By Helen Griffiths
Lavender brings to mind lovely aromas, English country gardens and idyllic settings in France, but can it be grown in upstate New York? The answer is possibly yes, although it does depend on a number of factors that include where you live and the actual location within the garden itself (microclimate).
For centuries lavender has been an integral part of gardens around the globe. It was probably domesticated by the Arabians and then spread to France about 600BC. The commercially important species are native to the mountainous regions of the countries bordering the western half of the Mediterranean. Traditional uses for lavender range from perfume to an antimicrobial product. Commercial lavender production began in North America in Washington State about 1924, and Sequim in Washington State’s Dungeness valley is now considered the “lavender capital of the US.” For 16 years they have held a very popular lavender festival during the third weekend of July that attracts around 30,000 people from all over the world.
The Lavandula genus is large, but the only species hardy to Zone 5 (possibly 4) are Lavandula angustifolia, sometimes called English or the true, common lavender, and the interspecific hybrid between L. angustifolia and L. latifolia (spiked lavender) which is sterile and known as Lavandula x intermedia or lavandins. As has been the case with many plants with long and difficult to pronounce scientific names, the use of nicknames for lavender has resulted in a lot of confusion. For clarity, in this article the names L. angustifolia and lavandins will be used.
The L. angustifolia cultivars are desired for culinary use due to the low levels of camphor. The fragrance is very distinctly floral and the oil, which is produced in very small quantities, is used in pricey cosmetics. There are many cultivars available ranging in flower color from the traditionally dark purple to white. Some start flowering early in the season and will flower up to three times if the flowers are removed after each flush. L. angustifolia cultivars tend to have 6-12” stems making them suitable for cut flowers.
Lavandins grow larger, bloom later, and produce more spikes than L. angustifolia. The fragrance has a much stronger camphor aroma so it less suitable for culinary use. They are the most widely distilled lavender, since the oil yield can be up to five times that of L. angustifolia. They make a beautiful display in a garden, and taller cultivars can be used as short (up to about four feet) hedges.
Lavender farming is in its infancy in North America compared with other parts of the world. However in New York State, there are a number of farms growing lavender, some as a small portion of their production, others devoted entirely to lavender. In central NY and the Finger Lakes region there are a number of growers, including Lavender Crest, Lockwood Lavender Farm and Ol’Factory Soaps & Scents. All three farms are in Zone 5, or possibly 4 (old USDA zone maps), but are all also situated close to bodies of water. This proximity to water results in moderation of temperature thus creating ideal microclimates for lavender. All three farms started growing lavender within the last 10 years and two started after visits to the lavender festival in Sequim Washington.
David and Sharon Sweet, owners of Lavender Crest farm near Penn Yan, NY purchased the property when it was a vineyard, but the timing of the high maintenance and their day jobs did not mesh. Their daughter moved to the Pacific Northwest and during a visit they went to Sequim where they were introduced to lavender farming. They realized that many of the features that made their property good for grape production were also good for growing lavender. They have operated as a lavender farm for about seven years, opening to the public in 2011. Currently, the farm focuses on growing the lavandins, with ‘Provence’, ‘Grosso’ and ‘Super’ being the predominant cultivars, but they plan to evaluate L. angustifolia cultivars since they are interested in exploring the regional culinary market. The Sweets sell many lavender related products from the farm and work with a local soap maker to produce a number of lavender soaps. In addition to putting in a distillation system on the farm the Sweets are adding a shop. “Our location is great for tourism. We are on the Finger Lakes wine trail [Keuka Lake trail] and we hope to hook up with them. In addition we are close to the very popular Windmill farm and Craft market,” said David Sweet. The farm is only open during the growing season, but products are available year around through their website (lavendercrestfarm.com).
About an hour and a half drive north is Ol’Factory Soaps & Scents at Red Creek, where Sue Chmieleski has been growing lavender on about 1.5 acres for nine years. Sue and her husband Scott moved to the farm in 1996 and soon after Sue started a home-based soap making company. “I wanted to figure out a way to incorporate my love of gardening into my business,” she said. She tried a number of herbs including lavender, although she wasn’t sure the lavender would survive the winter. Even though they are in zone 5 or 6 ”winter can be very harsh,” she said, but to her surprise and joy, spring came and the lavender had survived! They now grow both L. angustifolia (‘Hidcote’, ‘Munstead’, ‘Twickel Purple’ and ‘Rosea’, also sold as ‘Jean Davis’) and lavandins (‘Grosso’, ‘Provence’, ‘Fred Boutin’, and ‘Seal’). Since 2008, they have held a lavender festival on the farm. Chmieleski makes most of the lavender products lavender herself. They market the products during the lavender festival (second weekend in July), at a booth at the Sterling Renaissance Festival, at various establishments and through their website (olfactorysoaps.com). Expansion plans include putting in more lavender and, like the Sweets, wants to do her own distillation. In addition, she would like to see the lavender farms in the region work together. She thinks that since it appears that certain areas of New York State are well suited for growing lavender, more farms and festivals such as theirs will start appearing across the region. “I believe that lavender farming is definitely on the rise.”
On West Lake Road, just 8 miles south of the center of Skaneateles, is Lockwood Lavender Farm (lockwoodfarm.blogspot.com), a fifth generation, 120 acre farm established in 1854 that grows wheat, corn, soybeans, annual and perennial flowers, and keeps sheep and honey bees. “Our goal is deeply rooted in our commitment to preserving the agricultural heritage of the Finger Lakes region, “ said co-owner Karen Wheeler-Lockwood, who works alongside her husband Gary Lockwood. The lavender portion of the farm started 10 years ago. “I had a lavender wedding bouquet and then we visited Sequim,” said Wheeler- Lockwood. On weekends from May to September, the lavender garden and shop is open to the public, and the farm’s products, which range from soap to lavender fudge sauce, are available at various nearby retailers. There are currently about 20 cultivars of lavender on the farm, totaling over 2,000 plants. The field to the north of the current lavender area was in buckwheat in 2012, an excellent crop choice prior to planting lavender. Buckwheat helps with weed suppression and improves soil structure, particularly drainage, which is extremely important for lavender survival. Wheeler-Lockwood said they buy their plants from the Pacific Northwest, which with the shipping costs makes them expensive, but with all the work involved with planting and growing it is worth the cost. “We want to make sure of the identity and quality,” she said.
The farm is the site of the Finger Lakes Lavender festival, which has been running since 2007. It’s very popular and even though the weather for the 2012 festival was not perfect, about 3,000 people attended. “We were absolutely amazed,” said Wheeler-Lockwood, “It is hard to know how to plan for 2013.”
Anyone considering growing lavender on any scale should check the potential growing area carefully to look for the best location. Where the snow first melts is a good indicator for location, particularly if the soil drains well and there is at least six hours of full sun a day. Lavender tolerates too little water rather than too much and root rot is a common cause of death. Cultivars are chosen to some extent by the desired end use. Visiting a lavender farm or festival would provide inspiration, information and probably some beautiful plants. There is a lot of helpful literature available in print and on-line. A relatively new book, The Lavender Lover’s Handbook by Sarah Berringer Badger (Timber Press, Inc., 2012) is a good resource with information on 100 lavender varieties, care and cultivation, recipes and incorporating lavender into craft projects and aromatherapy. The United States Lavender Growers Association (uslavender.org) aims to support, promote, educate, assist with the research, marketing and networking of lavender production. Even though the organization is primarily for growers, and to obtain full access one needs to become a member ($75 annual fee), the web site has some good information for the home grower.