Anyone who walks into Phyllis Shaudys's house in Bucks County, PA enters a wonderful garden of fragrance — and it only takes a moment to discover why. Jars containing rose petals, lavender, mint and scented geraniums line the mantel, while numerous potpourris fill the many shelves. Citrus peels dry on top of the television set, and the fat family cat purrs dreamily in his own big carton of catnip.
Phyllis's spare bedroom is "decorated," too, with the boxes of dried herbs, bolts of fabric, laces, ribbons and labels that she will soon transform into quick-selling, attractively packaged potpourris, sachets and herb pillows.
The Birth of a Business
Mrs. Shaudys began growing herbs and flowers at home in 1960. She put many of the plants to use around her home over the years and turned others into "personal" gifts for friends and relatives. Then, in 1976, a neighbor suggested that she make sachets and try selling herbs to the flood of bicentennial tourists who were expected that year in the nearby, historic town of Washington Crossing, PA.
"I had always made potpourris and sachets to give as gifts," Phyllis explains, "but it had never occurred to me to go into business."
Nevertheless, no more than a week later — with some red-white-and-blue material, a little ingenuity, and the enthusiastic help of her whole family — Phyllis had her sachets packaged, labeled, and on the shelves of two local stores. And that's how her new company, Herbal Acres, was born.
The little herb pouches sold so rapidly, in fact, that Phyllis was encouraged to look for additional outlets for her sachets. She confesses that she was terrified of trying to sell her handmade products to strangers, but — in 13 attempts — the timid peddler sold to 11 stores. (And, only a few months later, one of the shops that had initially said "no" to her offer became a good customer.)
"In fact, I was almost too successful," the herbalist recalls. "My repeat orders came in so quickly that my years-long collection of potpourris diminished at an alarming rate. I had to gather rose petals from my friends and from a local nursery to add to my supplies, and I hurried to plant new herbs and propagate some of my old ones. By that autumn, though, I had enough new material to make seasonal sachets of red and green 'Christmas' fabric and also to begin to expand my line of products."
Phyllis sold small pillows filled with fragrant herbs, packages of potpourri and herbal wreaths. And (at the suggestion of a store owner) she tied the sweet-smelling — but seemingly useless — stems of her different plants into small bundles with red and green yarn, put an assortment into plastic bags, labeled the packages "Fireplace Fun With Fragrances," and watched the "worthless" stems sell out in a week!
Though other stores, too, now want her products, Phyllis still supplies only 12 outlets and has no immediate plans to expand. "I don't seek new markets at all," she says. "I can barely keep up with the ones I have now. After all, it takes time and patience to prepare the soil and plant, grow, and dry the herbs. I just can't increase my production fast enough."
The Herb Beds
But Phyllis Shaudys's inability to meet the demand for her products is certainly not the result of a lack of effort! In the summers of '76 and '77, for example, this energetic woman established three new herb beds. Last spring, she added a fourth, plus a big rose garden. She also planted her old vegetable garden in southernwood this past fall — and, as plans stand, Herbal Acres should continue to grow bigger each year.
"Not that you need much room for herbs," Phyllis explains. "Three of my beds are only 15-by-30 feet, and the other two are 5-by-45 feet. But you do need a sunny, well-drained, sweet soil for every herb except the water-loving members of the mint family."
Of course, the herbs that you might grow will depend a lot on where you live, but here are some of Phyllis's favorites: lavender ("buy two or three plants and propagate them"), roses ("the more the better"), peppermint, applemint, spearmint, pineapple mint, orange mint, pennyroyal ("these mints are the basis of my "sweet pillow," and they'll spread rapidly if you water them regularly"), bergamot, catnip, chamomile, lemon balm, lemon verbena, rosemary, rue, sage, the southernwoods ("camphor and lemon are best"), tansy, French and lemon thyme, wormwood, basil, marjoram, summer savory, and rose and lemon-scented geraniums.
Phyllis also points out that flowers of all types — even if they have no scent of their own — will add color to potpourris. She uses mostly marigolds, roses, lavender, geraniums and bachelor's buttons.
The Sweet Smell of Success
Herbs should be allowed to dry naturally (oven drying makes them lose their color and scent) but, to speed things up a little, the Shaudys family equipped their garage "drying room" with an air conditioner and a dehumidifier. Phyllis also spreads petals and herbs on paper towels and dries them in any spare space that is out of the sunlight.
To preserve the delicate aromas of these plants indefinitely, Phyllis uses commercial fixatives (orrisroot, calamus root or benzoin). She also purchases essential oils, which allow her to make any plant smell of any scent she chooses.
"These items are quite expensive," Phyllis told us, "but, since you only use a few drops, they last a long time."
Unless you've dried and saved herbs over several years as Mrs. Shaudys has done, you can't get into the herbal fragrance business overnight. But once you begin to think in terms of potpourri, you'll never carelessly discard a fading blossom again.
"If you make a potpourri from the flowers of a wedding or party," Phyllis suggests, "you can enjoy them over and over for years. The sachets that I made in the '60s still smell wonderful today!"
The Money Factor
Different outlets put different markups on the Herbal Acres products, but here are some samples of what Phyllis herself charges: sweet herbal pillows, $3.50 each; sachets, 60 to 80¢; fragrant stems for the fireplace, $2.00 per package; potpourris, $4.00.
"I lost money the first year in business," she recalls. "Part of the problem was that I underpriced a lot of my items in my desire to get them into the shops. I think the increase in self-confidence that came from those early sales more than made up for the cash I lost because of the pricing, though. Since then, I've doubled my income each year and cut my expenses. I expect this trend to continue as I expand my gardens and come up with new products." (Her latest addition is the "Cat-er-pillar," a little catnip-filled pillow for felines, that sells for $2.50.)
And Phyllis hasn't limited her "peddling" to crafts stores. She also sells her herbal products at fairs, art and craft shows, historical association gatherings, women's exchanges, churches, schools and charity bazaars. It didn't take long for this kind of exposure to lead to requests that Mrs. Shaudys give lectures on how to grow and use herbs.
At first, the lady herbalist gave a lot of free speeches, but then she realized that the knowledge she had gained over the years had a real monetary value, and that — since she was in business for herself — her time was valuable, too. (She currently asks at least $100 for a lecture, and gets it.)
Such response has also encouraged Phyllis to put her experiences together in a booklet, Growing Fragrant Herbs for Profit, which she sells through her outlets (copies can occasionally be found online). The book contains a good number of the Herbal Acres' "secrets" for success.
October, November, December and January are the big-money months in the herb business. (Phyllis expected to make $500 per month this past season.) And in 1978, for the first time, she received an income from her "hobby" all year long.
"I don't make a living from herbs," Mrs. Shaudys is quick to note. "Not yet! So far I've put most of my profits back into materials, new herb beds, photographic slides for my lectures and a new drying shed. All in all, though, this equipment represents some $5,000 in assets, and I expect to make as much as $10,000 a year by 1981."
And, besides the expansion of her current operation, Phyllis has other ideas. "Over the years I've grown culinary herbs and teas for my own use, but — since these are edible products — I'll have to meet all the federal, state, and county regulations before I can sell them. However, I plan to write another booklet this year on how to grow and use these herbs. I'll also go further afield with my lecture program, which I call a 'show-and-tell, see-and-smell, and take-home-to-taste' event."
In the meantime, Phyllis Shaudys is a happy woman. "My summers are spent where I love them best, outdoors in my herb gardens. And during the winter — when I work on my products — I find that the gardens have moved inside! So I get to savor the beauty and essence of my plants three times: in the garden, as they dry in my house, and, for years, as potpourri and sachets!"