Tom DeBaggio, a writer and expert herb grower, died February 21, 2011, at the age of 69. He had early onset Alzheimer’s disease.1
DeBaggio was well known among the general public as the writer of 2 popular books on Alzheimer’s that bravely describe his tumultuous experience living with the disease: Losing My Mind: An Intimate Look at Life with Alzheimer’s (Free Press, 2003) and When It Gets Dark: An Enlightened Reflection on Life with Alzheimer’s (Free Press, 2007). He also touched thousands who listened to his interviews on mainstream programs, such as National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. DeBaggio said he did these things “to break through the sense of shame and silence Alzheimer’s has engendered.”2
To the herbal community, DeBaggio was known and respected for his work with plants—especially rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, Lamiaceae), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia, Lamiaceae), and basil (Ocimum basilicum, Lamiaceae). In 1975, he founded DeBaggio’s Herb Farm and Nursery, which has grown into a large and frequently visited facility in Chantilly, VA, that grows 100,000 plants and vegetables each year.3
DeBaggio arrived at this botanical endeavor as an unemployed newspaper journalist. “He didn’t have a job and he needed to feed the family, so he started growing plants for us to eat,” said son and owner of DeBaggio Herb Farm, Francesco DeBaggio (oral communication, March 10, 2011).
DeBaggio then began to sell individually potted tomato plants for 25 cents each, and soon expanded to a 5-foot by 10-foot lean-to on the side of the house to store the plants. A few years later, the backyard contained 8 small greenhouses and, eventually, the business evolved into what it is today. “He was pretty proud of it,” said Francesco. “It was a hell of a lot of work.”
“Although he first started growing herbs seriously to provide income for his family, he was totally won over with them,” said friend and herbalist Susan Belsinger. “His passion for herbs was his daily work; sometimes fiery, always adamant and thought-provoking, joyous and real” (e-mail, March 13, 2011).
Throughout these years, DeBaggio hungered for the best and most accurate information he could get. He frequented the library to research herbs and also used his journalistic skills to engage with scientists. As a result, DeBaggio’s Herb Farm stands apart from many other such herb and plant outlets by focusing on high quality and quantity of variations.
“He was not just a happy-go-lucky, fly-by-night grower,” said Belsinger. “He researched, studied, read, and questioned all things herbal in order to be informed. That was the perfectionist in him. His greenhouses were always very tidy, clean, and orderly. His plants were primo, top-quality.”
DeBaggio often consulted Arthur Tucker, PhD—a research professor at Delaware State University and co-director of the Claude E. Phillips Herbarium—for information and additional reading suggestions. “This approach is contrary to about 99% of the growers with whom I have had contact,” said Dr. Tucker, referring to his experience with many people who call him, hoping for a miracle after having trusted an anonymous nursery or web page, which often results in planting the wrong plants or the plants dying (e-mail, March 9, 2011).
DeBaggio authored and co-authored several herb books, including The Encyclopedia of Herbs: A Comprehensive Reference to Herbs of Flavor and Fragrance (Timber Press, 2009), Growing Herbs from Seed, Cutting & Root (Interweave Press, 1994), and Basil: an Herb Lover’s Guide (Interweave Press, 1996).4 His interest in writing about herbs was natural: “He wanted to be sure that the correct information was put out there,” said his son Francesco. “Just like a good journalist would.”
The Encyclopedia of Herbs, which DeBaggio wrote with Dr. Tucker, is considered by many herbalists and botanists to be the authoritative guide on herbs. The final volumes of The Encyclopedia’s precursor, the Big Book of Herbs, were delivered to DeBaggio during the beginning stages of his early onset Alzheimer’s. “Unfortunately, he was not fully aware of what we had accomplished,” said Dr. Tucker.
During the earlier stages of the book’s creation, DeBaggio and Dr. Tucker made a good team, their differences often proving complementary. Always a writer, DeBaggio helped to “translate” Dr. Tucker’s scientific words into “English.” “I trusted Tom to rewrite sections,” said Dr. Tucker, “but my caveat was that he not change the facts in the process. Of course, I would be untruthful if I implied that this was one-sided, but we were able to critique each other and still remain friends, I guess because of mutual respect. I have that relationship with only a few people outside of my family, and I will miss Tom.”
DeBaggio loved rosemary and spent a considerable part of his life developing new varieties: “Madalene Hill” rosemary, “Lottie DeBaggio” rosemary, and Golden Rain “Joyce DeBaggio” rosemary, named after his wife. 1,4 Due to this work, DeBaggio was referred to as the best “rosemaryologist” in America, as well as “Mr. Rosemary.” According to Belsinger, he also developed an early purple lavender named for Dr. Tucker, a short and sweet “Susan Belsinger” lavender, and a purple splashed-leaf basil named “Painted Holly” after Holly Shimizu, the executive director of the US Botanic Garden in Washington, DC.
Belsinger, who is also a writer for The Herb Companion, coauthored Basil: an Herb Lover’s Guide with DeBaggio. Through their collaboration, she came to know his standout personality, wonderful sense of humor, and strong work ethic. DeBaggio was also an herbal mentor to Belsinger and many others, always there to answer questions and provide advice.
At the age of 57, DeBaggio was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “He didn’t just accept the disease and quietly stay at home,” said Belsinger. “Instead, he decided to use himself as a spokesperson and an example for all of the world to see. He was brave and courageous to show this painful private side of his life.”
“His impact, was enormous,” continued Belsinger. “Tom grew plants and converted thousands of Washingtonians, Virginians, and Marylanders—not to mention herbal pilgrims from across the nation—into herb growers. He educated us, entertained us, lifted the level of plant quality throughout the herb industry, and gave us wonderful new plants. He was an experienced plantsman, however, that is not what I remember him for the most. First and foremost, I think of Tom DeBaggio as a writer.”
One outlet in which DeBaggio united his love for writing and love for herbs was in his “Ol’ Peeps” column of the farm’s seasonal catalog. In the Fall of 1999, not long after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, DeBaggio wrote in one of his last Ol’ Peeps entries: “There are few things in life as tasty as basil, as worthwhile to have in the garden as rosemary, and as sweet as the aroma of lavender, but even they need to be renewed periodically and it is that process on which Francesco, Joyce, and the men and women who work with us have now embarked. Although I must bow out in time, I intend to hang around as long as I can and work as hard as I ever have to grow the finest plants possible. I may not be as visible in the greenhouse in the days to come but I will be there in person frequently and in spirit forever.”5
DeBaggio is survived by his wife, Joyce, son, Francesco, and sister, Mary Ann Lovett.4
- Tom DeBaggio. The Economist: Obituaries. March 3, 2011. Available at: www.economist.com/node/18275908. Accessed March 6, 2011.
- Block M. Alzheimer’s Research Advocate Tom DeBaggio Dies. National Public Radio: “All Things Considered.” February 22, 2011. Available at: www.npr.org/2011/02/22/133971224/Alzheimers-Advocate-Thomas-DeBaggio-Dies. Accessed March 6, 2011.
- About Us. DeBaggio’s Herb Farm website. Available at: www.debaggioherbs.com/about_us.html. Accessed March 6, 2011.
- Belsinger S. In memoriam: Thomas DeBaggio (1942 to 2011). Herb Companion. March 1, 2011. Available at: www.herbcompanion.com/herballiving/in-memoriam-thomas-debaggio.aspx. Accessed March 6, 2011.
- DeBaggio T. Goodbye Ol’ Peeps. Fall 1999. Available at: http://debaggioherbs.com/peeps.html?q=8. Accessed March 14, 2011.