Avena Botanicals’ tranquil and productive gardens thrive
Avena Botanicals on Mill Street in West Rockport has been a favorite site for gardeners and herbal enthusiasts to visit for decades. Now in its 28th year, the business, started and owned by Deb Soule, features a three-acre garden where visitors are enveloped by lush plants grown according to organic and biodynamic standards, and by the buzz of bees enjoying those plants, the darting of hummingbirds, the dances of numerous butterflies.
From the 150 kinds of trees, shrubs and herbs growing here, Avena harvests 1,000 pounds of plant material and makes teas, tinctures, ointments and more. That cultivation, harvest, production and shipping supports a dozen year-round employees.
As with organic agriculture, creating and maintaining fertile soil without using toxic synthetic chemicals is fundamental to biodynamic agriculture, which may build plant and soil health with compost, green manures, cover crops, crop rotations, companion plants and mulch.
The difference “is in the spiritual realm,” says Soule. “The biodynamic system of farming relates the ecology of the earth to the larger cosmos” and “views the soil and farm as living organisms, and places significant attention on soil health.”
Biodynamic growers apply certain preparations to plants, soils and compost piles at certain times of the day, month and year. Biodynamic founder Rudolph Steiner “believed that the vitality of the food and herbs we ingest, revitalized by the use of the biodynamic preparations, would help humans be more fully conscious, more spiritually awake, more aware of the divine energy present in all of life.”
Soule says the practice, which involves looking at the farm as a whole organism, seems to have brought added vitality to her plants, soil and farm.
She finds it interesting that the six compost preparations used in biodynamics are all from medicinal plants.
“Biodynamic preparations and philosophy resonated with me as an herbalist,” says Soule. “Taking good care of ourselves is a daily practice. Biodynamics is daily observation of what’s going on in the garden” and is a way “of helping to heal the earth and humanity.”
Soule is certified-organic by MOFGA Certification Services. She added biodynamic certification in order to connect with other U.S. biodynamic farmers and “to be with people who haven’t been bought out” by industrial-organic corporations. Avena is the first Maine farm to be certified as biodynamic.
Avena has also added a new 3,000-square-foot building to its existing structure — per recent USDA and FDA regulations for all herb businesses. She spent the last five years working to comply with these, including voluminous paperwork with specific information about every plant Avena processes. One requirement for the new building, for instance, is that a separate room exist to store samples of every batch of tincture made for seven years.
Payments on the building loan, added to a pre-existing mortgage on the original property, have stretched Avena’s finances, yet Soule still donates hours of time to visitors through Avena’s Herbal Classroom — the nonprofit 501(c)(3) educational arm of Avena that offers classes to individuals and health care providers in herbal medicine, ayurveda, and biodynamic and organic herb gardening. The nonprofit will also start a clinic this fall. Every summer, Soule leads free garden walks for visitors on half a dozen Wednesday afternoons. (The last two this year are from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 8 and 15.)
Avena’s gardens are open weekdays from noon to 5 p.m., from May through September, and its shop is open from noon to 5 p.m. on weekdays year-round. For more information and for ordering online, see www.avenabotanicals.com.