Herbal Delights

Author Debra Knapke shares expert gardening tips in Gahanna.

When most people go house-hunting, their search criteria typically includes the number of bedrooms and size of garage. Not so for Debra Knapke. When she and husband Tony were shopping for a new home in Columbus several years ago, Knapke’s major must-have was a yard suitable for building a greenhouse. The couple stopped looking as soon as they found a hillside ranch with a south-southeast exposure ideal for growing things under glass.

“Today, our living room overlooks the greenhouse and back yard,” says Knapke. “I designed the entire landscape from the living-room window.”

Needless to say, gardening is far more than a summertime hobby for Knapke. In fact, she considers it essential to her well-being. So much so that it’s become a way of life for her personally and professionally.

“I love being in the garden,” Knapke acknowledges. “If I need a boost, spending time there will give it to me. It’s how I reinvigorate myself.”

At home, she tends two-thirds of an acre that’s graced by a greenhouse, an earth oven and assorted sun, shade, conifer and vegetable gardens. The plots have become living laboratories where she experiments with different plants and design ideas. They also provide the cheery bouquets Knapke likes to pick, the catmint she puts into pillows for the family’s three felines and the hundreds of heads of garlic given as Christmas gifts. An adjunct faculty member at Columbus State Community College, Knapke teaches courses about herbaceous plants, specialty gardens and sustainable landscape practices. Through her consulting business, The Garden Sage, she helps others create customized green spaces.

On June 22, Knapke will share her knowledge with those attending the Ohioana Library Association’s “Back to the Garden on Gahanna’s Herbal Trail” tour.

The day-long event — part of the library’s On the Road Saturday Literary Adventures series — will highlight the gardens, organic herb farm, unique shops and other pleasurable destinations that are part of this central Ohio town. Named the state’s official herb capital in 1972, Gahanna is also home to the Ohio Herb Education Center, where Knapke will deliver her talk on the aromatic plants she loves.

A self-described “intuitive gardener,” Knapke’s path to becoming a professional horticulturist began while growing up in Lake County. She credits her father’s fondness for plants — and the fact that she was lucky enough to live next to a creek — as the driving forces behind her passion.

“I spent a lot of time learning about nature,” Knapke recalls.

Later, when she moved into her first apartment during her sophomore year at The Ohio State University, Knapke wasted no time filling it with plants. Initially majoring in vocal performance, Knapke opted not to pursue a singing career after marrying. Instead, she earned a bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing science, followed by a master’s in speech-language pathology. For nine years, Knapke worked as a diagnostician at Ohio State’s Office for Disability Services. But in 1992, when the youngest of her three children entered kindergarten, Knapke decided it was time to strengthen her green thumb by getting a master’s degree in horticulture.

“I wanted to understand the science of plants and learn about why they grow the way they do,” she explains.

In the mid-1990s, Knapke started The Garden Sage and joined the Columbus State Community College faculty. Along with fellow gardening experts Michael Leach and Teresa Woodard, she recently launched the Midwest-oriented blog, heartland-gardening.com. And, in addition to writing several books specifically about gardening in Ohio, Knapke co-authored Herb Gardening for the Midwest.

“I have 26 different gardens in my yard, and every single bed has at least one herb growing in it,” the horticulturist explains.

And, since sage inspired the name of her business, it’s not surprising she’s particularly fond of it.

“Sage tastes wonderful with mushrooms because it gives them a meaty flavor,” she enthuses.

Whenever Knapke presents programs, her goal is to share her zeal for plants and offer practical advice about topics ranging from proper soil preparation to successful ways of discouraging pests from invading. At her upcoming talk in Gahanna, Knapke will focus on herbs as plants that are both useful and delightful. She’ll discuss where to plant herbs, which ones make good companions (for each other as well as for fruits and vegetables) and why having herbs in a garden is important.

“Herbs don’t just look pretty,” Knapke explains, professing a fondness for lavender, rosemary, oregano and basil. “They contribute enormously to our lives. Herbs flavor our food, soothe us with their scents, and are essential ingredients in everything from lotions and laundry detergents to medications and the dyes that color our clothing.

“Herbs,” she adds, “are everywhere and in everything we use.”

For more information about the Ohioana Library’s On the Road tour of Gahanna, visit ohioana.org or call 614/466-3831. To learn more about Debra Knapke, visit debrathegardensage.com.

Go On the Road with Ohioana

Throughout 2013, the Ohioana Library Association will sponsor a series of Saturday Literary Adventures, featuring tours, talks and meet-and-greets with Ohio authors. Upcoming events include:

July 13:Play Ball” at Progressive Field, includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Cleveland Indians ballpark and a talk by sportswriter Dan Coughlin.
Aug. 17:Lit, Lives and Landmarks: Ohio State Football” features a tour of the OSU campus and talks by authors Raimund Goerler and sportswriter Bob Hunter.
Sept. 14:Jacques Brel and the Men Who Saved Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare” showcases the world’s largest theater restoration project with a behind-the-scenes tour by Jeannie Emser Schultz, author of PlayhouseSquare: An Entertaining History, and discussions with Ray Shepardson and Joe Garry, who led the crusade to restore the theaters.
Sept. 28:Holmes County: The Mysteries of Ohio Amish Country” bus tour features stops at an Amish schoolhouse and German library and a lecture by author P.L. Gaus.
Oct. 26:Mayhem, Murder and Mystery” tour in Cleveland, showcases local cemeteries with mystery author Casey Daniels.
Nov. 2:Lit, Lives and Landmarks: James Thurber and his Columbus Haunts” includes a guided bus tour and a performance of the author’s tale, “The Night the Ghost Got In.”
Dec. 7:Home for the Holidays at Malabar Farm” celebrates the season with a guided candlelight tour of author Louis Bromfield’s historic Mansfield home.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit ohioana.org or call 614/466-3831.