Fairbanks woman's passion for herbs becomes Cooperative Extension how-to gardening book

Associated Press

When the Alaska Cooperative Extension Service published its book on growing and using fresh herbs in the Far North, dedicating it was as easy as sprinkling chives on a baked potato.

"An Alaska Herb Garden" honors Barbara Fay, a self-taught gardener whose experiments with herb varieties in the harsh interior Alaska climate over 40 years was an inspiration for the book.

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"This is her idea, her baby," said Pat Holloway, a University of Alaska Fairbanks horticulture professor and director of the Georgeson Botanical Garden. "She is the one who got us all riled up about herbs."

Fay, 85, has loved herbs since she was a girl in Milwaukee. She helped her grandmother, a former sharecropper in Poland who never used a recipe to cook, to harvest parley, marjoram, thyme and sage. Her grandmother disdained "dusty old herbs from a jar."

"I had the very important job of holding the basket for her while she cut the herbs," Fay said. "I'd have this aroma all day long — she used to tuck herbs in my braids or in the buttonholes of my little play suit."

Fay likes to tell people that the sex life of the walrus brought her to Alaska. Her husband, Bud, a marine mammal expert, researched the animals on St. Lawrence Island for his doctorate. His work eventually took them to Fairbanks, where Fay for the first time could plant her own garden.

But choices were slim for fresh herbs in Fairbanks grocery stores in 1967. Fay set out to grow her own.

She found chives and parsley in the garden outside the home they bought. She enrolled in gardening classes but found little expertise for growing herbs. She turned to books and seed catalogs, killed her share of seedlings, and slowly learned what would survive.

"I really bumbled along," she said. "I found that growing herbs in Fairbanks wasn't the same as what was described in the books that I bought that were written for gardens in the Lower 48."

She eventually combined her herbs with a zeal for teaching how they could enhance food. With seven students at a time in her kitchen, she offered tasting classes from herb groups: alliums such as chives and softneck garlic; herbs with umbels, or flower clusters, such as fennel, lovage and cilantro; aromatic herbs such as mints and pineapple sage.

For Holloway, being in the class changed the way she cooked.

"She can take a cardboard box of dried black bean soup mix and make it into something gourmet," Holloway said.

Fay and her discerning palate, Holloway said, could pick out arugula leaves from multiple varieties in a garden and decide which would best fit culinary purposes.

Holloway offered Fay space at the university to expand her classes. Later, Fay offered to grow herbs for the Georgeson Botanical Garden. Five formal herb beds followed, maintained by Fay and volunteers who called themselves the "Herb Bunch" and continued research on the best varieties for the sub-arctic.

Fay's research and class handouts provided the framework for the new book. It has chapters on cultivating, harvesting and storing fresh herbs, whether it's the chives that appear while there's snow on the ground, native chamomile, spicy nasturtium or finicky basal.

Fay is no longer part of the Herb Bunch. She lives in a condo on Bainbridge Island, Washington, to be closer to her daughter, and grows herbs with commercial hydroponic units.

Chives and parsley are good starters for novices, she said.

"What I would say is be sure that you're going to like the flavor of the herb," she said. "A lot of people see all these exotic herbs and plant them and then they don't like them, or they don't know how to use them. That was me in the beginning."

Mint is easy. It will take over a garden but can be added to tea, peas, sauces, vinegar, or ground with sugar and sprinkled on fruit salad, Fay said.

"It's all in the book," she said.

"An Alaska Herb Garden" is available for $15 at UA Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service offices.