|Rosemary, sage and thyme grew abundantly under the sun — and under Kathleen Varga’s watchful eye — at Crooked River Herb Farm. Nestled within the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Cuyahoga Falls, the farm was also home to goats, llamas, a retired carriage horse, geese, a pet chicken named Amelia and even a wild Canada goose that bonded with a riding lawn mower in the shed.
Varga and her husband, John, lovingly tended the land and their animals, and the place became a destination for tourists in northern Summit County throughout the 1990s. Varga made Patty Lee’s Sour Cherry Jam based on her mother’s recipe, and sold brown eggs. Visiting painters set up easels in the songbird-filled fields and children chased blue butterflies.
“[I had] the most fun creating new products — jams, herb-infused vinegars and pesto,” recalls Varga, 55. “It was a creativity I didn’t know I had.”
But life, as the Akron native discovered, has its own way of ebbing and flowing.
The shift began in 1997, when a dark cloud settled over the idyllic homestead. John, a forester and farmer, had a severe stroke, which left him partially paralyzed and unable to walk or talk. Medical experts didn’t have much hope for rehabilitation. But when he struggled to whisper, “I am,” Varga took it as a sign that her husband’s soul and fire still burned brightly. She, along with a host of friends, created a physical therapy regimen to help him regain his strength.
Despite the couple’s best efforts, living on the farm became an impossibility, complicated by park-policy issues. They moved to a little red house on a hill in nearby Peninsula, where John is able to walk to the local library.
Although Varga’s herb garden has diminished in size, her passion for the plants has never waned. It began in 1985 when she was a legal assistant, living first in New York and later Las Vegas. Varga cultivated an interest in herbs as an antidote to the depression that set in following her father’s death.
“I needed a catharsis, so I planted an herb garden in the desert,” she says. “Since many herbs are warm-climate Mediterranean weeds, it worked. I also researched organic gardening.
“Everyone called me a hippie. They knew I didn’t belong in the corporate world. When friends offered the property to me, I came back to Ohio.”
Varga believes herbs are healing in many ways. In 2002, she opened the Crooked River Herb Farm Shop in downtown Peninsula, filled with the scents of lavender, mint, herbal teas and vinegars she made herself. Last Christmas Eve, economy woes shut the doors.
She is now employed by Suncrest Gardens landscape and garden center in Boston Township, a decision that wasn’t easy because Varga had not worked for anyone in many years.
“It’s very much like working on the farm, and it feels so good to do all the physical activity again. The job is everything I love best. I sell perennials, annuals, huge hanging baskets of flowers. I teach people how to grow herbs and how to use them,” says Varga, who appreciates the stability of the position. “The end of our farm was devastating and losing the livestock was the worst. But we still visit some of the animals, including the llamas. Varga also sells chemical- and pesticide-free herbal gourmet products on her Web site, www.crookedriverfarm.com.
“I had a dream. I did it and John was part of that dream,” she says. “How many people can say they fulfilled their dreams? I have learned to re-direct my energy. I tell my boss at the garden center that if we could just get a couple chickens there, I’d have everything I ever wanted again.”