Mike and Mary Harless, Lynne Phillips of Natural Art Garden Center

On the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day, a mid-afternoon visit to the Natural Art Garden Center found long-time customers Mike and Mary Harless, of a remote area near Lebanon Church, discussing spring soil amending and plant selections with owner-manager Lynne Phillips.

“My mother-in-law lives here in Toms Brook, and we passed [the Center] when they were building it, so it was natural for us to shop here,” Mike Harless said. “They always give us great advice and we can find plants here we don’t find at the big box stores or at other nurseries. We’ve gotten vegetables, shrubs, and fruit trees here.

“We have a smallish area, with limited sunlight, and our soil usually needs amending because we live up on a shale ridge, so Lynne’s expert knowledge of what does well in our situation has been very valuable.”

Lynne was also helpful with a new branch of horticulture for Mary Harless last year.

“[Mary] is studying to be an herbalist, so she planted an herb garden, and watching the many varieties of herbs grow was most the fun we had with our garden last year,” Mike said.

After Mary Harless wrapped up an extended conversation with Lynne we learned more about Mary’s new branch of plant husbandry.

“I’m studying to be a medicinal herbalist, and it’s a long road,” Mary said. “I planted Crane’s Bill, Rosemary, and St. John’s Wort, and several seed varieties, including Hyssop and Holy Basil, all of which I got here.

“I love Lynne, she’s an exceptional teacher, and she’ll share all kinds of information. She knows her plants and she’s extremely generous with her time. I do like to support local businesses, but she’s just wonderful.”

With temperatures having topped out just above 80 degrees earlier in the week, Phillips has been advising her customers to observe cautious enthusiasm regarding the advent of Spring.

“Once the weather starts warming up they want to get gardening,” Phillips said. “Some things might be a little premature, like putting in tomatoes, but I try to get them to hold back their horses and go in the right direction. So right now, we’re trying to get the soil amended, get the garden prepped, and planting potatoes and peas.”

The Center will again offer its popular pick-your-own tomato patches, featuring at least one variety sure be a rare find in these parts. “We’ll offer five or six varieties, almost all heirloom, and one variety from Russia – Zarnitsa, German Johnson, Old German, Rutgers, and Roma,” explained Phillips.

Other changes at the Center are in the offing this Spring.

“We will be growing more of our own products here, probably 100 varieties of tomatoes, and 20-30 different types of peppers, including the hottest peppers in the world, with Scoville ratings in the millions. We have a running list of customers that come every year to get the hottest of the hot.

Celtic Cross in nursery area

“We changed up the garden center this year, creating more nursery beds, so it looks more like a landscape then soldiers marching in a row – more like a botanical garden, and we have a demonstration table so customers can see you don’t need a large space to grow good, healthy vegetables.”

And, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, a substantial Celtic cross garden ornament was available.

Located just north of Toms Brook on the Valley Pike, near the intersection with Mt. Olive Road, the Natural Art Garden Center is enjoying its eighth spring of operation.

Contributed by Dennis Atwood, member of the Shenandoah Forum Board of Directors.