An appreciation of Tom DeBaggio, herb cultivator and writer

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 12:04 PM

In a month or so, a lot of my serious gardening buddies will be making a concerted trek from Northwest Washington to western Loudoun County. Destination: DeBaggio's Herbs.

This mom and pop herb nursery occupies a place in the hearts of Washingtonians who remember its 1970s origins in the Ashton Heights neighborhood of Arlington. Here, Tom DeBaggio erected a large greenhouse behind the home he shared with his wife, Joyce, and their son, Francesco, and set about an incredible adventure with the most delightful of plants.

In his prime, Tom DeBaggio was gruff, wry, good-hearted and as passionate as he was curious, and he brought all these qualities to a world of his making. He died Feb. 21 at age 69 after battling early-onset Alzheimer's disease for more than a decade. In typical fashion, he grabbed the bull by the horns, writing two memoirs about his life and the disease that would take it. He started out as a journalist and remained a writer to the end; indeed Francesco DeBaggio believes that the writing preserved his father's faculties for years longer than anticipated. When I called her last week, Joyce DeBaggio said that "Tom wanted to be remembered for his writing, not just the greenhouse."

In addition to his memoirs, he wrote or co-wrote several books on herb cultivation, including an authoritative, 600-page herb encyclopedia with Arthur O. Tucker, a research professor at Delaware State University in Dover.

The writing remains. Alas, what is more ethereal is his cultivation of a powerfully symbolic and sensual array of herbs, grown for a large and loyal group of patrons for a quarter of a century.

I first met him more than 20 years ago, I think on a drab November day. As I entered the greenhouse, my spectacles steamed up, but when they cleared I could see benches full of rosemary, scented geraniums and other herbs, groomed and plump for the holiday season. The warmth, the fragrance and the salubrious flora all worked to conjure an image of an oasis in the midst of Arlington's headlong urbanization. I coveted what he was doing.

My glasses were not just misted but rose-tinted: At the time I had little sense that this paradise was born of desperation - he needed to put bread on his family's table - and sustained through constant 12-hour days.

One comes to learn that running a small nursery is not for the fainthearted. DeBaggio once wrote: "I have lived through times when a single night destroyed the work of 12 months because I relied on a faulty but favorable weather forecast."

DeBaggio grew what he sold - generally not done anymore in garden centers - which allowed him to serve up the most delicious range of herbs that took his fancy. Lavender, in particular, became a fertile genus, fittingly for a guy of Italian stock. Besides many varieties of the standard English lavender, he grew and sold lavandins, the large and more tender hybrids of the French perfume farms. He championed the use of the hardiest varieties of rosemary and helped to make this sublime herb far less of a novelty in Washington.

He once obtained seeds of every known basil species and variety he could find globally, raised them to maturity and then delivered them to Tucker to form an herbarium, or a record of dried specimens. "Nobody had done that before," Tucker said.

When DeBaggio was starting out, he interrogated Tucker and every other horticultural extension expert he could find before setting up his greenhouse operation. This in itself was unusual. "He said, 'You research people are so wonderful and so stupid because you give me all this free advice.' I said, 'That's what we're paid to do,' and he said, 'It's a wonderful system.' He milked us dry," said Tucker.

One of Tucker's favorite Tom DeBaggio stories is of the time he used his reporter's techniques to track down the origins of a geranium plant sold to repel mosquitoes. "Tom managed to trace it back to a bar in Key West where two guys dreamed this up," said Tucker, chuckling.

There is another rare aspect at play: When DeBaggio launched himself into herbs, his beloved culinary and medicinal plants occupied a world that was inhabited mostly by hippies or refined plant societies. He opened the world of herbs to many others who came to see plants that have everything: beauty, fragrance, utility and, above all else, the capacity to cheer you up.

When the business moved to a five-acre site near Chantilly in the late 1990s, Francesco expanded the offerings to include choice and heirloom varieties of tomato, pepper and other worthy veggies, including the globe artichoke variety Imperial Star, developed to bud in its first season. I recall going there one April and seeing a magnificent butterfly, a mourning cloak, land at my feet and open its wings to collect the sun's rays. All the promise of a new season was crystallized in this creature. And then it flitted away, all too soon.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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