Sal Gilbertie Is Gentle with the Young Seedlings Just Sprouting

The Herb Whisperer

Sal Gilbertie has a habit of multitasking. Of course, the owner of Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens since 1959, he probably has never thought of it as such. He’s just been running his business. If that means checking on seedlings, filling retailers’ orders and tracking inventory, all while answering questions about herb uses, greenhouse temperatures and essential oils, so be it. He keeps his eyes straight ahead as he zips through his mental database to answer my questions, stopping only to straighten a falling packing box or to find an herb guide — he moves at ease. 

As spring blows through town, Gilbertie has a lot on his mind. The retail center for Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens is located in Westport, where he frequently lectures on gardening and hosts year-round decorating and culinary workshops. The farm is up in Easton, where he tends to the growing plants and filling wholesalers’ orders. Gilbertie’s is the largest herb grower in the country, shipping 400 varieties to more than 800 garden centers and herb farms. In his “off ” time, Sal Gilbertie has become a bit of a celebrity. He is the author of five books — Kitchen Herbs; Herb Gardening at Its Best; Home Gardening at Its Best; Herbs for the Holidays; and the delicious looking The Herbal Palate Cookbook — and has appeared on national radio and television programs, including Martha Stewart Living, Home Matters on the Discovery Channel and Lifetime’s Home Show.

Hop to It

If Gilbertie ever offers you a tour of his Easton farm, (1) take it, (2) wear running shoes. Sal has a quick step, and it’s your job to keep up. It’s worth the effort, because here seeds become seedlings become plants over thirty-four acres of optimal environment for yarrow, sweet annie, artemisia, sage, mint, anise hyssop, lamb’s ears, and hundreds of others. The hardest part of his job? He notes in Herb Gardening, “It takes patience to differentiate between all of the types of marjoram, mints, and tarragon, and forbearance to tolerate yet another pun on the word ‘thyme.’ ” During my tour, decorative gardens — including one with a model train (“dads and kids love that one,” he says) — hoses, and numerous flats of seedlings are going by so fast that I begin to wonder with some amusement if I am, ironically, testing the patience of a man whose whole profession is about allowing nature to bloom in its own time. Greenhouses, watering conveyor belts, tractors, trucks, and other business accoutrements flash by like a tour of town from the passenger seat on I-95.

Thankfully, I am soon escorted to the milking shed renovated into the main office. Vast amounts of space impress just by being large and open; nothing is cramped or disorderly. Rows and columns of essential oils are stacked here, wholesale catalogs filed there. The second floor is equally large though nearly empty. The door closes to a small, undecorated office and the difference from the vast amounts of space we have just covered — and with Gilbertie now sitting quietly, hands folded over each other, eager to help — is so remarkable that there is a moment of awkward silence, except for the walkie-talkie attached to his hip, that regularly blurts out the farm’s news like a police squawk box.

In Nature’s Time

Sal wrote in Herb Gardening, “A row of lettuce is a row of lettuce. But a specimen bay plant is a pal.” I think of it when he is telling me a story about Fennel, his thirteen-year-old Beagle. He looks, Sal says lovingly about his dog, like a common mutt compared to a neighbor’s show dog, a perfect Beagle specimen. He says with a ready smile, “The first time I met the dog up close — I had, of course, seen him from a distance while working in the gardens — but, I was in their house, and this dog came around the corner, and I thought to myself, My God in heaven, now that’s a real Beagle.” He laughs easily.

I have never been quoted about a bay plant, and my herb expertise extends to buying chives at a supermarket and setting them in a glass of water on the kitchen window sill. This, of course, is a shame to a master like Gilbertie. “You can use herbs everyday,” he tells me cheerfully. “You take the same five or six meals that you make, and you can add herbs for a completely new taste.” He does make it sound easy.

“When I started with herbs, you were either a witch or a warlock or a nut case if you grew herbs,” he explains. “And people here in Fairfield County were well traveled, and there were ethnic restaurants here, so people were exposed to herbs, and they had herb gardens for medicinal purposes, preserving foods and flavoring.”

Sal says most sales then and now go to culinary herbs, adding that fluctuations in herb popularity are essentially tied to people’s interest in gardening and home cooking. “Because people here are more exposed to things, because of travel and a willingness to try different foods, we were able to sell herbs even early on. If we were in Buffalo, New York, no one would care.”

He explains that back in the 1970s most press coverage was about niche herb gardens, especially catchy ones like aphrodisiac herbs. “But 85 percent of people actually use herbs for food,” he says, “though that wasn’t the emphasis.” Herbs became more accessible, he says, thanks in part to people like Martha Stewart, who “took the mystique away.”

Early Growth

Sal Gilbertie’s fingers are not unlike roots. They are stained from the earth, cracked and cut, and no longer perfectly straight. For gardeners and those who breath deeply when there is the fresh smell of grass and dirt in the air, these hands are also uniquely and unequivocally beautiful — the very image of honesty and commitment. Forget lotions and manicures. Gilbertie plunges into soil, rocks and water, busily digging, planting, and lifting in his nurseries. Like an artist or beloved grandfather whose fingers have gnarled over the years, the tenderness in Gilbertie’s hands still shows through.

But don’t get too wistful —  Gilbertie the businessman is very successful, and his legacy is our gain. It started in 1922 with fresh-cut flowers by Sal’s grandfather, Antonio, who was fifty-eight years old when he decided he wanted to be in business for himself. It became a second-generation business when Sal’s father, Salvatore, took the reins, and now is entering its fourth generation, and eighty-fifth year, with Sal’s son, Tom Gilbertie, as president.

Although the business started off with flowers, Sal is quick to give an abundance of credit for the herb offshoot to a loyal and wealthy (if not also demanding) local patron, the Baroness von Langerdorff, wife of a perfumer (famous then for White Shoulders and now for the Baron’s estate in central Westport).

“She loathed certain colors,” Sal says with disbelief and a smile. “How can one loath a color? But she did, and if you brought in flowers that were the wrong color, you were in trouble.” For years she routinely ordered flowers by the dozen, until she took a surprising fancy to start her own herb garden. True to her extravagant nature, she ordered sixty plants of twelve different varieties of culinary herbs. Salvatore, then in charge, sowed not sixty that season, but 100 of each, just to be sure to have stock to fill her order. The little herbs rewarded him with a strong, healthy crop that first season, leaving many extra plants — which he sold to the public. When the lot was gone, almost immediately, son Sal, fresh out of school, was wisely instructed to learn about growing herbs — quick.

All in Good Time

Learning about herbs can take a lifetime. Through the years, Gilbertie tracked down reliable sources for seeds that produced the exact specimens he desired. It took him seven years to find hyssop seed that actually produced pink and white flowers instead of blue ones. Sal is nothing if not persistent. Through research and experimentation, he found the ideal conditions to grow all varieties of plants, naturally and with organic fertilizer. None of his lessons were quick or easy, but he has now an encyclopedic understanding of how to best grow herbs — and not just to grow his business; he is a true believer that everyone’s life would be better if herbs were used. “A sprig of lavender can scent a room,” he notes. “Herbs can, and should, grace everyone’s life.” 

The retail center in Westport is complete with gardens and greenhouses filled with plants, flowers, topiaries, vegetables and all of the containers, soil, pebbles, and decorative knickknacks gardeners need. The greenhouses offer a soft light and moist, warm air, and row after row of rich fragrance. It’s downright romantic. Everything is orderly, as new, little lives spring forth from their pots. It’s easy to see devoting one’s life to this. Sal dedicated his first book to his father, “who first taught me to love the soil.”

When you see and smell young sage, basil and thyme growing in the ground, the air seems gentler. Maybe it’s intoxication from fresh herbs, or maybe we humans are programmed to love something that is as beautiful as it is complex — a plant that can feed us, heal us, and please all of our senses. As Sal Gilbertie says simply, “They are such interesting plants.”

Sal Gilbertie has a habit of multitasking. Of course, the owner of Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens since 1959, he probably has never thought of it as such. He’s just been running his business. If that means checking on seedlings, filling retailers’ orders and tracking inventory, all while answering questions about herb uses, greenhouse temperatures and essential oils, so be it. He keeps his eyes straight ahead as he zips through his mental database to answer my questions, stopping only to straighten a falling packing box or to find an herb guide — he moves at ease. 

As spring blows through town, Gilbertie has a lot on his mind. The retail center for Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens is located in Westport, where he frequently lectures on gardening and hosts year-round decorating and culinary workshops. The farm is up in Easton, where he tends to the growing plants and filling wholesalers’ orders. Gilbertie’s is the largest herb grower in the country, shipping 400 varieties to more than 800 garden centers and herb farms. In his “off ” time, Sal Gilbertie has become a bit of a celebrity. He is the author of five books — Kitchen Herbs; Herb Gardening at Its Best; Home Gardening at Its Best; Herbs for the Holidays; and the delicious looking The Herbal Palate Cookbook — and has appeared on national radio and television programs, including Martha Stewart Living, Home Matters on the Discovery Channel and Lifetime’s Home Show.

Hop to It

If Gilbertie ever offers you a tour of his Easton farm, (1) take it, (2) wear running shoes. Sal has a quick step, and it’s your job to keep up. It’s worth the effort, because here seeds become seedlings become plants over thirty-four acres of optimal environment for yarrow, sweet annie, artemisia, sage, mint, anise hyssop, lamb’s ears, and hundreds of others. The hardest part of his job? He notes in Herb Gardening, “It takes patience to differentiate between all of the types of marjoram, mints, and tarragon, and forbearance to tolerate yet another pun on the word ‘thyme.’ ” During my tour, decorative gardens — including one with a model train (“dads and kids love that one,” he says) — hoses, and numerous flats of seedlings are going by so fast that I begin to wonder with some amusement if I am, ironically, testing the patience of a man whose whole profession is about allowing nature to bloom in its own time. Greenhouses, watering conveyor belts, tractors, trucks, and other business accoutrements flash by like a tour of town from the passenger seat on I-95.

Thankfully, I am soon escorted to the milking shed renovated into the main office. Vast amounts of space impress just by being large and open; nothing is cramped or disorderly. Rows and columns of essential oils are stacked here, wholesale catalogs filed there. The second floor is equally large though nearly empty. The door closes to a small, undecorated office and the difference from the vast amounts of space we have just covered — and with Gilbertie now sitting quietly, hands folded over each other, eager to help — is so remarkable that there is a moment of awkward silence, except for the walkie-talkie attached to his hip, that regularly blurts out the farm’s news like a police squawk box.

In Nature’s Time

Sal wrote in Herb Gardening, “A row of lettuce is a row of lettuce. But a specimen bay plant is a pal.” I think of it when he is telling me a story about Fennel, his thirteen-year-old Beagle. He looks, Sal says lovingly about his dog, like a common mutt compared to a neighbor’s show dog, a perfect Beagle specimen. He says with a ready smile, “The first time I met the dog up close — I had, of course, seen him from a distance while working in the gardens — but, I was in their house, and this dog came around the corner, and I thought to myself, My God in heaven, now that’s a real Beagle.” He laughs easily.

I have never been quoted about a bay plant, and my herb expertise extends to buying chives at a supermarket and setting them in a glass of water on the kitchen window sill. This, of course, is a shame to a master like Gilbertie. “You can use herbs everyday,” he tells me cheerfully. “You take the same five or six meals that you make, and you can add herbs for a completely new taste.” He does make it sound easy.

“When I started with herbs, you were either a witch or a warlock or a nut case if you grew herbs,” he explains. “And people here in Fairfield County were well traveled, and there were ethnic restaurants here, so people were exposed to herbs, and they had herb gardens for medicinal purposes, preserving foods and flavoring.”

Sal says most sales then and now go to culinary herbs, adding that fluctuations in herb popularity are essentially tied to people’s interest in gardening and home cooking. “Because people here are more exposed to things, because of travel and a willingness to try different foods, we were able to sell herbs even early on. If we were in Buffalo, New York, no one would care.”

He explains that back in the 1970s most press coverage was about niche herb gardens, especially catchy ones like aphrodisiac herbs. “But 85 percent of people actually use herbs for food,” he says, “though that wasn’t the emphasis.” Herbs became more accessible, he says, thanks in part to people like Martha Stewart, who “took the mystique away.”

Early Growth

Sal Gilbertie’s fingers are not unlike roots. They are stained from the earth, cracked and cut, and no longer perfectly straight. For gardeners and those who breath deeply when there is the fresh smell of grass and dirt in the air, these hands are also uniquely and unequivocally beautiful — the very image of honesty and commitment. Forget lotions and manicures. Gilbertie plunges into soil, rocks and water, busily digging, planting, and lifting in his nurseries. Like an artist or beloved grandfather whose fingers have gnarled over the years, the tenderness in Gilbertie’s hands still shows through.

But don’t get too wistful —  Gilbertie the businessman is very successful, and his legacy is our gain. It started in 1922 with fresh-cut flowers by Sal’s grandfather, Antonio, who was fifty-eight years old when he decided he wanted to be in business for himself. It became a second-generation business when Sal’s father, Salvatore, took the reins, and now is entering its fourth generation, and eighty-fifth year, with Sal’s son, Tom Gilbertie, as president.

Although the business started off with flowers, Sal is quick to give an abundance of credit for the herb offshoot to a loyal and wealthy (if not also demanding) local patron, the Baroness von Langerdorff, wife of a perfumer (famous then for White Shoulders and now for the Baron’s estate in central Westport).

“She loathed certain colors,” Sal says with disbelief and a smile. “How can one loath a color? But she did, and if you brought in flowers that were the wrong color, you were in trouble.” For years she routinely ordered flowers by the dozen, until she took a surprising fancy to start her own herb garden. True to her extravagant nature, she ordered sixty plants of twelve different varieties of culinary herbs. Salvatore, then in charge, sowed not sixty that season, but 100 of each, just to be sure to have stock to fill her order. The little herbs rewarded him with a strong, healthy crop that first season, leaving many extra plants — which he sold to the public. When the lot was gone, almost immediately, son Sal, fresh out of school, was wisely instructed to learn about growing herbs — quick.

All in Good Time

Learning about herbs can take a lifetime. Through the years, Gilbertie tracked down reliable sources for seeds that produced the exact specimens he desired. It took him seven years to find hyssop seed that actually produced pink and white flowers instead of blue ones. Sal is nothing if not persistent. Through research and experimentation, he found the ideal conditions to grow all varieties of plants, naturally and with organic fertilizer. None of his lessons were quick or easy, but he has now an encyclopedic understanding of how to best grow herbs — and not just to grow his business; he is a true believer that everyone’s life would be better if herbs were used. “A sprig of lavender can scent a room,” he notes. “Herbs can, and should, grace everyone’s life.” 

The retail center in Westport is complete with gardens and greenhouses filled with plants, flowers, topiaries, vegetables and all of the containers, soil, pebbles, and decorative knickknacks gardeners need. The greenhouses offer a soft light and moist, warm air, and row after row of rich fragrance. It’s downright romantic. Everything is orderly, as new, little lives spring forth from their pots. It’s easy to see devoting one’s life to this. Sal dedicated his first book to his father, “who first taught me to love the soil.”

When you see and smell young sage, basil and thyme growing in the ground, the air seems gentler. Maybe it’s intoxication from fresh herbs, or maybe we humans are programmed to love something that is as beautiful as it is complex — a plant that can feed us, heal us, and please all of our senses. As Sal Gilbertie says simply, “They are such interesting plants.”

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