Creating 'Heaven' In The Suburbs

November 08, 1994|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer

"All right, girls, move it over!" John Maul told some of the 30 chickens sitting on freshly laid eggs and extended his hand to get some.

Inside a pen near the chicken coop, buried under down, straw and a mother rabbit, were eight tiny newborns; the furry creatures, their eyes still closed, were no bigger than the eggs.

In surrounding fields, the air is fragrant with vegetables, sage and oregano, and the nearby greenhouses are filled with feverfew, horehound, pennyroyal and dozens of other herbs for cooking and healing.

Mr. Maul calls this place his "7 acres of heaven," and it's smack in the middle of Randallstown.

"You can be coming up Liberty Road at 4 p.m. with all the traffic, and you come through these gates, and it's like, aaah!" said Mr. Maul, who with his wife, Maren, defied the notion of the disappearing farmer by starting Maryland Herb Farms in 1991.

An expanse of vivid colors, the farm is in the 9000 block of Marcella Ave., less than a quarter-mile off one of Baltimore County's busiest suburban highways.

Besides the couple's house, the chicken coop and the rabbit pens, the farm has 3 acres of farmland yielding organic herbs and vegetables and three greenhouses for the 30 varieties of herbs grown indoors.

Mrs. Maul tells customers they can use herbs like St. Johnswort or Echinacea to make teas and syrups that relieve sore throats and cure headaches, insomnia and arthritis.

Mr. Maul gathers up corn, greens, herbs and game for sale to individual customers and restaurants.

The farm, which the couple rent from Mrs. Maul's mother, has not turned a profit yet, and Mrs. Maul, 40, continues to work as a nurse to make ends meet.

Mr. Maul, 41, was working as an electrician until 1989, when a fall on the job hurt his lower back.

"After I was injured, I was working for a wholesale grower," he said. "I told my wife one day, 'Let's buy a greenhouse and let's start an herb garden.' "

The couple gets 30 to 40 customers a week at this time of year, and 150 to 300 in the summer.

Cindy Blough, a 53-year old cosmetics saleswoman and ballroom dancer, was one. She came from Woodlawn to the Mauls' farm store, looking for relief from painful ankles caused by gardening and dancing.

Custom-made arches from a podiatrist didn't work out, and a prescription medication made her stomach hurt.

Mrs. Maul suggested she rub St. Johnswort oil on her ankles and take Arth-Ease -- a capsule filled with herbs including black cohosh, Uva ursi, bittersweet, Indian physic and pokeweed.

"I thought I'd try anything once," Ms. Blough said a week later, after trying the remedies. "Now as a matter of fact, the very first time, the oil definitely makes a difference. It's like penetration you feel. I do feel . . . a relaxing of the muscles. It is very soothing to the ankles. I've gone about my business, dancing."

When another visitor said she had a headache, Mrs. Maul suggested she chew the leaf of feverfew, then swallow it in five minutes. The visitor said her headache lifted before the leaf's bitter taste left her mouth.

"At first I was real reluctant to believe in this stuff," Mrs. Maul said. But in 1991, she began using the herbs on herself, with positive results.

This spring, she enrolled in a correspondence program at the American Institute of Holistic Theology and pored through herb encyclopedias to learn more about herbal medications, harvesting and nutrition.

"It's real exciting. I'm really into it," she said.

Though herbalists are convinced that their remedies work, physicians are of two minds.

Dr. Irvin Hyatt, a gastroenterologist and chief of the Department of Medicine at Northwest Medical Center in Randallstown, said that more testing of herbal medicines would allow doctors to see if they live up to the claims their supporters make.

"There are lots of people who use all kinds of alternative methods of [treatment]. As a member of the medical profession, [I] would like to see the basis of their claims before we use them on the public. . . . What doctors have to do, which is not always easy, is to keep an open mind [about] this, and if something has some value, study it."

Some herbs can have side effects and cause allergic reactions, Dr. Hyatt and Mrs. Maul agreed.

"Some herbs are toxic, taken in too large amounts," Mrs. Maul said.

She said she sometimes suggests that customers tell their doctor they're considering herbs and asks them what medications they're already taking to avoid a bad reaction.

Mr. Maul, a cooking enthusiast who says he makes a mean squirrel pot pie, handles the culinary end of the business.

He sells tarragon and rosemary, Cuban oregano and bay leaf, as well as a variety of vegetables.

Growing isn't all pleasure. Mr. Maul raises eight kinds of peppers, including habanero, which he said is the hottest in the world. One quarter of the yellowish-red pepper spices up 5 pounds of chili.

Last year he got second-degree burns on his finger tips when he cut into one and wound up at Northwest Hospital Center.

He had to wear a bandage on his hands for a week.

"I felt like a fool!" he said.

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