Vivian Nielsen runs Garden Gate Lavender Farm with more than 2,500 plants. Not bad for a woman who could never keep her houseplants alive.
“A lot of people think lavender farming is just throwing some plants in the ground and then becoming rich and famous,” says Nielsen. “It doesn’t quite happen that way. It’s a lot of hard work. Keep your day job, at least for awhile until you get going.”
Nielsen first planted lavender about six years ago and opened for business in 2004. She now has 10 acres of lavender which are open to the public. People come to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries. They stroll around the rows of fragrant plants, or sit on the chairs scattered throughout the fields. Customers can pick and purchase bundles of fragrant lavender.
A member of the mint family, lavender has many uses. Nielsen makes and sells lavender water, lotion, soap, bath gel and salts, and Victorian wands. These wands are bundles of dried lavender that retain their scent for years. Just one squeeze releases the fragrance.
Nielsen also sews small pillows and fills them with flaxseed and lavender buds. Heated up in the microwave, Nielsen says the pillow helps sinus problems. Chilled in the freezer, it helps with muscle aches. She makes lip balm from the beeswax of her own bees, mixed with olive oil, lavender oil, and flavor (her favorite is lime.)
Lavender is very hardy and drought tolerant, especially the Grosso variety, so it’s ideal for the climate in this area. Grosso is also the most popular variety sold by commercial lavender farmers. It’s not only tough but very aromatic.
“Many people don’t realize that lavender is an herb,” says Nielsen. “The one thing I learned the first time when I cooked with Grosso (I made some ice cream), is that it tastes like frozen soap. It was beautiful, it was lavender colored, but when my kids ate it they said ‘Ugh!’ ”
Culinary lavender is Nielsen’s specialty. Her hottest product is Spice of Life, an incredibly piquant blend of three types of lavender, garlic, salt and pepper. It’s great on grilled meats, vegetables and pasta. She makes lavender lemonade, sugar and pepper. And everything is organic, although she won’t be certified to sell organic products until next year. Then she intends to make lavender jam, jelly and herbal tea.
“Everything is pure organic,” says Nielsen. “And that’s because we believe that if you’re going to put lavender buds against your nose, you don’t want to inhale pesticides. And if you’re going to eat it, then of course you don’t want them.”
This means a lot of weeding by hand. Fortunately, lavender doesn’t require much water, and deer dislike the fragrance. “In past days they’d wash their clothes and lay them on top of lavender bushes because it smells good, and the smell is not attractive to insects, so it keeps bedbugs and other insects away from you,” says Nielsen.
In the future Nielsen plans to hold classes on organic farming with an emphasis on women farmers, soapmaking and cooking with lavender. She wants to create a special wedding garden.
“It’s been fun,” says Nielsen. “It’s been a whole family affair. Everyone digs in and helps each other. Friends have come and we’ve had planting parties.
“The whole idea is to build a sense of community. I’ve met more neighbors through my lavender farm.”
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