Boston's Spice Road Runs Through Winchester: Soluna Garden Farm

Photo by Kristin Teig

A secret garden lies on a single acre sandwiched between the traffic whizzing by on Washington Street and Winchester’s idling Aberjona River. Although tiny, Soluna Garden Farm produces 300 varieties of flowers for cutting, 20 varieties of peppers for drying and more than 150 herb varieties for cooking and making medical salves and tinctures.

For Soluna Garden’s owners, Amy Hirschfeld and Tatiana Brainerd, such variety is the spice of life. They met seven years ago, when the two working professionals were among a group of 10 people who decided to operate a community garden in their leisure time. “In the winter, we had big ideas about how we were going to grow all this food. Everyone was super-enthusiastic,” recalls Hirschfeld. “But by the end of the season, Tatiana and I were the only ones left.”

After realizing they shared a love of herbs and cut flowers, the women decided to start a farm together as a part-time business on the site of the abandoned community garden. The land had been farmed—without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides—for 40 years by Hirschfeld’s father, who moved to the area after he married her mother, a professor at MIT.

Although Soluna Garden Farm has not pursued organic certification, the farmers uphold that philosophy—including handpicking Japanese beetles off the hundreds of Asiatic lilies the farm sells as cut flowers. “Many people don’t seem to care about buying organic when it comes to herbs and flowers. Which is strange because if you get a vegetable that’s not organic you can peel it or at least wash it,” notes Hirschfeld. “But usually your herbs and tea are dried leaves; you can’t even wash them.”

The founders say visitors are often surprised by “all the weeds,” but that they intentionally let many sections of the land grow wild because the plants (weeds) have wonderful medicinal properties. “So many plants are really useful, and if you let them grow where they plant themselves, they are going to be strong and happy,” explains Hirschfeld. “We like to let nature do what it wants to do, while taking advantage of that, and then cultivate different things more deliberately in other places.”

The farmers also have let their culinary imagination go just as wild, planting saffron, cumin and goji berries—“lots of things people don’t know can grow here,” according to Brainerd.

A purple crocus, saffron blooms in the fall instead of spring, and the Soluna farmers handpick the delicate crimson stigmas that serve as the fragrant spice. Cumin seeds are harvested from the big open flowers of a tall wispy plant, the fresh leaves of which also lend a “cumin-y” flavor to dishes. Anise hyssop smells and tastes like anise, and Hirschfeld says its stems make fantastic barbecue skewers. Caraway thyme smells and tastes just like caraway seeds and can be used fresh as a substitution. “We like to grow more unusual things and to share them with others,” says Hirschfeld. “Of course it’s a business and we want to make, not lose, money. But finding other people who are excited about the same stuff is actually the best part of the farm for us.”

Their first growing season, Hirschfeld and Brainerd brought their fresh-cut flowers and herbs to the Winchester Farmers Market, expecting to possibly sell out. “We thought it would be great because there’s no one else doing what we are doing,” says Hirschfeld. “Instead people would buy the run-of-the-mill basil and parsley, but if it was anything more unusual, they wouldn’t touch it.”

“We grow sixteen kinds of basil,” adds Brainerd with a rueful laugh. “We’d cut herbs that morning, take them to the market and then bring most of them back home. I think people have fresh-herb guilt. They see an herb at the market and love it, take it home, and it ends up going bad in the fridge. So making herbs accessible, both easy and fun to use, is something we’ve worked hard on.”

To augment their sales, they started making their own dried tea and spice blends, hand-mixing individual certified organic ingredients purchased from organic suppliers according to their own recipes. “Those completely took off. Everyone loved the blends, so we did a lot more of that as a way to be able to pay the costs of continuing to grow the unusual stuff,” says Brainerd. “With every single batch of the ingredients we source from elsewhere we know the farm it originated on, when it was picked and when it was packed—in addition to them all being certified organic.”

Today, you can buy Soluna spices, blends and tea at 16 summer and 7 winter farmers markets and the farm’s retail store, which opened at 600 Main Street in Winchester two years ago. “We really love the idea of using foods and flavors to explore other cultures and traditions. I enjoy traveling, and one of the most fun ways to get to know another culture is to sit down and eat with people,” says Hirschfeld. “That bonding over food inspired a lot of our blends, many of which are traditional in different cultures, such as Morrocan ras el hanout, Arabian baharat, Indian curries and garam masala, and herbs de Provence.”

However, the dynamic duo didn’t give up on their fresh herbs. A culinary herb CSA has proven a successful way to connect with the cooks most interested in trying new flavors. And this year, the farm is launching an “herbs for health” share option. (Soluna also offers a couple of cut-flower share options.)

“In the culinary herb CSA, people receive a big weekly basket of three to five kinds of fresh herbs with recipes and ideas on ways to use them,” explains Hirschfeld. “For the CSA with the medicinal and health-related herbs, we are trying a completely new model, which I don’t know if anyone else in this area is doing. We are letting people pick what they want— for example, valerian (used as a sedative or for anxiety), spearmint (for digestive issues) and echinacea (for warding off respiratory viruses)—and then shareholders receive their full share of the fresh herbs when they are at their ideal time to harvest. Each herb will come with an information sheet and ideas on how to make tinctures, salves or infusions.”

This July, Soluna expects to reach new audiences when it joins the exciting cast of 30-plus local farmers, fishermen and specialty-food producers selling their products at the new Boston Public Market on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. At this permanent hall directly above the Haymarket MBTA station, Soluna will sell its fresh and dried herbs, along with spice blends made exclusively from plants raised on the farm.

“I think at the Boston Public Market we will find more customers for our fresh herbs because there will be a far larger volume and more diverse group of people coming through than at any of the farmers markets,” says Hirschfeld. “We are also going to try some new packaging. We plan to sell the fresh herbs in smaller amounts and also with the recipe information attached right to the product instead of on separate recipe cards.”

She also sees a great opportunity in the Boston Public Market’s 3,000-square-foot demonstration kitchen, which will host hands-on cooking classes, chef-led demonstrations and other educational programming put on by The Trustees of Reservations and its community partners. “We love leading workshops and classes, and they have a such a nice space for that there,” says Hirschfeld. “I think we can do a lot with both that space and collaborating with all the other vendors to show how to put together yummy meals using fresh herbs.”

The Soluna duo has already employed such collaborative tactics. Five years ago, they started making popsicles that combine Soluna herbs with products from farms and food producers that attend the same farmers markets. The popsicles—which have included a “cucumber mojito” (made with locally grown cucumbers and Soluna mint), strawberry-basil, watermelon-mint, and nectarine with cinnamon or Thai basil—are sold at the Harvard University and Union Square farmers markets and at Soluna’s Winchester store.

“We are interested in working with local bartenders or chefs to showcase more of the specialty herbs that people don’t know can be grown locally or that you usually can’t get locally because it’s not terribly productive to grow them on a large scale,” says Brainerd. “We are small enough that we enjoy hand picking stigmas of flowers.”

However, both Soluna farmers note that even novice cooks can easily incorporate fresh herbs. “They are rewarding to use because they’re so pungent, but there’s much more room for error than with dried herbs,” says Brainerd. Hirschfeld recommends experimenting by adding a few leaves of herbs to salads or blending a large volume of herbs with oil or vinegar to use over veggies, meat and pasta. Incorporating fresh herbs into the brine for refrigerator pickles or homemade simple syrup are also both easy, effective ways to test out new flavors.

And for those who still dread the “fresh herb guilt” of letting any amazing produce spoil in the fridge, Brainerd has one last expert tip: “Fresh herbs always can be dried as long as they don’t rot or completely wither. If you have a gas oven, the pilot light is enough to dry herbs if you put them in on a baking sheet.”

Soluna Garden Farm
600 Main Street, Winchester

This story appeared in the Summer 2015 issue.