Tom DeBaggio is growing what seems like 20 acres of herbs on a 50-foot lot in downtown Arlington. His blue clapboard home just off North 10th Street is sandwiched by greenhouses where nearly 100,000 plants are planted, potted and pampered.
Celebrating his 10th anniversary as one of Washington's most sought after herb growers, DeBaggio reminisced recently about how what used to be a hobby got completely out of hand and evolved into Earthworks Herb Garden Nursery Co.
Stepping into the glowing moist plastic tunnel of the largest of his three greenhouses is to swoon from a warm cloud of mingling fragrances. There is a soporific jungle feeling, a hundred shades of green dappled with light. So powerful is the feeling of growth you know that if you stand there another minute you will take root.
DeBaggio, 43, wiry and serious, doesn't know exactly how many thousand plants he has growing in this small space at 923 N. Ivy St. He does know that every plant he sells spent time in his greenhouses as a seedling, cutting or division. He knows his days are long (14 hours) and his selling season short (March to June 29).
The work is hard, but DeBaggio's greenhouses are quietly awesome and sensual. You can't walk in without being overcome with the urge to try planting something new. Herbs are simply magic. They are the continuity of centuries of history and crossing cultures. They are memories, romance and nostalgia.
"I want a tomato like the one I tasted in Rome," begs one customer.
"I want a coriander like the one I had in Florida," says another. Coriander, so fickle its leaves look completely different when mature and immature.
"I want to recreate a 17th-century garden," says a woman from Fredericksburg, and DeBaggio goes to get a book.
"I want the mildest oregano you have," says another woman, who returns a week later to report, "It was not mild enough; do you have another?" DeBaggio gently suggests she try using less oregano in the recipe.
A phone call: "What is the best manure to use on marijuana plants?" A fast answer from DeBaggio: "Try Golden Guernsey." A week later, "But, I can't find Golden Guernsey manure." The sly DeBaggio chuckles and advises, "Keep looking."
DeBaggio's career has come as a surprise to even himself: "It was a hobby that got completely out of hand."
When they moved to the big old Arlington house, he built a greenhouse for his wife, Joyce, a Torpedo Factory artist. It turned out he enjoyed the greenhouse more than she.
They tried to sell the excess azalea and tomato plants: "I couldn't compete with Hechingers."
Joyce liked the flowering plants; he liked the culinary ones, and a penchant for Italian cooking requires a good supply of Mediterranean herbs.
"At that time, people were still making jello molds," he recalled. Herbs did not have the cachet they do now. "People didn't know what to do with herbs, or how to grow them."
If you can grow petunias, you can grow basil, he felt, and he set out to create his own market. Being a journalist (former newspaper reporter) helped on several fronts. He was interested and curious. He had a sense of outrage about mislabeled plants and poor plants. He wrote a Spring Plant Catalog that was a whiz. He not only carefully detailed and described his plants, he told people how to plant them, provided good illustrations, and even superior recipes. People began to make the effort to find his street, which was not easy.
Besides his way with words, DeBaggio simply had a way with people interested in herbs. He took the time to talk to people who came to the greenhouses and discovered he was learning more from them. People brought him plants, told him about ones they wanted, brought him presents -- herb-flavored popcorn, coriander chutney and lavender ice cream.
Now his little plot of land is home to 150 species of herbs and he has created five new ones -- rosemarys and lavenders, one lavender that blooms twice a year.
Basil, from seed imported from Italy, and the others of the big four -- thyme, rosemary and tarragon -- are the best sellers. But his latest glamor plant is the Italian artichoke. He had only 150 plants this year, and they instantly sold out. There will be more next year. He planted the seed Christmas day and then tricked the young plants into skipping a season and producing artichokes the first year. The plants can be grown in gardens here, but they do have to be dug up in winter and stored in a cold frame or unheated basement.
Last year his new hobby of "journalism" found another outlet. He started a new publication, "Gerard's Garden," an insider's newsletter about herbs. The name came from John Gerard, the 16th-century English gardener who wrote the most popular English herbal tome, a mammoth nine-pound book that is still in print.
With his Italian heritage, DeBaggio is loyal to the land of his grandfather and cooks foods with the herbs that make them authentic. Here are some of his recipes: SORREL-BEET PUREE (4 servings) 1 tablespoon butter 2 shallots, minced 1 cup (packed) fresh sorrel leaves, stems removed and chopped, plus 4 large leaves for serving 2 whole, large fresh beets, peeled, cooked and chopped 1 tablespoon white wine
In a heavy saucepan, melt butter, add shallots and cook until soft. Add sorrel and cook until leaves are soft. Add beets and wine, cook for 2 or 3 minutes. Put contents into a blender or food processor and pure'e. Serve on large sorrel leaves. GNOCCHI FRANCESCO (2 servings) 1 medium-large baking potato, boiled in the skin until tender and drained 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh minced rosemary 1 clove garlic, minced Salt to taste 1 egg 1/2 to 1 cup flour plus extra for kneading 1 tablespoon olive oil Butter for serving Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Skin and mash potato while it is still warm. (Do not whip or mix in food processor.) Add rosemary, garlic, salt and egg. Add enough flour to make a fairly stiff dough. Knead a few minutes until silken in texture. Divide dough in half. Sift some flour onto a pastry board and roll each half of dough with your hand into a long rope about the diameter of a nickel. Slice the dough-rope into 1/4-inch slices and place them on floured waxed paper. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large kettle. Add olive oil. Begin dropping gnocchi slices into the boiling water a few at a time. When they rise to the top of the water, permit them to cook a few seconds more and then lift them out with a slotted spoon. Serve on warm platter with butter and parmesan cheese. POLENTA DeBAGGIO (2 servings) 1/2 cup cornmeal 1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth 1 tablespoon fresh sage 1/4 cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 teaspoon salt
In a heavy saucepan, place cornmeal and broth; cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. As the mixture thickens, add sage, cheese, butter and salt. When thick, cook 30 seconds without stirring. Remove from heat, cover and let stand a few minutes before serving. CORNBREAD TOMMASO (4 servings) 1 cup cornmeal 1 cup unbleached flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 4 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 cup butter ( 1/2 stick), or shortening, plus extra for pan 1 egg 2 tablespoons honey 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves, minced 1 cup milk
In a bowl, mix together cornmeal, flour, salt and baking powder. Cut in butter until butter is in pea-size lumps. Add egg, honey, rosemary and milk to cornmeal mixture. Pour into an oiled 8-inch square baking pan and bake at 425 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. Cut into squares and serve.