| Growing Excite-mint for Everything Herbal at Richters Herbs |
By Josie Di Felice
For decades, Richters Herbs in Durham Region have offered everything one would need to know to grow and use a vast variety of culinary, medicinal and aromatic herbs. As leading growers and purveyors of herb seeds, plants, dried herbs, extracts, oils and more, whatever you’re looking for in the herb department, chances are the Richters in Goodwood, Ontario have got it.
Just look at their herb catalogue, which first came out in 1970: nearly 100 pages reveal a smorgasbord of herbs, some you might not have even known existed.
Founders Otto and Waltraut Richter first started it all in the late 1960s, with a garden centre that initially offered ornamentals, tomatoes and geraniums. Since the Richters grew up in Europe, with fresh herbs as a staple in most homes, they also naturally dedicated a corner of the greenhouse to herbs.
At the time, in the late 1960s, fresh herb plants weren’t as easy to come by in Ontario as they are today, which is likely why the Richters saw visitors who were coming in to buy tomatoes or geraniums start asking about the plants in the corner with the german labels.
Just like that, the Richters found a demand that needed to be filled, so they started pulling the necessary pieces together. As the interest for herbs increasingly grew, so did the corner; what started out as a small patch for basic herbs like mint and parsley, expanded more and more to include all sorts of varieties.
By the mid ‘80s, the Richters were fully specialized in herbs, becoming champion collectors. “Everything herbal,” their website proclaims.
This zest for everything herbal evidently runs deep in the family, too. Otto and Waltraut’s son, Conrad, is now the President of Richters Herbs. Even back in grade school, Conrad remembers helping his dad with the catalogues – and he has helped produced every catalogue since the beginning.
“Our business for the most part grew on word of mouth,” Conrad tells us. “People couldn’t get this anywhere else so they came to us. We had the advantage of being there at the right time.”
Currently, they have about 6-700 varieties, some grown from seed and some sold in dried form that can’t be grown here.
The seeds come from all over the world: every continent except Antarctica. Their speciality is indeed their sundry abundance, finding some “odd ball varieties,” as Conrad calls them.
“People come to us if they’re looking for a specific, unique herb variety,” he explains.
They’ve even developed some varieties themselves, like an orange spice thyme that works well as a lawn alternative, crowding out weeds and other grasses. Their numerous varieties of basil—and they’ve got dozens—are also popular, including a lemon or licorice basil, as well as several varieties of lavender and thyme (just to name a few).
“People are often surprised by the varying scents, which are all natural,” Conrad explains. Each oil is controlled by natural genetics of the plant which leads to variation in scents. “It’s almost like you’re dealing with an alphabet of scents and oils, it’s almost endless what you can do with these.”
They propagated some new mint varieties with a partner, Jim Westerfield (the Westerfield mint category), which were developed through cross pollination in Jim’s own backyard. The margarita mint and sweet pear mint are two favourites.
The catalogue, which comes out each year in December, showcases this eclectic variety and all the herbs they’ll have available for the upcoming season. The publication also offers tips and other educational information.
“Education is key,” adds Conrad. “There’s a lot to know about herbs, as many require different care.”
That’s why Richters Herbs also offers education and guidance on how to grow and use the variety of herbs they offer. They’ve been hosting a free seminar series every year for the past 30 years, annually in the spring and a few in the fall.
Of course, they start with the important basics, but as more people ventured away from your typical herbs, they also saw value in assisting people with growing and getting more comfortable with the unfamiliar. This September and October there are a few seminars coming up. Check out past ones on their YouTube Channel.
In general, Conrad explains, most herbs need well drained soil and full sun, but there are some notable exceptions. Many are perennials, but some are tender (meaning they can’t be out year-round in our climate, like rosemary, so they are brought inside for the winter).
Herbs are also understood as more than just flavouring plants at Richters—they see them as medicinal plants for health and wellbeing. “We don’t distinguish medicinal or culinary in many ways,” Conrad shares, “their origins are often in some sort of health benefit and the medicinal and culinary go hand in hand.”
“Most culinary herbs, like basil, thyme or sage, were originally added to food for their medicinal and healthful properties,” he adds. Explaining, for instance, how thyme was added to meat as a powerful antiseptic before refrigeration.
“Using herbs on a regular basis is not only flavourful and tasty, we believe they’re also giving us health benefits,” says Conrad.
Conrad has a Masters in Botany from the University of Toronto, which he explains has helped him enormously with not just identifying plants, but also navigating traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge, while relating the two together.
“How can an old man die if he’s growing sage in his garden?” Conrad says he acquired a deeper appreciation for this old adage after learning the potent benefits found in sage. Traditional knowledge that’s been passed down from generations, Conrad tells us, often goes hand in hand with the science he learned in school.
“Both are a guide in understanding varying plants,” he shares. “I gained a really healthy appreciation for traditional knowledge.”
Accordingly, the catalogues are a combination of this traditional and scientific knowledge.
Have a craving to expand your herbal horizon? Check out the Richters Herbs catalogue here and their website for upcoming seminars. In the meantime, they are open year-round for anyone interested in visiting the greenhouse and dreaming about their future garden.