Meet Your Maker: Sage Rising
Sage Rising is an urban organic herb and herbal product business based in backyards in the heart of Toronto. Established in 2012 by member farmer Jessica Lemieux and friend Caitlin Langlois Greenham, Sage Rising provides its customers with a diversity of ethical, ecological, and healthy products.
In addition to culinary herbs and herb mixes, Sage Rising also creates tea herbs, herbal condiments and sauces, and hand-made body products such as lotions, soaps and lip balms. They currently offer an "Herb of the Week" through the Fresh City bag, and post information and recipes about their herbs on their blog.
On a hot summer day last week, we met up with Caitlin and Jessica in a couple of the backyard plots where they grow their delicious herbs. Here's what they had to say about herb growing in Toronto and running a small (and growing!) community-based farm...
Tell us a little bit about yourselves!
Jess: I'm a new mom to a little boy named Finn, a gardener always interested in learning more and a cook who loves to experiment with herbs! I'm currently working towards a Horticulturalist Certificate at the University of Guelph to expand my knowledge of horticulture to apply to Sage Rising as well supporting up and coming gardeners and urban farmers.
Caitlin: I'm a gardener, community food educator, and ecological designer. Since childhood, I have always felt a passionate connection to nature, and pursued opportunities to learn more about how to nurture that connection in myself and other by studying plant ecology, permaculture, and environmental education. My fascination with herbs, inspired by my love of nature and my own experiences with chronic pain, motivates me to continuously learn about their cultural, medicinal, culinary, spiritual, and ecological significance. I believe that good food and wellness are Earth rights, that plants have great wisdom if we listen, and that the world gets a bit better each time we come together to sink our hands into the soil.
How did you first get involved in gardening/urban farming?
Jess: My mother is an excellent gardener and we had a large garden in our backyard in Alberta. Having said that I never had much interest in the garden unless it was eating from it! When I had my first apartment with my now husband I started to become interested in growing my own food again. A the time I was living in New Zealand which had a much different climate to Alberta so it took a bit of learning! We moved back to Canada so I could complete my Masters in political science/ environmental studies at the University of Toronto. I finished my program and that's when I heard about Fresh City Farms. I started volunteering and eventually got some land and started growing and from there I was hooked! Caitlin joined me in one of the plots and we grew herbs. We loved it and decided to grow herbs exclusively downtown.
Caitlin: Growing up in Toronto, my first experience in the garden was also with my mom when I was a three years old or so. I can still tell you almost all the flowers she grew! I graduated to my own garden when I was five (still with lots of help from Mom) and started growing food. I was hooked! I have almost always managed to have a garden since then - be it a few rooftop containers or, as is the case this year, three whole backyards! My gardening education is a life-long process that continues every day on the ground with Sage Rising.
When and how was Sage Rising born?
Jess: I had some extra land that I was unsure what to grow in and Caitlin had mentioned she would be interested in growing herbs. It was like two pieces of a puzzle! We started growing in May 2012 and found there was a market for the herbs. It made more sense for us logistically to grow close to home so we started growing in backyards, registered our business and we were off!
Caitlin: An important motivation for us in starting the business is the 'why?' behind Sage Rising. Jess and I, like more and more people, strongly believe that the globalized, fossil-fuel powered food system is not working. We know that we need to transition to healthy, just, and ecological alternatives and we believe that change is rooted in creating community-based food systems that respect people and nature- giving us opportunities to share knowledge and connect around fresh, local, affordable, healthy food. Sage Rising is one piece of the puzzle we have to solve to change our food systems, and it demonstrates the potential to grow, sell, and eat good food within urban communities.
Why did you pick the name 'Sage Rising'?
Sage was the first herb we harvested in the Fresh City plot and had been established before we got there. A sage is also a wise person. The 'rising' is the concept that we are always growing, learning and open to 'rise' to the challenges of urban farming and reclaiming traditional knowledge about ecological, community-based food and wellness systems.
Why herbs/edible flowers?
There are many wonderful local vegetable growers in the GTA and Greenbelt so the competition for market space is a little more challenging. There are fewer folks growing culinary herbs, flowers or teas. We felt that that was a market gap we could fill. Herbs also don't need as much space which is ideal for growing in smaller backyard plots. Aside from the logistics, herbs are wonderful to grow! They attract pollinators and build the soil...not to mention the joyfully intoxicating aroma of freshly harvested basil and lavender warmed from the sun!
How would you like to see your business grow?
Currently, our business is a part-time initiative, but we believe that the demand for our products is great enough that Sage Rising could eventually be expanded to a full-time endeavor. This would mean more yards and more buyers but I think we are up for it!
What is your favourite thing about growing in the city?
The ability to really have a community-centred business is the best thing about urban growing. We can walk or bike to all of our yards and purchasers. This means we're getting to know more people in the community and also demonstrating a hyper-local business model where all stages of food production from planting seeds to eating dinner happens in the span of a few city blocks.
What are some difficulties/challenges?
Pool hoppers! Folks running through one of the gardens to get over the fence to the city pool behind the yard. Apparently our trellises also make marvelous ladders! But seriously, one challenge has been getting to know the gardens. The first season in any garden is a bit of a learning experience. The quality of the soil, the sun, the shade, how rain settles on the soil you won't have a good sense of until a season has come and gone. The nature of our business is that we come into yards and have to do our best to understand them really quickly and plant accordingly. This will be a learning curve for us as well!
What is your all-time favourite herb or edible flower?
Jess: For the culinary herbs, I love cilantro in pretty much everything. Although basil is a very close second, we have three varieties this year that are absolutely gorgeous. Thyme is also great for it's toughness...perhaps I don't have a favourite!
Caitlin: Lemon balm! I love it fresh or dried as a hot or iced tea, as well as in tabbouleh and other lemony salads. It has a wonderfully gentle calming quality that decreases stress and anxiety - something most of us need in this big crazy city!
Any tips for aspiring city herb growers?
Jess: Take care of your soil first and your herbs will take care of themselves!
Caitlin: The city is chalk full of unexpected resources that urban gardeners can take advantage of. Be creative and it's amazing what you can find! You can reduce your costs and add interesting stories to your garden by scrounging, bartering, chatting with neighbours, keeping an eye out for city compost and mulch giveaways, and trolling your street on garbage day.