Lessons from a lavender farm: Growing, harvesting and using lavender blooms
Pulling into the visitor parking lot, I craned my neck at the view, trying to take it all in. Acres of purple-topped lavender make an amazing sight. The scent of the lavender was not quite as overwhelming as I'd anticipated, possibly because the low humidity doesn't carry scent as well as the summer air here in Maryland. Still, I wish the photos in this article were scratch-and-sniff, so you could better share the experience of my visit.
I introduced myself to owner Sarah Richards, and she graciously gave me an informative tour of the demonstration garden next to the parking lot. I've lost track of how many varieties I saw that day, but I wouldn't be surprised if she were growing fifty different cultivars. I saw favorites I was familiar with and many new-to-me ones that I'd love to add to my garden. If we hadn't been traveling by plane, I would have gladly filled the back seat of the car with the wonderful little plants available for purchase.
The fields were arranged in rows according to variety, displaying subtle variations in color and texture. Some were in full bloom while others were barely budding, but all rows had at least a haze of purple and some were positively brilliant. Every so often, they had planted a row of other cottage garden type flowers. The coastal climate seems to encourage everything to grow larger, from the four foot wide lavender plants to the five foot tall shasta daisies!
Coastal Washington state is an ideal climate for lavender. As with many Mediterranean herbs, lavender likes a moderate climate. It will tolerate drought, so the 18 inches of annual rainfall in the central part of Whidbey Island's suits it just fine. The sandy, well-draining soil is ideal for a plant that hates "wet feet."
Can you grow lavender if you live in a less-ideal climate? Sure you can! A raised bed can provide the drainage your soil may lack. Planting near a boulder or other hardscaping can provide a "heat sink" to moderate temperatures. Especially if you live in a humid climate, consider mulching with a couple inches of sand or pea gravel, which will reflect light and heat back up into the plant to keep the foliage dry. If you live in a cooler zone, look for more hardy lavender varieties such as Lavandula angustifolia ‘Blue Cushion' or ‘Sachet'.
Lavender is a wonderful landscape plant. Individual plants can be scattered throughout a bed, or you might choose to plant them as a border. I have a hedge of Lavandula ‘Grosso' planted along one side of my driveway, and it's my favorite feature of the front yard. Both the blooms and the foliage are deliciously fragrant, especially when the plants are brushed against in passing.
The blooming stems of lavender can be harvested for fresh or dried blooms. The flowers can also be processed to yield an essential oil used for fragrance and aromatherapy. Blossom stems can be crafted into beautifully scented lavender wands, wreaths, and dried arrangements.
When is lavender ready to harvest? The answer depends in part on how you tend to use the blooms. Ms. Richards told me that lavender used for fragrance and for essential oil production is harvested when the blooms on the stem have mostly opened. Lavender harvested by the stem for decorative purposes, on the other hand, is harvested when the stem is just in bud rather than in full bloom.
At Lavender Wind Farms, many different lavender products are made. Fresh blooms are fashioned into wreaths, bouquets, and wands that retain both their beauty and their fragrance as they dry. The essential oil distilled from the blooms is used to scent hand-made soaps, lotions, candles, and more. Lavender is said to have soothing, peaceful qualities for aromatherapy. It's one of my favorite scents for helping me to relax and sleep, especially if I'm not feeling well. A lavender-scented bubble bath is practically a spa get-away in itself.
If you don't have acres of lavender, it's probably not worthwhile to try to distill your own essential oil. High quality essential oils can be purchased from companies like LorAnn Oil or from specialty mail order sources such as Lavender Wind Farm. At the farm, they distill ‘Grosso' lavender in an old-fashioned, low pressure copper still.
A drop or two of essential oil can be used to renew the fragrance of dried lavender stems. The lavender essence can also be incorporated into aromatherapy misters, candles, creams, soaps and bath salts. Essential oils are too concentrated to apply directly to the skin, so be sure to follow manufacturer's recommendations for use.
If you ever have a chance to visit a lavender farm, put it on the top of your tourist to-do list. I think Lavender Wind Farms would have been beautiful in any season, but visiting during the height of bloom was an extraordinary experience. If you can't experience lavender by the acre, you can still enjoy a few plants in your garden or scent your room with a few drops of pure lavender essential oil. I hope you'll come to love lavender as much as I do!
A big "thank you!" goes to Sarah Richards, for taking time out of her busy day to give me an unforgettable tour of Lavender Wind Farm.
 Lavender growing tip from Virginia herb guru Tom DeBaggio, of DeBaggio Herbs. They don't do mail order, but their catalog is worth a look for the culture tips it contains.
For more about lavender, see Larry Rettig's article, "The color and the plant: What's not to love about lavender?"
For step-by-step instructions on crafting lavender wands, see my article, "Lavender wands: Make magical scented decorations for your home."
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus.