbs at the market. She grows many different kinds of herbs, including five kinds of mint, as well as sage, tarragon, stevia, thyme, rosemary, parsley, cilantro and basil, which she says she has a hard time growing. She doesn’t spray her plants with chemicals, and she says white flies love her basil, so it’s hard to grow.

“And that’s what everybody wants,” she says, laughing.

In addition to the herbs, McKenna also has plums, chestnuts, apples, figs, hazelnuts, blueberries, oranges, grapefruit, lemons, olives and kiwi, as well as lots of flowers. She and her sister also have a chestnut farm in Newington, where they planted the initial 300 trees in 2013, and they’ve added 200 more since. The pair is hoping for their first good crop this year, although McKenna has harvested some in the past few years, which she roasted and sold at Shopping by Lantern Light in Statesboro.

McKenna goes twice a week to Newington to check on the farm and to make sure the trees are watered properly, using the farm’s irrigation system.

“Chestnuts are wonderful to eat roasted,” she said. “I grew up in an Italian family in the Northeast, and chestnuts were a bit deal around the holidays. I love the taste of chestnuts during the holidays.”

She says she is basically creating a market for the nuts, since they haven’t been on the market heavily in many years.

“All the American chestnuts were killed around the turn of the century when a blight came over,” she said. “It used to be a big thing, all up the East Coast and to the Midwest. It used to be loaded with chestnuts. They all died in the blight.”

Most of the nuts in the U.S. now are Chinese chestnuts, although there is a grower in Florida that is growing and selling an American-Chinese hybrid.

“It’s called the Dunstan chestnut and it is blight-free,” she said, adding that this particular nut is absolutely delicious.

“Everybody that has tried them at the market has loved them,” she said.

McKenna said that learning to garden in the South has been, literally, a hard row to hoe.

“It’s been quite a learning curve, because of the heat. What’s nice is that you can grow all year. But stuff I used to grow up north, I can’t grow here,” she said.

McKenna says she loves growing fruit especially, but it is all wonderful.

“I love edible gardening. I figure if it’s going to be in my garden, it’s going to feed me in some way,” she said.

McKenna became known as The Herb Lady by chance — people at the farmers market just began asking for The Herb Lady, so she figured she’d just adopt the name.  And as appropriate as it is, it’s just stuck.

She includes recipes with her herbs, so people can better learn how to incorporate them into their cooking and into their diets. Her favorite recipe to share is one of her family’s favorites. It’s a roasted chicken dish that some have dubbed “Simon and Garfunkel Chicken,” because it is cooked with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. It’s her signature dish, and one she loves to share, and her family still asks her to make it when they’re gathered together.

McKenna calls the mixture of herbs in the dish her ScarBORO Fair mix, she says, laughing.

She has often shared her own recipes, but also seeks out recipes from many different sources, with the proviso that they use fresh herbs. She tries out the recipes at home and tweaks them.

“I’m not so great for sticking with recipes. I like to change them up some,” she says.

McKenna says she often sees people stop by her booth at the market seeking advice on what to do with their own herb gardens.

“I have people stop by and they’ll say, ‘I have this rosemary bush but I don’t know what to do with it,’” she said. She hands them recipes and words of wisdom.

“A lot of people grow their own herbs but they let them go to seed because they have no idea what to do with them,” she said.

Her advice for someone seeking to grow their own herbs is to start small.

“I would start small, with the easier-to-grow herbs around here. I would start in pots and in partially shaded areas, not full sun. I would definitely start with potted plants,” she said.

McKenna says there is no typical shopper that stops by to see her at the market, but says she sees a lot of students.

“Students love it,” she said of cooking with fresh herbs. “When GSU is in session, students just love to try new things. And they love the recipes. They come back and ask for more.”

She also sees lots of parents who want their children to eat organic, or who are teaching their children about cooking. She also sees local chefs and bartenders, who like her mint.

“Mostly it’s a whole range of people. A lot of it is the younger people because they like to try new things,” she said.

The McKennas have four grown children: Corrina, 36; Eileen, 34; Johnny, 32; and Jared, 30. The couple also has 12 grandchildren, all under the age of 7.

McKenna says she loves to travel to see her grandchildren, who live in four different states. Her children have urged her to slow her gardening down a bit, in the hopes that she might spend more time with them. But McKenna, who is a self-proclaimed “plantaholic,” says she just can’t give up her herbs. She enjoys having the bit of extra income, which she has used to start college funds for each of her grandchildren, and she has been able to make some charitable donations.

“I can’t give up the herbs. I can’t give up growing them. And if I’m growing them, what am I going to do with them? It’s an outlet, to get rid of my herbs,” she said, smiling.

Find The Herb Lady on Facebook at www.facebook.com/yankeemathmom.


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