The Herb Lady
Margaret Shelton of Shelton Herb Farms not only grows luscious herbs and vegetables, but also contributes to the horticultural and environmental priorities of the Cape Fear region.
“How could such sweet and wholesome hours be reckoned, but in herbs and flowers?” These words of 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell could easily have been written to describe the days and ways of Margaret Shelton, owner of Shelton Herb Farms in Leland.
Shelton started the farm in 1986 on land that had been in her family for more than 200 years. “It came down to me through the Goodman side of my family — the road we are on is named for the family,” she says.
Shelton originally grew vegetables on the land, but started to do something a bit different when she got tired of her meal repertoire.
“It got boring to use the same recipes all the time,” Shelton says. “I looked to herbs to diversify my cooking. They were not easy to find, so I started growing them myself.”
A friend from Maryland who worked for the National Herb Garden introduced her to the business of growing herbs, and Shelton got involved with herb growing organizations.
Nowadays, Shelton Herb Farm is well known locally for its wide variety of herbs. Shelton and her staff grow all the herbs on site and start them on the farm so they are adapted to local conditions. “I do not ship things in. I start everything here,” she says.
Shelton and her staff are happy to guide newcomers around the greenhouses and rows of plants on the hilly property off Goodman Road, helping each person select the right plants for culinary needs, beautification and more.
In fact, it was through a hunt for a rosemary bush and other herbs for my own garden that I discovered Shelton’s abundant offering of culinary herbs, seasonal vegetables and heirloom and native plants. Thanks to her good information, I was able to cajole the 6-inch rosemary plant she sold me into a 3-foot high, equally wide shrub that supplied cooking goodness and recuperative powers of rosemary aroma to my entire neighborhood.
The most popular herbs she sells are basil, oregano, thyme and sage, with basil being number one. Some customers are looking for medicinal herbs. “We sell a lot of comfrey and turmeric, which are touted for their anti-inflammatory properties,” she says. Lemongrass is another popular seller, in part of because of its mosquito-repellent properties.
Shelton combines her love of herbs in the kitchen, garden and medicine cabinet with a delight in local flora and how these contribute to the overall health of our environment, especially birds and bees. She grows plants that attract butterflies, bees and birds, and has a vast knowledge of the local ecosystems. While native plants are most effective in providing habitat for birds and other local animals, herbs play a role in aiding the environment as well.
“Herbs like many annuals and perennials are hosts to insects and caterpillars, which we consider pests, but birds think of as food,” says Krystyna Ochota, vice president and education chair of the Brunswick County Extension Master Gardener Volunteers. “Herbs are also attractive to pollinators like bees and butterflies.” Ochota notes that most culinary herbs, however, are not native plants in this part of North Carolina. While native plants are the best choice to provide protective cover for area animals, herbs also help native birds and other mammals.
Charley Winterbauer, president of the Cape Fear Audubon Society, concurs. “Herbs, especially native herbs, are a great source for caterpillars, which is primary food source for 96 percent of our parent backyard birds to feed their young,” he says.
Shelton is well-known in the Cape Fear area for her contributions to horticultural and environmental organizations, including the Audubon Society.
“When she, along with the rest of us, became aware of the importance of native plants in helping birds, she really climbed on board,” Winterbauer says. “She is an active participant in our annual fall Native Plant Festival and is a generous donor to our nonprofit to support education about native plants in our area.”
Mark Blevins, Brunswick County Cooperative Extension Service director, says he first met Shelton through her work on the local extension Advisory Council to work on the priorities for the region. “Everybody who is anybody in horticulture, gardening and herbs in the Cape Fear region knows Margaret Shelton,” he says. “Margaret was a big help on starting local farmers markets and creating other opportunities for local people to connect with area farmers about local foods. She still makes this work a priority and lives it too.”
People like Blevins and Shelton encourage Cape Fear area residents to discover the pleasures of growing their own food. “We live in an incredible place where we can grow and harvest edible plants all year long, so why not give it a try?” Blevins says. “Superfoods like collards, blueberries and others are garden staples in this area, so it can be a boost for your health and get you outside and moving to get edible herbs and plants into your diet and into your landscape.”
Shelton and her staff sell the plants and offer good advice about helping them thrive. However, for a more individualized approach on specific issues like drainage, soil type, heat, pests, they may recommend you to the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension. The extension service offers everything from soil testing to diagnosis of plant problems to help home gardeners.
“There are so many different herbs and edibles that add different smells, tastes and textures to the garden and to your plate,” Blevins says. “You won’t regret adding a few to what you already do. You have the support locally between Shelton Herb Farms and the Cooperative Extension to get things growing.”
Shelton Herb Farm offers both herbs and native plants, so an ardent gardener can arrange a lovely, fragrant and delicious garden that benefits both local birds, mammals and pollinators and offers variety in the kitchen.
“Every time I go (to the farm), the staff is always hustling and bustling around,” Blevins says. “Then, as soon as you ask a question, they transform into superheroes who can downloads all kinds of horticultural know-how into the minds of the humans. It’s always worth the trip to the outskirts of Leland to see the incredible variety of plants they pack into the rows and plots, and experience the great outdoors and a different kind of farm.”
Shelton Herb Farm
340 Goodman Road NE, Leland
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 8 am to 5 pm
Ready to Start Your Own Garden?
Brunswick County Cooperative Extension Services offers these services for home gardeners:
A plant clinic hotline — (910) 253-2610 — for getting answers to all kinds of horticultural questions. (Blevins says they get some highly peculiar questions, so see if you can stump them.)
A newcomer packet (county libraries have them) with helpful information and lists of plants that grow well here.
House calls by small groups of trained Extension Master Gardener Volunteers, who will visit your site with problem diagnostics and suggestions for enhancing the landscape.
Day in the Yard classes with in-depth information on growing conditions and the most important science behind the gardening tasks we need to do to make good plant choices in this region.
Soil testing with a free kit that gets analyzed by the N.C. Department of Agriculture lab in Raleigh for pH, nutrients and more; the results tell how much lime (if any) and what type of fertilizer (and how much) will be the best for your lawn, flowers, vegetables, trees or crop of corn. (A small fee applies in the winter peak season).