By Chrissy Moore
I have always been fascinated by people’s life stories, particularly those in the herb world. How did they end up where they did? What circumstances led them down their chosen path? Some people take decades—and numerous career maneuverings—before they settle into their career of choice; others know their life’s calling from an early age. For Bill Varney, owner of URBANherbal in Fredricksburg, TX, his life’s work encompassed all those things and more. I recently asked Bill to give me a glimpse into his world as an herbal enthusiast and business owner and what it takes to succeed. Here’s what he said:
When did you first encounter herbs?
BV: I first discovered plants and gardening when I was very young! When I was eight years old, my parents had a greenhouse built for me, and I would start all kinds of plants from seeds and cuttings. Later as my love for all things green grew, I developed a love of herbs. That was about 1985, when I opened a small herbal apothecary shop and small herbal nursery, Varney’s Chemist Laden.
What is your technical background (education or otherwise)?
BV: I grew up tending to people’s gardens, worked for a number of nurseries, then received a B.S. in Business with a Minor in Horticulture from Oklahoma Panhandle State University. I went there because I had volunteered to help my elderly grandparents who lived in the area. Later, I became a Texas Certified Nurseryman.
Have you always known you wanted to work with plants/herbs?
BV: Yes, I have always had a “green thumb.” I have always been intrigued by plants, their use, their contribution to the world, whether they are reproduced by seed, rooted cuttings, etc. After I finished college and had a one -year agriculture stint in Tasmania, Australia, I returned to Houston, Texas, where my family was living and went to work for a well known nursery as their landscape buyer. Later, I wanted to “get out of the big city” and moved to Fredericksburg, Texas, to manage a local nursery. It was soon after that that I started Varney’s Chemist Laden, which later grew into the Fredricksburg Herb Farm. I sold that operation in 2007 and simplified my life to URBANherbal.
Give me a synopsis of your road to URBANherbal.
BV: When I owned the Fredricksburg Herb Farm, it was a very high end, labor intensive business with acres of manicured gardens, a day spa, bed and breakfast, two retail stores, a James Beard recognized restaurant, and wholesale operation that sold our products all over the world. Life was kind of crazy for me with “fires” to put out daily! I revamped and started URBANherbal. My son had finished his undergraduate degree and came home to help me for a year to open URBANherbal. A much simpler life: a laboratory, greenhouse, smaller gardens, and art galleries. For the most part, a one-man operation with a little help here and there. I make colognes, aromatherapy products, skin care for both men and women, candles, and gourmet foods. I also do landscape consulting and public speaking.
Can you describe your herb gardening style for those who are unable to visit your establishment in person?
BV: I always try to build gardens that use as many natives as possible, that attract pollinators, and are drought tolerant. I have studied Frederick Olmstead and Adelma Simmons (and got to visit with her a few times) and, of course, Madalene Hill from here in Texas.
What inspired you to start the apothecary shop segment of your herb garden, and how did that lead to the skin care/fragrance lines and the culinary products?
BV: Well, originally, our first store was an herbal apothecary store, Varney’s Chemist Laden. We sold “old fashioned” scents and skincare from old, reputable companies and finally realized we could do better, and our products ended up selling faster than the ones we were retailing. I ended up hiring an elderly retired founding chemist of a manufacturing skincare company to come for a few months and help formulate. Many of our products got recognized by the media and some received awards. I really enjoy custom making things for clients.
From what do you draw the most inspiration, both in your gardening and in your product development?
BV: I always am inspired daily if I can just bring a bit of happiness to one or two people either through products, plants, or foods through all of our senses. My personal life is inspired through faith, hope and love with friends, family, and anyone I meet.
Is there a fragrance profile or collection of herbs that you gravitate toward more than others?
BV: Personally, I love woody scents, citrus scents, masculine scents, lavender, lemon verbena, peppermint, eucalyptus, patchouli, musk, just to name a few. But I am always drawn to white flowers and night blooming flowers, not for myself on my body, but just to smell them and make PRODUCTS WITH THEM.
Which herbs/profiles do you find the most challenging to work with and why?
BV: Sweet woodruff and French tarragon because it is too hot here in Texas to grow them.
Who were your biggest herbal influences (alive or deceased), both in your younger years and as an adult? Do you have any herbal superheroes today that provide you with encouragement along your herbal journey?
BV: Well, as I said previously, I was really inspired by reading about Frederick Olmstead and his visions in landscapes. Walafrid Strabo, who around 840 A.D., wrote a beautiful poem called “Hortulus,” in which he lovingly describes clearing a garden of stinging nettles and preparing the soil to plant sage, southernwood, wormwood, fennel, poppy, clary, mint, pennyroyal, celery, betony, agrimony, tansy, catmint, and radish. Strabo introduces his herbs the way a mother might speak of her children, praising their qualities without neglecting their occasional blemish. In my life, Adelma Simmons, who founded Caprilands Herb Farm in Coventry, Connecticut, and Madalene Hill, who founded Hilltop Herb Farm and later built the gardens at Round Top, Texas. In Madalene’s book, Southern Herb Growing, I was really proud that she had a few pictures in the front of her book of my first herb gardens. After her book came out, she came to my place and did a class and book signing. I have always admired Emelie Tolley and all of her books, and she and I have been friends for many years. In my book, Herbs: Growing and Using the Plants of Romance, Emelie wrote the forward. She came many times over the years and did stories on my gardens and business, and I was thrilled to visit her in New York City at her country home in NY. I have also always been inspired by Jeanne Rose. She came years ago and did a class and book signing at my place, and I have visited her in San Francisco. Betsy Williams has always been an inspiration to me. I think that my biggest inspiration is everyday herb gardeners whom we meet and we can share with. As James Beard, the famous chef, said, “We learn from each other and end up teaching ourselves.” Also, I have always been inspired by Lady Bird Johnson. She came into my store many times over the years and would have me make things for her to give as gifts. Her love of nature and wildflowers has done so much for our island home, Earth.
For many business owners, they must sacrifice a lot in terms of personal time and preferences. But, there are also rewards in being the curator of your own products/services. What has been your driving philosophy as you’ve grown URBANherbal?
BV: Yes, having your own business is a huge sacrifice, personally in man hours and struggles. My biggest driving philosophy is: “Touching all of your senses, daily. Hearing, Touching, Seeing, Tasting, Smelling and our Sixth Sense, our Spirit.” I strongly feel that these things are where herbs can really affect our lives in spirit, balance, texture, space, and love.
What brings you the most joy in your herbal day?
BV: Making something that will help someone! Be it a small plant, a cologne, a room freshener, a cream to make someone feel better, or a simple herb vinegar or seasoning that will enhance someone’s food.
Herbs have many stories to tell, from historical uses to modern industries. Do you have a favorite herb story that you find yourself telling over and over again?
BV: I think that hearing people tell me that they can’t handle being around scents. I find that it is because they have been around “commercial scents” that are not good for you, and they are not natural! So many people tell me that they can wear my scents, and they don’t have a negative reaction. Herbs and flowers are nature’s courtesans. They elevate our moods, fragrance the air around us, and so many are edible and medicinal. For instance, rosemary and lavender can be used for fragrance, in foods, and in healing. You should have herbs and flowers around you daily!
Herbs aren’t the first thing people think of when they hear “Texas.” What do you think people are most surprised to learn about herbs or herb growing in your neck of the woods?
BV: I think that when they find out how easy most herbs are to grow around here and then find out how much they can enhance our lives and they are really surprised! The fact that they attract butterflies, bees, birds, and release beautiful scents in your gardens and in pots, and trigger so many memories through your senses. The air you breathe affects not just your health but also your mood.
I’m not going to ask you your favorite herb, because that is often like picking a favorite child. Instead, what handful of herbs would you recommend every new herbie explore (for various reasons/uses)?
BV: Lavender for scent, Beauty, healing, and flavor.
Rosemary for scent, beauty, healing, and flavor.
Thyme for scent, beauty, healing, and flavor.
Roses for beauty, scent, healing, and flavor.
Rose geraniums for healing, scent, and cooking.
Chives for flavor and the beauty of their flowers.
Sage for beauty, scent, flavor, and healing.
Basil for flavor, fragrance, healing, and beauty.
Lemon verbena for fragrance, aromatherapy, scent, beauty, and magnificent flavor for foods and drinks.
These are just a few of my favorite herbs…….
How would you characterize your road to herbal admiration and its impact on your life?
BV: Working with herbs and plants, one gets to know their essence and understand they are not just a commodity. The gardener and herbalist becomes rooted to the ground with them as part of God’s creation. We are trying to be stewards of our environment. It is not an accident that the humus, or the soil, comes from the same word. It’s the base from which everything grows. Gardening and my spiritual life go together. I just can’t imagine a day in my life that I’m not using herbs in some way. I really relate to this simple quote from the designer and architect, Ettore Softass, “basil-flavored architecture,” as a way of expressing the idea of achieving much with little.
Lastly, if you were to give advice to someone embarking on their own herbal “quest,” such as starting a business or a garden, etc., what key elements have you found to be the most important for successful endeavors?
BV: Make sure you are passionate about what you want to do with herbs! Do everything you can to educate yourself about herbs. Get to know other herb lovers through organizations like The Herb Society of America or garden clubs, or online groups, because that is one of the best ways to learn. Be creative about what you are going to do. Remember, you are going to have to work hard! Have a strategy, write it down. Bounce your ideas off of friends and family.
Many thanks to Bill Varney for sharing his time and talents regarding his road to herbal success!
Photo credits: 1) Bill Varney in his greenhouse (B. Varney); 2) BV as young horticulturist (B. Varney); 3) Chef Bill (B. Varney); 4) BV with Madalene Hill (B. Varney); 5) Map of Bill’s garden (B. Varney); 6) Calamondin (⨯Citrofortunella microcarpa) fruit and flowers (C. Moore); 7) BV with Adelma Simmons (B. Varney); 8) URBANherbal gardens (Theresa Wylie, Hey,Traveler blog); 9) Herbal salad (B. Varney); 10) Dinner at URBANherbal (Theresa Wylie, Hey, Traveler blog); 11) Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) (C. Moore); 12) Rose blossom (Rosa sp.) and bee (C. Moore); 13) BV in URBANherbal greenhouse (Theresa Wylie, Hey, Traveler blog).
Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.