by Meredith Bethune
Photography by Melanie Grizzel
Chris and Diane Winslow, the owners of South Austin garden center It’s About Thyme, have never completed job applications in their entire lives.
In 1980, Diane started growing herbs while studying political science at the University of Texas at Austin. She had always felt destined for law school, but after coming into possession of six herb plants, she says she went a little crazy. “I had to have every single one,” she recalls. She started growing her herbs from seeds and cuttings. “No one was really growing herbs at the time,” she says. Eventually, people started to take an interest in her new hobby—especially after she constructed what she calls her “little, bitty greenhouse” in her South Austin backyard and coined the business name It’s About Thyme. “[The greenhouse] was small,” she says, “maybe ten by twenty feet.” But it was big enough to attract some of her first accounts, which included the original Whole Foods Market, Fredericksburg Herb Farm and Central Market. A few years later, Diane moved It’s About Thyme to five acres of land farther south, then eventually to the current Manchaca Road location in the mid-’90s.
Another of her customers was Marbridge, a nonprofit residential community that provides assistance, education and job training to the mentally disabled. Chris had started volunteering there while attending the University of Texas at Austin in the 1970s. Immediately after graduating, he accepted a position as a self-described “horticultural therapist” on the organization’s ranch. The program included a variety of agricultural activities, such as planting hay and managing dairy cows and catfish farms. But working in the organization’s organic vegetable garden was where Chris developed his green thumb, and how he met Diane; Marbridge was purchasing herb transplants from It’s About Thyme for use in their vegetable garden. The couple eventually married in 1992.
Although Chris retired from Marbridge in 1998, he shows no signs of slowing down. “Horticulture is just my love; I love growing things,” he says. The Winslows and their staff do a little bit of everything at the nursery, but Diane admits her absolute favorite task is propagating stock plants. In fact, practicing organic principles and growing plants from cuttings and seeds distinguish It’s About Thyme from most other nurseries. “Most garden centers buy and sell plants, but we grow a lot of our own,” Chris explains. And though it might be assumed that a nursery named It’s About Thyme would dedicate a majority of time, energy and space to growing and selling culinary herbs, that’s just not the case. The Winslows grow a multitude of native Texas perennials and a cornucopia of vegetable plants, as well. Some of their growing endeavors are even a bit experimental. Chris points to what looks like a tall, potted houseplant in one of the greenhouses and explains that it’s actually an allspice tree. While crumpling a few of the plant’s leaves to release the warm, familiar aroma, he admits he had no idea what the plant would look like until he grew it from cuttings. Then, he gives a nod to the kaffir lime trees lining the greenhouse wall and adds, “I don’t think anyone else grows those from seeds in the region.” Some of the other less-well-known plants available at the nursery include curry leaf trees, galangal plants and lemongrass.
Of course, the nursery also supplies plenty of mainstream edible plants. “I guess the herb that pays the mortgage is basil,” Chris says with a chuckle. The Winslows also sell 30 different kinds of peppers in the spring and 50 to 70 different kinds of tomatoes. “We’re known for our selection of heirloom tomatoes,” he says. “But we also like to supply the hottest peppers on the planet—like red and green Scotch bonnets.” In fact, this season, the nursery plans to stock the Trinidad scorpion, which measures two million heat units on the Scoville scale.
In addition to the nursery area, a sizable portion of the It’s About Thyme property is reserved for educational purposes. Unfortunately, many of those gardening beds were destroyed by floods this past November, but the Winslows have been busy rebuilding them. They regularly work with area high schools to host disabled students and teach basic planting skills, such as filling pots and transplanting, continuing the work that Chris did during his career at Marbridge.
It’s About Thyme hosts classes for the entire community, as well. “We want people to feel comfortable here,” says Chris. In fact, on most spring Saturday mornings, their staff teaches beginning gardeners to do work using “this, this and this” Chris says, while playfully gesturing towards his eyes, ears and hands. “We have a mission,” he says. “We just want to make happy gardeners. That’s pretty much it.”
For more information, visit itsaboutthyme.com