Loving Lavender: Sweet Smell in the Country

Who doesn’t love lavender? The spiky, flowering Mediterranean native of the mint family has it all: fragrance, form, flavor, and medicinal value. In Roman times, a pound of lavender flowers would cost about 100 denarii, which was about a month’s wages for a farm laborer. Today, you can grow lavender almost anyplace in the country as long as you have a sunny spot. Be aware, however, that lavender needs lots of light, good drainage, and proper care in the early stages.

For some tips on lavender growing in a hostile environment, the Country Gentleman visited the cottage lavender farm of Kieran “Kie” and Elizabeth “Libbe” O’Connor. Former city folk and gardening enthusiasts, the O’Connors turned eight acres of Indiana clay (a soil guaranteed to kill lavender plants) into a flourishing retirement business. They provide culinary lavender to local chefs and sell lavender sachets, bouquets, and bundles. “Lavender is really about getting it established, so in two or three years you say, ‘that looks really good,’ ” says Libbe.

“Lavender does not do well in clay or anything that holds water around it,” Kie says. “Wood mulch is not good. Use decorative rock or something that provides reflective heat and allows airflow around it.” The O’Connors nurture lavender in raised beds, which are at least 12 inches deep by 12 inches wide, with a mix of equal parts topsoil, compost, sand or pea gravel, and a smattering of lime. “The other big thing is to know how to prune them,” Kie says. “Some varieties of hybrids (Lavandula intermedia) you prune only in fall because they set buds in winter. The true lavenders (Lavandula angustifolia) you prune early in spring and throughout summer. By keeping them pruned, you get inner growth and a nicely shaped plant.”

How to Harvest and Dry Lavender

Harvest lavender just as the buds are beginning to open, when the essential oils are at their peak. This will ensure the flowers retain their scent and bluish color when used in sachets or potpourris.

1. Take a bundle of lavender and cut the stems above the leaves using garden shears. Leave a few inches of green growth.

2. Wrap several stems together with a rubber band.

3. Hang the lavender upside down in a dark dry place and allow seven to 10 days for the stems to dry.

4. To remove the buds from the stems, place the stems on a large towel and roll into a tube. Roll the tube back and forth on a hard surface. This will remove the buds from the stems without crushing them.

5. Store the buds in an airtight container for use in sachets, potpourris, or recipes.

The Sweet Smell of Retirement: Starting a Lavender Farm

Cares seem to vanish when you step inside the rustic shop at Willowfield Lavender Farm. Each breath of lavender fills the atmosphere. The inventory of sachets, soaps, linen sprays, lotions, teas, wreaths, and colognes brings a refreshing brace of aroma therapy.

Outside, on special days, lavender-loving customers stroll, sniff, and snip with scissors at the phalanxes of spiky white, pink, and purple branches. They sip soothing blends of lavender iced tea as they drink in the quiet beauty of this cottage farm on a warm summer’s day.

Kie and Libbie O'Connor
Kie and Libbe O’Connor

The proprietors, ‘Kie’ and ‘Libbe’ O’Connor, are former city folk who started this fragrant farmstead nine years ago as a retirement business.

Kieran, formerly an Indianapolis fireman, asked his artist wife, Elizabeth, to decide what they should do when they retired to their newly acquired 28 rural acres. One morning, at 5:30 a.m., she woke him from a dead sleep. “Lavender,” she said. “Let’s have a lavender farm.” Surprisingly, he didn’t say, “You’re crazy.” Within a week, they accumulated 100 plants of six different lavender varieties, and their enthusiasm has yet to wane.

“Our original idea was being a nursery and selling plants,” Kie says. “But it came to this,” he says as he gestures around the shop. “It’s been a real learning process. People started coming down the driveway telling us their headache stories and sleep deprivation problems that lavender solved. We started getting scientific research articles about how lavender goes to the pain center of the brain. It’s not wives’ tales anymore.”

Lavender products on display
Lavender products on display

The couple began making real lavender products. They rail about commercial so-called “lavender” items, such as baby powders that actually contain no lavender whatsoever, and they keep samples of them on hand to enlighten customers. In season, they make the rounds of area farmers’ markets, offering their aromatic products and lavender cuttings. They also grow Provence Culinary Lavender, “a hybrid that’s really popular with chefs,” Kie says. All lavender varieties are edible, he notes. The O’Connors cook with lavender themselves, using it mainly in desserts. They have developed their own special recipe (which they don’t give out) for a seriously delicious lavender shortbread cookie.

Both have experienced lavender’s healing effects after sustaining severe burns. Libbe slathered lavender oil over her arm when it was accidentally splashed with hot melted candle wax. The pain subsided, and the burns never festered, she says. Kie used lavender oil to stem a bad burn from a hot coffee spill. He spritzes it on his pillow at night to help him sleep.

As experts, the couple now spend much of their time advising novices how to grow the pungent lavender plants in an environment not wholly suitable for the species. “Getting them established takes well-drained soil, some lime, and full sun. Think Mediterranean,” Kie says. “These plants predate the Bible, but they come from around that area.”Importantly, lavender’s image has changed over time. It’s no longer just a scent for perfuming grandma’s hankies. Lavender is equally attractive to men and women, Libbe notes. It is a unisex product.