LELAND—Margaret Shelton grew up in the 1800s farmhouse her family has owned for over a century.
“I’m counting five or six generations,” Shelton said. “1867 was the deed for it.”
The property came down from her great-grandmother, whom Shelton was named after. Now, Shelton lives next door, but every day she tends to the land where she was raised — the Shelton Herb Farm, where many of the local greens and vegetables prized by Wilmington’s farm-to-table restaurants are grown.
Shelton Herb Farm
Shelton Herb Farm sits on 5.8 acres and is home to a variety of species – including seasonal vegetables, dozens of different herbs and microgreens. The old farmhouse, which hasn’t been updated for some time, still stands. No one lives in the house anymore, except for a few animals and office supplies that have claimed squatter’s rights.
“Two cats, a mouse or two that we need to catch,” Shelton said. “At least one snake.”
On the edge of the property, the occasional bear or flock of turkeys will creep in, curious to check out the residing family. But the farm’s dozens of chickens and five pigs are bonafide employees.
“Yeah, they’re working for us,” she said. “We try to give them a home and keep them happy.”
Pigs tear up the land, which can be good for weeds or overgrowth. Hens will lay eggs and freely fertilize and eat weeds when Shelton moves the chicken tractor – think mobile chicken coop – over problem areas. They prefer to dig out earthworms, but will settle on trimming the betony, a weed Shelton says is “devilish.”
“Why eat salad,” Shelton said, “when you can have steak?”
Aside from more than a dozen greenhouses, some of the acreage is taken up by natural growth and weeds Shelton’s employees keep finding uses for.
Recently Chris Dean, Shelton’s cultivator and harvester, sold a batch of stinging nettle to Rx Restaurant and Bar; that’s impressive, considering nettles are a weed that many people avoid touching because of their stinging leaves.
“This is the most nutritious green you can find,” Dean said. “You have to cook it for the stinging to go away.”
Sarah Rushing, spokesperson for Rx Restaurant, says the stinging nettles were used in a sauté and a pesto. She says the farmer-friendly restaurant will likely try the plant out again soon.
Shelton functions as an herb almanac. “We don’t have just oregano, we have probably a dozen and a half oreganos,” she said.
Shelton knows what’s peaking and when, and manages to keep up with nearly 1,000 plant species. Every so often a plant will end up uncategorized, which calls for a taste test. Rather than a classification, some plants get tagged with a question mark in the citrus greenhouse.
“We’ll figure it out and we’ll taste it so everybody is pressed into tasting oranges, tangerines and lemons,” Shelton said. “Part of the duties of the job.”
Later this month, the farm will have more citrus fruit than its employees can consume.
“Usually about mid-March this house, it’s like heavy perfume,” Shelton said. “The wind comes through here and you smell it all over the farm all this citrus. It’s so fragrant.”
Shelton was born a Goodman – the farm’s namesake derives from her husband. Goodman Farm hosts Shelton Farm, located on Goodman Road.
Lately, Shelton has been incorporating growth in her wheelhouse that her mother planted.
“I’m trying to do native herbs and I’m collecting plants on the farm here,” she said. “I’m also collecting plants that my mother grew.”
The farm is open year-round and always has something to chew on, fresh out of the earth.
“I couldn’t do this if I didn’t really love it,” Shelton said. “It’s a labor of love or I’m a glutton for punishment, one of the two.”
Johanna Ferebee can be reached at email@example.com or @j__ferebee on Twitter