"It all started as a romantic idea," Lynda Dowling says of the sumptuous lavender field that paints a swath of brilliant blue and purple across her small Vancouver Island farm. "I had two babies clinging to my skirts and I couldn’t go to Provence, so how could I bring Provence to me?"
You could say her lavender dream began in 1983 when Lynda and husband Michael Dowling, with not a smidgeon of horticultural training between them, left their city jobs in Victoria and moved a few miles west to begin Happy Valley Herb Farm. Or perhaps it began years earlier when Lynda spent enchanted childhood vacations on the farm with her grandmother. "When I was a child," Lynda recalls, "I was always promised that when I grew up and had a family of my own, there was a piece of land here for me." Or maybe the dream took root three years after after the young couple had moved to the abandoned farm, and set to work clearing the broom and wild roses that had infested it, when an elderly lady showed up with an enormous lavender bush for Lynda. "I took over five hundred cuttings from it," Lynda says, "and put them in a cold frame and with those five hundred plants I started my first field."
Since then the small nursery business they’d established has been set aside. Michael now works as a landscape gardener and Lynda manages the herb farm, which includes supplying local chefs with culinary herbs and edible flowers, conducting workshops on growing and using herbs and conducting tours of the farm’s delightful children’s herb garden, butterfly garden and traditional quartered herb garden.
But, more and more, the 1.2 hectare (2.5 acre) farm has been given over to lavender, now boasting over two thousand plants and still growing, row upon row of brilliantly blooming, exotically perfumed bushes humming with bees.
The Dowlings are not alone in being swept away by lavender. It is, in the words of author Tessa Evelegh, "the darling of all herbs since time began." Native to the Mediterranean region and the Middle East, it has been prized in many cultures and for many centuries for its medicinal, culinary and magical properties, its distinctive perfume and its richness of color. Across the span of history lavender’s been employed for everything from repelling insects to dispelling melancholy, from dressing war wounds to inciting marital passion in newly-weds. It’s the herb of constancy and loyalty, of sweetness and undying love.
It’s also an herb of multiple varieties and a confusion of names. Though many types are unsuitable for Canadian gardens, lavender’s extremely adaptable and certain varieties will flourish even in inhospitable places. Lynda’s first five hundred plants from cuttings were Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’, an especially hardy variety of what we think of as traditional English floral lavenders.
Next she planted a row of spike, or monk’s lavender, L. latifolia, prized for its long flower stalks and, as Lynda enthuses, "a beautiful plant that you throw your sheets over for the romance of history." Then came three rows of L. angustifolia ‘Hidcote’, another hardy cultivar with vivid purple flowers. Its visual appeal extends to the chefs who purchase it from Lynda to colour their vinegars and jellies. This was followed by a swathe of L. vera, the "true lavender" that’s grown in Provence, now the world’s largest supplier of the herb. A heavy producer, growing in a compact dome, it’s reputed to have the finest scent of all. Lynda also grows a wide selection of other types. L. angustifolia ‘Jean Davis’ blooms a gorgeous pink but unfortunately loses its color when dried. The French or Spanish lavenders, L. stoechas, have distinctive petal-like bracts at the tip of their flowers and a more resinous scent. Useful in gardens because of their extended bloom, they are not as hardy as the angustifolias, sometimes failing to survive the relatively mild winters at Happy Valley. Lynda keeps sample plants of all her "fancy lavenders" in the greenhouse in case of winter kill. In climates too severe even for hardy ‘Munstead’ or ‘Hidcote’, she suggests gardeners consider the new angustifolia cultivar ‘Lady Lavender’ that can be grown as an annual to bloom from seed in a single season.
The easiest way to acquire lavender is by buying a plant, but only at a reputable nursery where plants are reliably labeled with botanical names. You may want to see a plant in flower before buying it. For seeds Lynda recommends Richter’s catalogue for its extensive selection or Thompson & Morgan. She freezes her seeds for forty-eight hours and sows them in mid-March in a starter mix amended with organic fertilizer. When the seedlings produce their first true leaves, she takes them off the heating cable and puts them in an unheated greenhouse.
Lavender cross-pollinates readily, so seeds are not completely reliable. Softwood cuttings are an easy alternative, especially for getting clones of a particularly choice plant that’s well adapted to local conditions. Lynda takes cuttings in August, putting them in pure sand in a cold frame. They normally strike in six weeks and get potted up and placed in a plastic-covered hoop house. At every stage, adequate ventilation is essential, as young plants – whether from seeds or cuttings – will quickly succumb to excessive moisture.
The three commandments for growing lavender, Lynda says, are: Don’t water too much, don’t fertilize too much and don’t plant them in the shade. The sand-based soil at Happy Valley has excellent drainage, which is critical. Some years she doesn’t water at all, but in extreme dry periods she gives the plants a good soak, especially at the crucial stage when flower buds are forming. The beds are prepped with compost and animal manures and each plant gets a half-cup of organic fertilizer containing alfalfa, soya, kelp and canola meals along with dolomite lime, rock phosphate and greensand or granite dust. Plants are spaced 45 - 60cms (18 - 24 inches) apart, depending upon variety. They can be pruned to shape early in spring and again after harvest.
When the field blooms into a sea of blue, the Dowlings and friends take turns sleeping out in a bed placed in the middle of the field. Harvest day at Happy Valley, in early July, is a community festival at which upwards of 140 people gather for a ritual that seems from a simpler time long past. Adults clip and bundle the sprigs, using hand sickles, secateurs or bonsai scissors, and place them on the bushes. Children follow later, putting the bundles into baskets, then into a wheelbarrow which they struggle up to the drying shed. The bundles, held by elastic bands which tighten as the stalks shrink with drying, are hung by simple hooks on wires. The day ends with lavender punch, entertainment by local Morris dancers and dancing to a Celtic band. "It’s very old world," Lynda says, as might be said of the life she and her family have created, "there’s a real sense of celebration. . . and magic."