As soon as you step out of your car, the fragrance hits you. Woodsy, herbal, floral, grassy and earthy, the riot of scent is as diverse as the 1,500 different herbs that Cynthia Cook grows on her eight-acre farm.
Amid the vast corn and soybean fields of Lambton County, Forest Glen Herb Farm is a delightful anomaly, a tumult of colour, scent and shape that stands in vibrant contrast to the sprawling monocultures of modern agriculture nearby. “Everything is touched by hand,” explains Cook who plants, cultivates and harvests using traditional methods.
Visitors are welcome to stroll around the formal Elizabethan-style beds of lavender, past trellises laden with hops, alongside rows of fragrant basil and antique oriental roses—all raw materials for the hundreds of herbal products that this expert grower makes onsite.
Inside her 140-year-old barn, Cook dries and processes the summer’s bounty. “During the harvest season which starts in May (and continues into the fall), I take people upstairs to show them how the herbs are dried. The good air flow means they dry very quickly, retaining their colour and fragrance,” she explains.
The lower level of the barn is filled with everlasting floral arrangements and scented herbs. One basket looks like it holds a pile of leaf litter raked off the forest floor. “That’s bayberry-balsam potpourri,” says Cook. “Rub it in your hands and the warmth of your hand will bring out the fragrance. Cottagers love this because it takes away mustiness and has an outdoorsy smell.” She often customizes blends, possibly adding a little cedar or citrus to suit personal tastes.
With her serene smile and gentle manner, Cook embodies the tranquility that comes from being surrounded by nature.
The avid grower started growing things in childhood. “My dad who was a farmer had a big tree taken down and built a rock garden. I went into the bush and planted it with things that I found,” she explains. She also used to make her version of cologne using her dad’s roses, peonies, whatever she could find. “I would just mix them with water,” says Cook who also has fond memories of her grandmother’s lavender. “My family was among the first settlers in Lambton County, coming here in 1833.”
That sense of history permeates every single thing that Cook does on the farm. “Everything is grown organically. All the potpourris are made with old methods: no synthetic oils or preservatives, real lemon, real lavender and dried herbs.” Ironically, that sense of tradition has made her a two-time winner of the Ontario Premier’s Award for Agricultural Innovation.
Every year the gardener continues to develop new products: 13 different pepper jellies, some two dozen different scents of bath salts, an assortment of dip mixtures. “This winter I developed 30 new meat rubs,” she says. All are featured in the culinary section of the barn along with numerous teas, vinegars and seasonings. She has creative and organic solutions to a host of problems: one mixture to repel moths, another to repel mice, a blend of dried herbs for insomniacs to put in a sleep-inducing pillow and licorice root tisane for laryngitis. For the ultimate relaxing bath, soak in a warm tub with lavender bath salts and use her lavender glycerine soap.
While Cook has worked hard for more than 30 years to develop the farm, what is just as important to her is what happens naturally. Gesturing to the woods where a large pond surrounded by evergreens provides habitat to endangered turtles, Cook talks about the abundant wildlife. “We attract lots of butterflies, even a rare chequered skipper, because of what we grow.” Birds are abundant. “Orchard orioles nest here. Hummingbirds are attracted to the nectariferous flowers.” She sees warblers, wood ducks, even egrets and bald eagles, tanagers, finches, indigo buntings and bluebirds alighting on her property.
From the woods, Cook harvests shade-loving herbs like sweet woodruff. She cuts willow that she weaves into baskets and wild grapevines that she winds into wreaths. It’s almost magical just how productive eight acres can be under a knowledgeable naturalist like Cynthia Cook.
“When people leave they take away a piece of the past in their memories, a feeling of wellbeing from the whole sensory experience. This is not the modern world,” she says with a smile.
Visitors are welcome to bring a picnic. Walk down a grassy hill to a pond surrounded by a Carolinian forest and you’ll find a picnic table where you can enjoy lunch and watch the turtles. Ask Cynthia to brew you a refreshing infusion of lemon lavender tea.