Having started her “growing” business 32 years ago as a family-focused project, Margaret Shelton has become something of a bellwether of horticultural trends in Southeastern North Carolina.
Shelton Herb Farm is located south of Leland on property that has been in Shelton’s family since 1887. She saw an opportunity to draw on that legacy.
“In the late ’70s and early ’80s I was working at UNCW, at the marine lab,” she said. “I wanted to do something on the farm … growing gardens for my family when my three sons were small. I wanted to grow what they ate. I’m passionate about [people] growing [their] own food, and it can be done on a small scale.”
She began cultivating herbs as companion plants to her other produce, frustrated that she couldn’t find the varieties of herbs she wanted from area vendors. Year by year her crop grew.
She officially launched Shelton Herb Farm in 1986 when the youngest of her three sons was 2 years old. She built it literally from the ground up, making her own cold frame and importing her greenhouses from other locations.
Shelton wasn’t the only family cook who wanted something better than dried herbs from the grocery store. Her farm became a source of culinary herbs for people who wanted to grow their own seasonings. People also came to the farm to buy vegetable seedlings.
Then Shelton began to learn more about the importance of preserving native plants in the landscape for wildlife food and habitat. Bordering her farm was a hedge of native elderberry; native trees such as buckeye and paw-paw grew in the adjacent woodland.
“I started a collection of native plants that grow well, as well as propagating varieties of plants that my mother grew. I call those heirlooms – those are plants that have now lasted for 50 or 60 years,” she said.
Shelton is riding a wave of interest in native plants in this region, according to Susan Brown, consumer horticultural agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service in New Hanover County.
“I’ve noticed a real increase in interest in native plants in the last three-and-a-half years or so,” Brown said, adding that she launched an annual Native Plants Festival at the New Hanover County Arboretum three years ago. The next such event takes place in September and will bring in experts and vendors like Shelton from North Carolina and beyond.
“People are interested in attracting wildlife, particularly pollinators such as birds, bees and butterflies. They want to learn how it’s all tied together,” Brown said.
To respond to public demand, the arboretum has added a native plant garden and produces materials to educate people about what plants are native to North Carolina’s coastal region and how to plant and nurture them.
Native plant organizations have sprung up to disseminate information about these original residents of the coastal landscape, and some landscapers may be learning more about them. Shelton said she is encouraged by the fact that the N.C. Nursery & Landscape Association made native plants a focus of its annual conference in January.
As the farm’s output has increased, so has its need for more sales outlets. So, in addition to establishing the farm as a shopping destination, Shelton takes her plants to Poplar Grove’s annual Herb & Garden Fair in April and area farmers markets – another growing trend.
“I’ve lobbied for farmers markets ever since I started,” she said.
She participates in three area farmers markets – in Southport, Shallotte and downtown Wilmington. In March she planned to add a fourth: a new producers-only market at Tidal Creek Co-op.
“Farmers markets don’t just happen; they need a lot of thought. Shallotte has one of the most beautiful facilities for a farmers market I have ever seen,” Shelton said.
She added that town officials put significant funds into its Mulberry Park, which hosts the weekly market.
“Shallotte really thought it out, especially from the perspective of the vendors, so, for instance, we don’t have to lug our produce long distances from the car to our booth,” she said.
Brown said she has witnessed a boom in farmers markets.
“The local foods movement is a huge thing,” she said. “People are definitely buying local foods to help farmers, and there is interest from people wanting to grow their own food, even in small spaces and in containers.”
Not only is Shelton Herb Farm a source for plants that attract butterflies, birds and bees, Shelton is also a beekeeper. Now that practice, too, is growing in Southeastern North Carolina.
“Beekeeping has gotten very sexy,” said Laura McCabe, immediate past president of the New Hanover County Beekeepers Association. “There are five local clubs: two in Pender County, one in Brunswick County and two in New Hanover County, one of which is at University of North Carolina Wilmington. North Carolina as a whole has more than 4,000 beekeepers’ clubs, the most of any state in the U.S.”
McCabe said that the New Hanover County club, which has more than 100 members, fields “a lot” of requests from people who want to buy local honey. These beekeepers also sell to a growing list of commercial establishments.
“Our brewing industry is getting interested in using local honey. For instance, Wrightsville Beach Brewery has a honey ale, and they buy their honey from our members. Bill’s Front Porch also uses our members’ honey for its honey ale. I would love the idea that each brewery would use local honey,” she said.