Written by CAROL POMEDAY
Wednesday, 15 September 2010 15:01
When Amy-Mae Miller was told her marketing job was being eliminated in an effort to streamline the company she worked for, she agreed it was a good business decision.
“I’m probably the only person in the Milwaukee area who was downsized in the last couple of years and yet happily left their office smiling and joking,” Miller said.
“Although I was good at my job and making a good salary, I had been asking myself, ‘Is this is what I really want to be doing? Is this following my bliss?’”
Losing her job, she said, allowed her to delve into her passion for herbs and show people how to use plants not just in cooking but also to maintain or improve their health with herbal teas, salves, oils and other products.
She sells her products at farmers markets in Port Washington, Cedarburg, Thiensville and Menomonee Falls. When the season winds down, she will be at Weeds, a fair-trade home and garden shop scheduled to open in Cedarburg in October.
“We’re working on having part of one wall filled with bulk herbs, spices and teas,” Miller said. “I’ll have a number of my products in the shop and I’ll be available to answer people’s herbal questions.”
She also plans to hold workshops to teach people how to make a variety of herbal products.
It seems her two-year-old company, Thymely Herbals, is slowly evolving into the business she hoped it would be.
Miller is a master herbalist who grew up using plants to stay healthy and energized.
Her maternal great-grandparents were Swiss pharmacists who filled European physicians’ prescriptions for herbal remedies, Miller said.
“I also grew up in a botanically friendly household. Both my folks have advanced degrees in scientific fields, and I spent my childhood being exposed not only to how plants grow but, maybe more importantly, how they can be used,” Miller said.
“My mom’s chemistry background and my dad’s tenure at a large pharmaceutical company often made for some interesting dinner table conversation when I was growing up.”
Now her parents are retired and live in North Carolina, giving Miller access to a growing network of herbalist friends in Black Mountain and Asheville.
“Our annual family get-togethers are always either by water or gardens,” Miller said. “As a child, I learned plants by their botanical names. To this day, I struggle to remember the names most people use, like Monarda fistulosa is commonly called bee balm.”
Miller moved to Wisconsin in 1992 and got her master’s degree in advertising from Marquette University in Milwaukee.
When she and her husband built their rural Grafton home in 2000, she wanted to have a garden and sought advice for working with clay soil, something she had not experienced before since she grew up in the southwest.
She joined the University of Wisconsin Extension Master Gardeners program. The five-inch-thick binder she received remains a vital resource, she said.
“I can’t say enough about the Master Gardeners,” Miller said. “Other than the great opportunity to learn about gardening and clay soil, the one tenet that helped me most was ‘You don’t have to know everything.’
“I always felt driven to learn all I could about everything. Now, I’m not afraid to say, ‘I don’t know that, but I know where to get you the answer.’
“Being honest and saying, ‘I don’t know’ is so freeing, and it opens the door to knowledgeable research. I find the answers not only to the question asked, but 30 other questions as well.”
When customers tell her they read something on the Internet and want to know if it’s true, she tells them she will check it.
“The Internet is a wonderful thing, but you have to validate the source,” she said. “If it’s from a dot-com, they’re probably trying to sell you something. I have a lot of contacts and resources to check information.”
Miller hoped people would embrace the idea of using herbs to improve their health, but found customers at farmers markets showed little interest.
“Most folks shop the markets looking for something to eat or something that smells good,” she said.
“I’m finding that (medicinal) herbs aren’t something the Midwest is comfortable with yet. They’re embraced on the East and West coasts and in the Carolinas, which are very herb positive.
“To me, herbs are a return to common sense. They’re natural, organic things we should consider for prevention of many illnesses. Having an herbal awareness is being proactive, as is knowing your body. Everybody should get an A+ in that, but we’re often quite naivé about our own bodies.”
So instead of creating tinctures and salves from her homegrown herbs, Miller makes vinegars, cooking oils and a variety of pestos from not only basil but other items, such as cilantro and almonds.
She also makes herbal soaps, sachets, and lotions.
Miller grows her herbs, including 17 varieties of thyme, on one-half acre of a former farm field that has below-average soil, which she says is ideal for herbs.
“Herbs aren’t vegetables. Most don’t want all that water and humus-rich soil. They like it fairly dry with lots of sun, a true Mediterranean-like climate,” Miller said. “Just consider that Egyptian lavender can be more fragrant than French lavender. Herbs are fascinating.”
Miller does all the work herself, from growing the herbs to mixing the concoctions to bottling and labeling them. She even knits bath mitts for her soaps.
“The reason I chose to do farmers markets is that they’re a direct entry into the marketplace without any overhead.
They’re also very hands-on and I get to talk to people about how to use the products,” she said.
“I don’t want to grow too fast. Most new businesses fail because they try to grow too quickly. I’m trying to follow the tenet ‘Keep it small and keep it simple.’ I want to produce a good product at a fair price and offer something others don’t offer.”
Talking to people about how to use the products is important to her, she said. Being at Weeds will allow her to do that on a regular basis.
“I have to be honest. I couldn’t do this if my husband didn’t have a job that pays the bills and has health insurance,” Miller said.
“He’s my biggest supporter and the king weed puller in the thyme garden.”
Miller and her Thymely Herbals products can be found at the Port Washington farmers market on Saturdays, the Thiensville market on Tuesdays, Menomonee Falls market on Wednesdays and Cedarburg market on Fridays. She can be reached at 327-4731 or by e-mail at