Inhaling the scent of the lavender at Carousel Farm in Bucks County will take you on an olfactory journey to Provence. Now is the time to experience it in its full glory.
On a recent spring morning, before the official lavender season and Carousel Farm tours began, Niko Christou took me to see his fields. He is proud of the newly completed lavender labyrinth. Under a lace-like white iron arbor, a visitor begins the spiraling walk on stone paths surrounded by the pale purple herb, getting to the center where a magnificent orange tree is planted. There are tuteurs on which vining red flowers trace their way, luring hummingbirds, as does the trumpet vine on a nearby stone gazebo.
Christou propagates four winter hardy varieties of lavender. In the 10 years he has been growing lavender here, the past two have been the most difficult – he lost half his crop due to the harsh winters. He grew up on an olive oil farm, the youngest of seven children, in Cypress where a wild lavender grows on mountains. “You can’t get oil from it but it’s beautiful,” he says.
Lavender not only makes soaps and other cleansers smell deliciously good, but it is said to be relaxing — those who spray it on their pillows will sleep well. Lavender essence can repel mosquitoes, moths and other pesky insects, and make headaches go away. The dried herb is not only useful for sachets, but enhances roasted vegetables, chicken and lamb.
The perennial herb with gray-green foliage is also a beautiful subject for painters and photographers, who set up in the fields at Carousel Farm this time of year.
The sign at the entrance says organically grown, and no herbicides or pesticides have been used. “But we can’t control what the bees bring to the honey, or if neighboring farms spray and it reaches our crops,” says Christou. Rather than go through the organic certification process, Christou is among a growing number of ecologically conscious farmers who believe it’s more important that consumers know the source and the practices than having a certification label.
Christou, a photographer, and his partner David Braff, an attorney, bought the 35-acre property in 2000. Christou came to the U.S. in the 1980s to study photography at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and pursue interests in ballet, theater, and design. Christou and Braff visited Bucks County in the late 1990s and were enchanted by the beauty and history of the region, and its farms.
Christou had been shooting architectural interiors and portraits but wanted to do something different. The lavender farm started as a hobby, but “as we began to get a nice response from the local community, I became passionate about it and it grew into a business.” Even on the farm, his design sensibility is in full gear. He has created alternating rows of blue and white blooms that form a patchwork pattern.
The first three years after purchasing the property were spent restoring it. The previous owner, an antiques dealer, had a 40-car heated garage that Christou and Braff no longer needed. There were other buildings that served no purpose and were removed, along with blacktop, creating the fields where lavender now grows. They kept the magnificent stone house where they live, and a stone bank barn built in the 1740s with 27 stables. The slate roof needed to be repaired and new wood floors, to look like old wood floors, were put in. There is a dark area used for drying lavender, and several enormous spaces that would make ideal party spaces. One room has a 200-year-old hand-carved pool table, over which hang metal light fixtures, designed by Christou, and suspended from 30-foot chains. From the window is a magnificent view of the lavender fields.
Pear trees and peonies in raised stone beds lead to an old carriage house that has been restored. Christou and Braff exposed the stone and the original wood beams, and the loft is now a bedroom, reached by a spiral staircase, with an antique brass bed and a view of the lavender fields. They lived in the carriage house while restoring the main house, and now use it as a guest house for friends and family.
The former corncrib has been gutted and converted into an area where the distilling takes place. “During the harvest season, the distillery runs every day for three months,” says Christou, who remains hands-on during the operation. Steam is used to separate the lavender water and oil.
“We produce 50 gallons of oil in a year,” says Christou. If that seems like a small amount, consider that the yield from lavender is far less than from olives. During a single distillation, less than an ounce of lavender oil is rendered, but there can be up to a gallon of lavender water, a byproduct of distilling. Visitors during the harvest season can watch the distilling, see the jars filled, and learn about the benefits of lavender oil and water. In addition to those named above, Christou says lavender oil is good for treating burns and mosquito bites, it has antiseptic qualities and has been used to clean hospitals. Lavender water can be used for sunburn and as a room spray.
The vegetable garden is sited where a former garage was removed. Along the stonewalls, Christou has espaliered apple trees. Here, a worker in a sun hat tends to basil, pepper plants, tomatoes, artichokes and various herbs. The paths between the raised beds are appointed with potted olive, lemon and fig trees – these are brought inside over winter.
Even before the lavender had started to bloom, the store was redolent from the key ingredient in herbs de provence. Many of the items sold are raised at Carousel Farm, such as lavender honey from the bees.
After the tour, visitors are welcome to picnic on the grounds.
Carousel Farm Lavender, 5966 Mechanicsville Road, Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania, is open Saturdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sundays, June 14-July 9, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tours are offered Wednesdays, June 10 through July 22, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Reservations not necessary. The one-hour tours costs $10/person. Group tours for parties of 15 or more can be scheduled April through December. Reservations required. The farm is closed January, February and March. www.carouselfarmlavender.com
The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.