Most people know about the lavender fields of Provence, in the south of France. Those 54 square miles of fragrance and beauty are world famous.
The Northern California version of lavender fields can be found in Bonny Doon, where Gary and Diane Meehan operate the Bonny Doon Lavender Farm.
There, on five acres of agriculture-zoned land, the Meehans grow more than 5,000 lavender plants - mostly the classic English lavender - and extract the essential oils from the deep-blue flowers. With this fragrant base, the Meehans produce a selection of soaps, shampoos, salves, beeswax candles and colognes under the Bonny Doon Lavender Farm label, all by hand, using traditional methods.
In addition to supplying lavender products to 400-plus retail stores, the Meehans sell directly at art, wine and craft shows and maintain a mail-order business. The farm, which is the Meehans’ private residence, is not open to the public because of insurance considerations.
Right now, Gary Meehan is spending a lot of time watching his lavender flowers bloom. He is looking for flowers that are nearly fully open. That’s when the lavender fragrance is at its peak and ready to harvest.
In the south of France, where lavender is mega-business, harvesting is done mechanically. But Meehan will have none of that. “We cut everything by hand, one stem at a time, with very sharp scissors.”
On the average, the Meehans count on five to 10 bundles of lavender from each plant.
While the Meehans extract by steam a few gallons of lavender oil for their products, most of their lavender is dried and sold in bunches for use in crafts and flower arrangements.
When cut, the stems are bunched together, secured with a rubber band looped twice around, and then hung to dry with the flower heads hanging down. Meehan hangs them in his garage with the lavender dangling from the rafters over his black Bentley and green John Deere tractor.
“The profit is much higher in dried bunches (than in oil), although attendant costs - drying, labor and replacing plants - keep lavender marginal as a viable crop compared to herbs, cut flowers and such,” Meehan says. “Regardless, our life with lavender remains a delight.”
For backyard herb growers, lavender is among the easier plants to grow. It is drought-tolerant, grows in poor soil, needs little or no fertilizer, and is virtually pest free. While commercial growers such as Meehan put in new plants every eight years or so, backyard gardeners might have the same plant for 30 years.
At Bonny Doon, watering is done by overhead misting every four to five days. Truckloads of sand were brought in to improve the soil. Now, Meehan says, “when it rains, it just soaks in through the sand. No mud at all. The plants love it.”
Fertilizing is done cautiously, though, because too much food will make the bushes grow at the expense of flowering.
The farm itself is a showpiece, lovingly landscaped by Gary, a former builder, who planted the trees, lavender, flowers and shrubs, stacked the stone walls, and built the work buildings, the fish pond, and the two-story 3,000-square-foot house.
The word “bienvenu” - welcome in French - is etched into the walk way that leads to the main lavender field. “Bienvenu should be everywhere here, but I put it right where I can see it every day,” he says. The welcoming view here is a courtyard with vegetables and flowers and an expanse of lavender beyond all that. And then, redwoods and pine trees, plus the deep blue sky in the background. Could France look any better?
Still, it has taken more than 25 years to reach this point, and the huge house is still not quite finished. “There was nothing here when we moved here: no roads, only rocks and trees and scrub brush.”
The Bonny Doon Lavender Farm has been called “America’s Original Fine English Lavender Estate” - and the Meehans are so happy with that title that they use it on the label of all their products.
Naturally, the fragrance of lavender is everywhere at the farm. Even the three dogs carry the lavender smell on their coats, which is not surprising, since they roam freely always at Diane’s side. “I love lavender. It’s my favorite herb. I never get tired of the smell,” she says.
For more information: A mailorder price list is available by writing Bonny Doon Lavender Farm, 600 Martin Road, Santa Cruz, CA 95060; or (408) 459-0967. The farm site is not open to the public.