Old World Lavender on a Historic New World Farm

As seen in the Fig Bethlehem online blog, July 13, 2015

By Nadia Hassani


When I drive along our area’s back roads, I often see dilapidated stone barns looking sad and out of place as wider roads, malls and cookie-cutter housing developments encroach. The barns are relics from the time when Lehigh Valley was a farming valley, before losing 80% of its farms and 53% of its farm country to development (I wrote about this in a previous blog post).  

There are exceptions and it is uplifting to see a Colonial-period farmhouse, barn and outbuildings restored and filled with new life and purpose. Lavender Farmette is such an example.

I found Lavender Farmette by following the scent. I went to the Bethlehem Food Co-Op Craft Fair last April where I bought a bunch of dried lavender, full and beautifully presented. I chatted with Lavender Farmette’s owner Florence Rodale, who started her enterprise eight years ago. This lead me to the Farm’s website stating that Florence and her husband “rescued it from the sprawl of urban development”. I was even more intrigued.

I visited Florence’s Lavender Farmette last week. She alerted me that she was already well into the lavender harvest so I should not expect to see much of the purple bloom. What I did see was stunning enough – and not just the lavender, but also the old buildings in various stages of restoration. Breathtaking and aromatic!

The first foundations on the farm date back to 1794. There is a house, barn, milkhouse, smokehouse and cold cellar, all a great example of self-sustainability. The large barn, where decorative spaced patterns in the bricks provide cross-ventilation, makes a perfect place to dry the lavender.

The farmland at Lavender Farmette is gently sloped which actually is a blessing because the soil has high clay content, which means poor drainage that is deadly for lavender plants, as they do not like to get their feet wet.

When Florence walked with me through the rows of lavender plants, she noticed that after the daily heavy rains, there was a small puddle on the landscape fabric which is stretched on the soil to raise the soil temperature and suppress weeds. Without interrupting our talk she bent down, made a small cut into the fabric so the water can drain, and we moved on.

Florence describes Lavender Farmette as an “urban micro-farm”. The micro does not only refer to the farm’s size of 2.5 acres and its small, artisanal production of lavender products. It also means that each and every one of the 2,000 plants needs to be carefully pruned, weeded – in addition to wet soil, weeds are the other enemy of lavender – and harvested. Florence recruits family and friends to help out. On the day I visited, her son was carefully working his way down a row of several hundred lavender plants.

Florence Rodale is a native of France who has lived in the Lehigh Valley since the late 1980s. Before starting her farm, she had already grown about 200 lavender plants in her home garden in Allentown.

It was not an easy start at the Farmette. The farmland she and her husband bought posed a set of challenges before they could begin planting. To improve the soil quality, she screened the soil and removed a generous deposit of rocks and large boulders. She also added loads of compost. Florence has high praise for the difference compost makes. The more the better, she says.

Despite all the tender loving care, things can go wrong, like on every farm. In the icy winter of 2013/14 Florence lost one-third of her plants. That winter also reinforced the importance of pruning. A spherical-shaped plant catches and holds the snow, providing insulation from the deadly winter winds.

Florence grows several varieties of lavender, including the culinary varieties Munstead, Hidcote, Sachet, and Provence. The two varieties for sachets and other scented products, Phenomenal and Grosso, are the easiest to grow, Florence says.

Every portion of the plant can be used, even the stems, which can be used as fire starters. Soaked in water like a wooden skewer, the stems of culinary lavender can also be placed right onto the grill to give barbecued meat, fish and chicken a subtle lavender flavor.

From the lavender Florence produces dried lavender flowers, sachets, soap, and culinary lavender for cooking. She also makes lavender cushions with Cyanotype using a photographic printing process with cyan-blue print. When Florence is not tending to her lavender, she is a fine art photographer with a specialization in handmade photographic printing processes like Cyanotype, which was introduced in 1842. At the upcomingOlympus InVision Photo Festival at ArtsQuest, Florence will exhibit a collection of her photographs through Floreant Projects at her Lavender Farmette studio.

To make her essential oil, a natural oil, and hydrosol, a condensate floral water, Florence uses a steam distillation process. Expanding beyond lavender, she also grows a small patch of lemon grass and rose-scented geranium, both annuals, to make hydrosol and essential oils. The oil of rose-scented geranium acts as a tick repellent.

Over the years several garden clubs in the Lehigh Valley have invited Florence to speak about lavender. People are always surprised, she says, to learn about its many health benefits. Because it is an antiseptic, it can be used to cleanse and soothe minor burns and insect stings. Lavender’s relaxing scent also makes it a favorite in aromatherapy.

For gardeners, lavender has benefits that go far beyond it being a decorative plant with a delightful scent. Lavender is drought-tolerant and deer-resistant. Lavender is not native to North America; it hails from the Old World. The lavender plant serves as a pollinator plant that attracts bees and bumblebees. Other beneficial insects, butterflies and hummingbirds feed on lavender’s nectar.

I won’t even try growing lavender on our wind-battered hilltop. It won’t survive. But I am happy to know that if I want to get my hands on some lavender (for my favorite recipes with lavender see my gardening blog) it is grown locally, and with organic methods.

Lavender photos courtesy of The Lavender Farmette. Food photo by Ted Rosen.

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