Pulling Up Roots

In the Shenandoah Valley, Harvest Thyme Herbs produces lovely herbs and vegetables for restaurants that take the farm-to-table concept seriously.

I met my first watermelon radish at the impeccable farm-to-table restaurant Staunton Grocery several years ago. Milder and more artful than the candy-cane colored European radishes of my childhood, these terrific pink and white taproots starred in one of Chef and Owner Ian Boden’s delicate, perfectly enhanced salads. At the same restaurant on a subsequent visit, I marveled over the nutty complexity of a trio of roasted sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes), simply dressed in olive oil and sea salt: It was yet another memorable culinary encounter showcasing the Shenandoah at its seasonal best.

As Boden was first to tell me, he sourced these underground edibles—and more—from Harvest Thyme Herbs, Deirdre and Phil Armstrong’s six-acre herb and vegetable farm located just south of Staunton in Mint Springs. Boden first discovered Harvest Thyme about four years ago when he was on the prowl for area producers to collaborate with on his soon-to-open restaurant’s local food mission. “At the time,” he shared, “no one in the area was growing herbs.”

He visited the farm “undercover” during Deirdre’s culinary herbs garden tour and was immediately impressed by her vast horticultural knowledge and by the couple’s genuine willingness to work with local chefs. A few weeks later, Boden sat down with Phil, Deirdre and a pile of seed catalogues to figure out which items on his “vegetable wish list” they could grow: watermelon radishes, parsnips and salsify were among his first requests.

It’s a ritual they now repeat at the start of each growing season—a give and take of chef cravings, farmer’s wisdom and lots of experimenting in both the garden and the kitchen. In other words, a true culinary exchange. As a sign of how this particular chef-farmer relationship has grown, Phil and Deirdre recently built a custom “parsnip palace” out of corrugated metal, hog panel and a few feet of compost expressly to grow the tall, slender parsnips Chef Boden prefers. Now that’s what I call grown to order.

Though he was one of their first supporters, Boden is certainly not the only chef to rely on Phil and Deirdre’s stellar-quality herbs and vegetables. Just down the street at Zynodoa, Chef James Harris is another enthusiastic supporter, ordering their pea shoots, turnip greens, red and golden beets, garlic and sunchokes as often as possible. “Any time our food tastes good, it’s because of people like Deirdre and Phil,” Harris says. “Their produce is so perfect and museum-like—I want to touch it as little as possible.” At a recent Farmland Feast gala in D.C., Harris and his Zynodoa team served a soup using a variety of heirloom, regional and European beans that the Armstrongs had not only grown, but also dried, stripped and shelled just for the occasion.

After years of marveling over their produce and listening to chefs from Staunton to Charlottesville sing their praises, I figured it was time to meet the makers. So, on a Thursday morning in November, I made my way slowly over the fog-shrouded mountains, eventually pulling into Phil and Deirdre’s unmarked gravel driveway located off a fairly rural, residential road. Several small gardens made a patchwork of the hilly lawn dotted with old peach trees surrounding the couple’s relatively new home, painted a dusty cornflower blue. Tucked away in this valley, Phil and Deirdre work their seed-and-soil magic from dawn to dusk daily, alone except for the occasional assistance of an intern.

Warm, welcoming and wearing blue jeans, flannel and fleece, the Armstrongs greeted me with enthusiastic handshakes and a cup of hot coffee. Just beyond the kitchen, an exquisite display of their vegetables awaited me on the back porch table: wrinkled and glistening ghost peppers, Romanian red garlic, leafy Tokyo white turnips and several varieties of heritage Italian soup beans—Scritti di Lucca and Zolfino—grown from samples they brought back from a recent trip to Italy. Deirdre introduced each item with the exuberant pride of a mother before leading me on a brief tour of the well-tended garden patches. I was immediately struck by the intimacy of this encounter—meeting the people who grow our food in the earth visible from the windows of their own home. I felt privileged and appreciative.

The oldest of 13 children, Deirdre learned to tend the earth at a young age on her family’s farm in Bowie, Maryland. While working as a horticulturalist at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., caring for the outdoor gardens and adding natural touches to the museum’s ever-changing exhibits, she started a small side business selling then “exotic” herbs such as Thai basil, cilantro and lemongrass to area chefs and caterers. Though Phil now spends his days out in the fresh air— building fences, planting tomatoes, garlic and potatoes and harvesting vegetables—he worked for nearly three decades as an intelligence officer inside the Pentagon.

When he retired in 1997, both of the Armstrongs began farming full time, first in North Carolina, where they sold their produce at the New Bern Farmer’s Market and, since 2001, at their beautiful plot in the Shenandoah. With their roles well-defined—she handles the office work, decides what to grow and cleans and culls each beet and each radish while he does much of the building and vegetable harvesting—this husband-and-wife team couldn’t be more balanced, productive, or, it seemed to me, happy. Phil and Deirdre didn’t need to tell me how much they love what they do, it was evident in every square inch of their garden, every bean, every can of preserved tomatoes and every relationship with a chef turned friend.

My educational trip to Harvest Thyme Herbs ended in Phil and Deirdre’s “center of operations”—a finished basement, which acts as both an office and a laboratory of sorts. In a glass bowl, there was a new variety of tomato seeds fermenting in their own juices in preparation for propagation. Jars of historic American bean varieties—many donated by a chef friend in Charleston, South Carolina—awaited their chance at abundant new life. A hairy tangle of unfamiliar white tubers caught my attention. “Those are Yacón, a sweet, crisp tuber originally from the Peruvian Andes,” Deirdre explained. “We’re always on the lookout for something new.”

Though the chefs lucky enough to work with Harvest Thyme make their share of special requests, it’s clear that their culinary creativity is often sparked by the surprises Phil and Deirdre bring their way. What will chefs like Boden and Harris do with the Yacón, I wondered? I can hardly wait to taste the answer.


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