Maggie's Herb Farm is a pinch of whimsy near St. Augustine

Ah, summer. Vacation time! And aren't we lucky to be living in Vacationland, USA, where all you need is a long weekend to get yourself to fresh surroundings?

I kicked off the season with a visit to St. Augustine on Memorial Day weekend. I hadn't been to the nation's oldest city in years — it's planning a 450th anniversary bash in 2015 — though I love the history, sightseeing and the Atlantic beaches.

Best yet, if you head there via Interstate 75, U.S. 301 and State Road 20, it's just a little more than three hours from Tampa. And you pass some nice nurseries along the way!

Among them: Blue Star Nurseries at 8115 SE U.S. 301 in Hawthorne. It carries the recommendation of Plant City gardener Bill Carr. "They always have something unusual," he says.

Blue Star has a reputation for lots of variety, excellent customer service and a knowledgeable staff. (I'm planning a stop on my return trip in August. The drive-by was a tempting blur of bright colors.)

Lisa Broward of Karma Acres Farm in Callahan, northwest of Jacksonville, suggested I visit Maggie's Herb Farm, at 11400 County Road 13 — 20 miles west of downtown St. Augustine.

"They've been around a long time and they're on the Tour de Farm here every year," she said.

I asked my son about it, and though he has lived there only a few months, even 24-year-old nongardener Cody knew Maggie's. He guided us on a scenic drive along wooded roads to Maggie's rustic location near the St. Johns River.

We found lots of herbs, as well as edible flowers, native plants, Florida-friendly perennials, succulents and a dollop of yard art. It opened 29 years ago on about an acre cooled by old shade trees.

On a Saturday afternoon, I met Julie Faircloth, who insists she's retired and just helping out, though she never stopped moving while we chatted.

"Maggie Oulette was the owner," Julie said. "She's been growing herbs a long time. It was a hobby that got out of hand."

Maggie started growing herbs in her back yard St. Augustine garden 35 years ago. Soon she was selling them, and the business eventually outgrew the yard. She opened the nursery on County Road 13 in 1983. Julie worked with her for more than 20 years.

Not long ago, Maggie's husband retired and she took a job that would allow her more time to travel with him, Julie said. She sold the business to Dora Baker, an herbalist who had Maggie's herbs "as a part of my life" for more than 10 years, according to Dora's profile on the farm's website, maggiesherbfarm.com.

How many herb varieties does Maggie's grow?

"Oh, I don't know. A lot," Julie said, never pausing as she snip-snip-snipped leggy mints.

"More than 50?" I probed. "More than 100?"

"More than 100," she said. "If it grows in Florida, we try to do it. We've got all these mints, oreganos, basils. ... We don't use pesticides, but we can't call them organic because they're not certified organic. But they're organic."

Dora is considering drastically reducing the basil varieties to focus on Greek columnar — it's that good, Julie said.

"Smell," she said, holding crushed leaves under my nose. "It's real spicy-sweet and it doesn't ever bloom."

Maggie's Herb Farm supplies two local restaurants with fresh herbs and edible flowers. And that Tour de Farm that Lisa mentioned? It's an April event heading into its third year in 2013. This year, more than 20 farms in northeast Florida and southern Georgia threw open their gates to introduce residents to their food.

If you want to plan a trip next year, keep your eye on slowfoodfirstcoast.com.

In the meantime, if you're looking to round out a great St. Augustine area getaway, here are a few more suggestions from local gardeners:

The Love Tree: Kiss your lover beneath the entwined sabal palm and oak tree at 6 Cordova St. in the historic district and you'll have everlasting romance, or so goes the legend. Kelly Schubert of Brandon also suggests tooling around on a Segway and lunching at Mango Mangos on Anastasia Island.

Karma Acres Farm: Specializing in raw, local and herb-infused honeys and related products, this 5-acre farm 30 minutes northwest of Jacksonville is the late-in-life dream come true of Lisa Broward, with an assist from husband Lee Hughes and Mike Whiffen. Lisa says it's a fun place for kids, who can see the apiary, donkeys and Rottweilers. Call ahead to (904) 699-4969 when planning your visit. Find them at karmaacresfarm.com.

Shady Oak Butterfly Farm: A couple of readers recommended this farm at 12876 SW County Road 231 in Brooker, near Gainesville. If you want to attract a variety of butterflies to your garden, you'll benefit from the wisdom, plants and supplies found here. Find Shady Oak online at butterfliesetc.com.

Reach Penny Carnathan at penlyn1@tampabay.rr.com. Find more of her garden stories at digginfloridadirt.com, or join her and other gardeners chatting at facebook.com, Diggin Florida Dirt.

Maggie's Herb Farm is a pinch of whimsy near St. Augustine 06/14/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 14, 2012 4:30am]

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