Jo Champney –Mistress of the Job Lane Herb Garden

Volunteers from the Bedford Garden Club work with Jo Champney (second from left) to maintain the Job Lane Herb Garden
Volunteers from the Bedford Garden Club work with Jo Champney (second from right) to maintain the Job Lane Herb Garden. Volunteers include (l-r) Bridget Clayton, Claire Higson, Kathryn Rifkin, and Jeannette Pothier.  Image (c) JMcCT, 2013, all rights reserved



A visit to the Lillian Dutton Memorial herb garden at the Job Lane House in the company of Josephine (Jo) Champney is a step back in time. Jo, as everyone calls her, has lovingly tended the garden since its planting in 1978 and her knowledge of the herbs, their history, and their medicinal properties is astonishing.  Now in her early 90s, she modestly says she doesn’t do much of the gardening herself these days but she is on site every Tuesday morning from April through October, actively overseeing (and sometimes stepping in to help) the Job Lane herb garden team, made up of Garden Club members Jeannette Pothier, Claire Higson, Bridget Clayton, and Kathryn Rifkin.

Jo says her interest in herbs, and in nature generally, likely stems from her childhood spent on her grandmother’s farm in Billerica.  She loved the outdoors and, as children did in earlier days, she was free to roam the woods and fields.   She has been involved with the herb garden since 1978 when the garden was re-established. Jo remarked that she sawed the wood for the original raised beds herself!  Eventually, that wood rotted and the garden now has new wooden frames for the raised beds, made possible by the Bedford Rotary Club earlier this year.

Mrs. Champney's list of the original plants in Lillian Dutton's garden
Jo Champney’s list of the original plants in Lillian Dutton’s garden

When Jo arrived at the garden this past Tuesday, she came with one of her favorite books, “Herb Identifier and Handbook,” just one of the many references she has accumulated over the years to deepen her herb lore.  A little history is in order here: Lillian Dutton, known as the “Herb Lady,” lived in the Job Lane House from 1901 to 1972 and operated a thriving mail-order herb business.  The noted Connecticut herbalist Adelma Simmons mentioned in her book that some of her first herbs came from this Bedford garden-.  If you go inside the Job Lane house, you can see one of Mrs. Dutton’s catalogs posted on the wall.  Jo also brought a list of the plants that were Mrs. Dutton’s:

  • Gas Plant
  • Florentine Iris
  • Scarlet Pimpernel, (a tiny tiny flower; we call them Red Coats)
  • Elecampane
  • Celandine
  • Grapevines (Concord and Sugar)
  • Lilacs and
  • Hops, growing in the back corner of Sweetwater and North Road, now up trees.

When Jo came into the picture 35 years ago, she literally had to recreate Mrs. Dutton’s garden; some of Mrs. Dutton’s herbs were found growing in the fields. Jo is adamant about “authenticity”- as she says, “if it isn’t old, it has to get out of the garden.” To preserve this historical accuracy, Jo and her team do a great deal of research, visiting other Colonial gardens such as the Whipple House herb garden in Ipswich.  A colonial housewife’s herb garden was always planted close to the house and served multiple purposes: herbs for flavoring food, for tea, for pest control, and – Jo’s special interest – for medicinal uses.  Jo remembered that her grandmother knew which plants were useful for treating a skinned knee, for instance.  She and the garden team like to tell visitors about a favorite cough remedy: a sprig of sage preserved in a bottle of vinegar (this reporter has one brewing now, in preparation for winter.)

On a recent Tuesday, when the garden crew was busy cutting back plants, Jo strolled around the grounds, plucking an errant plant here and there, inspecting overgrowth near the stone wall, and reminiscing about the early days of the garden. The first fence, she said, came from a farm in Vermont and lasted 25 years.  She was pleased with the condition of the gardens, attributed in part to the new raised beds that keep the water in, to Maine Coastal seaweed compost, and to daily watering by Jeannette Pothier during the several heat waves of summer.

A brief visit with Jo Champney can’t begin to distill all she knows about herbs; she modestly deprecates her knowledge, saying she spends her winter days reading and learning more.  And she knows Bedford history as well, having lived here for 60 years. The Champney family has a long and distinguished association with Bedford. Jo’s late father-in-law, George, was a noted architect who designed the Stearns Building (formerly the Bedford Free Public Library and now home to the Police Department.) Her late husband, Edwin, was the project inspector for many of Bedford’s schools and also served on town boards for many years, and her son, George, an engineer who still lives here, is remembered for his baseball prowess at Bedford High School.  Jo also has a daughter, Margaret, living in town.

This year the Job Lane house is observing its 300th anniversary and on October 6, there will be a birthday celebration. Watch The Citizen for details. The house is usually open on weekends during the summer and early fall.  The herb garden team welcomes additional workers. If you are intrigued by caring for herbs whose fragrance captures Bedford’s colonial history, please give Jeannette Pothier a call. To learn more about the Job Lane House and herb garden, visit their web site:

The Lillian Dutton herb garden, outside the kitchen door at Bedford's Job Lane House
The Lillian Dutton herb garden, tucked into the ell outside the kitchen door at Bedford’s Job Lane House, is maintained by the Bedford Garden Club.

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Herbal Academy of NE
Herbal Academy of NE
8 years ago

This is wonderful! Thank you for posting :)

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