Farmgirl


The Lavender Farmgirl


by Iris Lee Underwood, Owner ~ Yule Love It Lavender & Letters

Iris cradles one of her hens on her lavender farm.
My romance with lavender began seventeen years ago during research on medicinal herbs for my first novel. Good fortune led me to Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden, Michigan, where a clan of women called the Friends of Herbs gathers to tend the center's herb garden.

There, under the approving eye of St. Francis of Assisi, when I first knelt with the sages and listened to ancient remedies and favorite recipes, I knew I was on holy ground. Visit after visit, my thirst for knowledge was satisfied by some sort of herbal iced tea: lemon balm, mint, rosehips.

Gradually, as I weeded and harvested lavender, smelled the scent from heaven, the plant's oil anointed me, worked its way into my skin, my blood, my soul.

I became an herb lady: a believer in Earth’s healing virtue. Soon, lavender, the silver-green sub-shrub from the mint family, grew in my gardens. Just like my Seven Ponds tribe, lavender flowers became one of my favorite expressions of love and gratitude: a fresh posy tied with ribbon, or dried and wrapped in a vintage hanky.

My friends cherished their garden gifts. They were amazed that after three years, the lavender still possessed its fragrance. Ah, to see and know joy in such natural simplicity. Then, one sunny day in 2003, I stood and stretched my back while deadheading my perennial island. Seven years after the death of my firstborn, I had never felt more alive, whole. I wondered What is it? and looked down for an answer.

There at my right foot was a lavender plant. I brushed my ankle against it and whiffed the chemical reaction. Let me stay here all day, I thought, and pulled a tissue from my pocket. There it was again, the scent of lavender on my hand. The tissue.

Like Saint Peter on the rooftop, I stood in a trance, hip high in flowers. Rows of lavender appeared, surrounding our little Cape Cod. Two acres of lavender!

Yes, that's what I'm going to be, I vowed. I'm going to be a lavender farmer. I would put my writing life on hold for a decade to share this healing plant with people who needed healing.

Well, my dreams are usually my husband's nightmares. Thinking of his future retirement, growing lavender as a cash crop had to be ultimate insanity. Did I want to be confined to a lavender farm every summer?

Yes.

And what did I know about farming, or the lavender market in Michigan?

Nothing. I would learn.

After research and consultation, I planted a 25' x 25' tester lavender garden the following spring, a loose version of an English knot garden. That summer, thanks to a member who had given my herb group a brochure of the event, my husband and I flew out to Sequim, Washington to visit the Eighth Annual Lavender Festival in mid July 2004. I went to study lavender farming and the business model. My husband went for vacation.

It was like my vision: hundreds of ribbons of lavender, rolling up, over and across open countryside. "Wouldn't a visit to Sequim's Lavender Festival every summer be good enough?" my husband asked.

No. I wanted to encourage people to grow lavender. To be healed as I was healed. By farming lavender, learning the Michigan hardy varieties and risking the financial investment, only then would I become a lavender farmer. I must test to see if lavender could grow as a mono crop in Lower Michigan. I would invite people to my farm to learn with me, to handle the plant and be healed. To harvest goodness and take a bundle home.

My daughter Kelly helped plant my tester garden, which survived the winter. The following spring, my baby Ruth helped me plant almost 700 lavender plants in the spring of 2005. I planned and hosted my first lavender festival in July 2005 with the help of volunteers who believed in my dream. The dramatic, longed stemmed Grosso bloomed a month earlier than expected: perfect timing for festival guests to harvest. Glorious! About 700 people experienced that peculiar sense of peace and well-being.

Enthused, I hired Andy, our handyman, to plow more field for planting and expanded the farm to one acre. Four lavender festivals and seasons passed. Meanwhile, I added farm tours, elegant teas and "how-to" lavender workshops to the farm's events.

By the end of the 2008 harvest, the land and I decided it was time to focus on farming rather than hosting a festival. We opened regular farm hours throughout the season. The farm bloomed an acre of thirteen lavender varieties.

Ah, the lavender romance! Those purple wands waving in the breeze have a way of winning your heart for wholesome living and organic agriculture.

The lavender passion brought kindred spirits to the farm who helped develop Yule Love It Lavender Farm into a little plot of land with hens and honeybees. They, as well as books by Wendell Berry and Sir Albert Howard, taught me about cover crops and composting, the necessity of diversity in farming. I saw clearly the urgency to romance the next generation into agriculture.

Glory of glories! Growing lavender nudged me closer to the lifestyle of good husbandry, the affectionate connection between home, farm and wilderness my grandparents and parents lived in Appalachia Kentucky. I determined one acre of lavender was enough. The farm and I needed balance and diversity.

In 2012, we dug up a dead lavender plot and planted forty asparagus crowns and twenty rhubarb plants. A healthy raspberry patch grows where the lavender tester plot gave up the ghost. As the lavender fields perished, I planted hardy perennial food crops that will outlive me. In the process, our table and freezer runneth over.

In perfect timing, the farm was honored with the Keep Michigan Beautiful Award in October 2013. Having fulfilled my promise to God and my husband, I closed the farm to the public at the end of the most remarkable 2014 season.

The following October, I began a weekly column under the flag of Honest Living for the Tri-City Times of Almont, Armada and Imlay City. I’ve concluded my novel and am engaged in the agent search. In the midst of a new season, I’m building my writing life, striking a balance between words and hoe.

That is the wonder of it all. I have the extreme pleasure of viewing lavender every day of the year. The scent from heaven is always with me, just like the memory of my firstborn. The cycle of life continues; new roots grow deep into the earth and bring forth life.