A Creek Runs Through It

The Tinicum Herb Barn is a savory retreat for the senses.

By: Pat Summers



photos by Daniel Shearer

Herbs at the Tinicum Herb Farm offer medicinal, culinary and visual benefits.

   Looking back, the experience seemed like going up the mountain to consult the seer. Except that this "seer" is very much of this world: she drinks coffee and jokes, wears hanging earrings and polishes her toenails. She just happens to know all about gardening — or so it would seem from a few hours with her at her Bucks County home, barn and gardens.
   The complete package is all wrapped up as Tinicum Herb Barn, though behind everything is Betsy Jacobs, a lifetime gardener and longtime teacher. On her 10-acre property in rural Tinicum Township, she grows myriad herbs, vegetables and perennials, and offers classes that often combine gardening, food and crafts.
   Still dividing her time between a home in New York and this "country place" she bought in the early ’90s, Ms. Jacobs acquired her herb expertise out of necessity. "You start eating at restaurants in New York and wondering why does it taste this way, and then you grow it to cook it," she says, describing her progression down the "prim-herb" path. Nowadays, thanks to her gardens, she won’t buy herbs or veggies until October.



The date on seed packets tells when the seeds were packaged; they don’t have to be used in that year. Some are good for two or three years, and of course "weed seeds are viable for 1,000 years!"
As food helped cultivate her herb specialty, Ms. Jacobs lures her students into interest through their senses of touch, taste and smell. In a practical sense, everything is hands-on in her classes. But it’s hands-in too, because sweet and savory snacks are a regular class feature.
   "My agenda is always to convey information and spark interest," she says, adding her time-tested belief that both kids and adults learn in much the same ways. That’s why her classes, though steeped in horticultural savvy, don’t call for people to sit still, listen and take notes. Instead, they work at whatever the lesson’s about, and besides snacks, there are always take-home elements, such as recipes, plants and food.
Mix herb and veggie plants or plant herbs around vegetable beds to discourage deer, who don’t like their smell.


Rose Campion

Trimmed with antique farming tools and a hand-lettered sign, the old red "Tinicum Herb Barn" is chockablock with dried flowers and herbs, tools and supplies, and a wreath-walled staircase to the second floor. Upstairs, there’s a huge wooden table for students to sit around and work at; another table for seedlings-under-lights; and open stairs to a loft-living space. Windows in a small kitchen area overlook the second-floor deck that in turn overlooks Ms. Jacobs’ property, starting with the garden. Numerous wire-fenced beds give way to a field, then woods — and a creek runs through them.
   An aerial view of Ms. Jacobs’ lettuce bed alone resembles an abstract expressionist canvas of greens and purply reds, whose varied textures, or brush strokes, work together harmoniously to make you crave a giant salad. And that’s before you come back down to earth and walk among the beds and inhale the pungent aromas of the herbs: Mediterranean, Asian, everyday salad. This craving hits hard even before her tomato plants have flowered.


Chile Pepper

For most purposes, plastic pots are preferable to porous clay pots, which dry out too quickly. Glazed clay pots help seal in moisture.
So visiting Tinicum Herb Barn has its hazards. Besides the appetite it can engender, one of the biggest perils can be Ms. Jacobs’ unstinting generosity with information. She seems to know everything about growing and gardens, with the result that you want to rush home and try it all and make her proud of you.
Document garden steps, however informal the notes may be. "The fact is, you forget. You think you’ll remember but you forget."
Attractive in an unadorned way, Ms. Jacobs is tallish, with white hair in a casual cut, and she wears rimless glasses, denims and sandals. Her hands look like the capable tools of a gardener. Rufus, her giant and gentle mixed-breed dog companion, usually joins her in welcoming visitors, then he stays at ground level because his age, 12, precludes much stair climbing.


A swinging porch bench is a perfect spot to catch a view of herbs and the farm.

   In a kind of gardener’s dream, Ms. Jacobs was "discovered" in this area by no less a luminary than Jane Pepper, president of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society and a columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer. After Ms. Pepper was attracted to her prize-winning chili pepper exhibit, published references to her work prompted Ms. Jacobs to start offering classes.
Don’t plant in pots without drainage holes and don’t waste soil space by using pot chips in vessels with them. Optional: put a piece of window screen over the drain hole to prevent loss of fine soil.
By now, the brochures she has produced since 1997 go out a few times a year to a mailing list of nearly 500. Beyond that, with occasional demonstrations and judging that Ms. Jacobs may do, it’s word of mouth, she says, and her students come from a widening circle in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.


   Born in Delaware in 1941, Ms. Jacobs began gardening as a child in the country — Chadds Ford — with parents who were "great gardeners." Once she graduated from Carlton College in Minnesota, with a major in German literature, she moved to New York, eventually married and had a daughter, later divorced, and has gardened ever since. After earning her master’s in education from the Bank Street College of Education, she taught in and directed nursery schools, including one that serviced New York University faculty and graduate students.
Those granules that absorb and release water in the soil really do work well — a real aid for commuters and infrequent waterers.
Ms. Jacobs’ long affiliation with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, within walking distance of her home, began with visits and then she became a volunteer guide. After some years, she became director of children’s education there, a position that included running the children’s garden program, the oldest in the country, and teaching adult classes on the side. It was at this point in her career that she began delving into the cultural and historic aspects of herbs, together with their culinary appeal.


Use "turkey grit" around herbs to help with drainage and keep their leaves off the grass. Its white surface also reflects sun and boosts production. A bonus benefit: it deters slugs.
Offered once a month, the summer courses at Tinicum Herb Barn include "Summertime Herbs" (July 19), "Herbes de Provence" (Aug. 30) and "Fresh Herbal Wreaths" (late September). In every case, materials are included in the fee (ranging from $20 to $35), and registrants need to bring only interest, appetite and in two cases, clippers or scissors. Classes run from 1 ½ to 2 ½ hours.
   And Ms. Jacobs’ newly renovated kitchen will also come into play. It boasts a 10-foot wooden table and a sizeable island on wheels, two sinks — a long, trough-like white one makes spray-rinsing and draining of herbs and veggies a breeze — and a massive standing cabinet of old-looking rough-hewn pine with extra-deep storage drawers. A spice rack with oversize glass jars filled with seasonings is the only sign of Ms. Jacobs’ specialty.
Herbs don’t like wet feet.
Salad’s on! And a tip of the sunbonnet to the seer — or more aptly, the gardening sage of Tinicum.
The Tinicum Herb Barn is located at 456 Headquarters Road, Erwinna. For information, call (610) 847-8452.