In Good Thyme

"Daddies smell like lavender. That's what I thought when I was a little girl, because my father worked for Yardley of London, a venerable old British firm that produced lavender soaps, lavender talc, lavender cologne, and more. I recall touring the plant with dad, seeing huge vats of swirling golden liquid that would eventually become weighty oval cakes of soap, lavender soap. Everyone and everything in that factory smelled like lavender, but it didn't seem to bother the employees. I always thought of lavender as a clean scent, crisp and fresh as a May morning. For others, it conjures images of Victorian ladies' boudoirs, soft and romantic, or purple fields undulating in the warm Provencal breeze. Last week I saw those purple fields and breathed in that wonderful scent, not in France, but in Coupeville. I visited Sweetwater Lavender, Ltd., a lavender farm on Jacobs Road. As you approach the farm from the highway, you're startled by a riot of color along the fenceline ... wildflowers, mostly orange and gold California poppies, contrast wildly with amethyst rows of lavender. I was greeted by two Sweetwater employees, Annamarie Voss and master gardener Barton Cole, who were bundling English lavender into bouquets to be dried and sold. They were joined by Gordon Edwards, who, with his wife, Susan Morgan, owns and operates Sweetwater. They lease the 16-acre property from Coupeville's pioneer Argent family who have farmed the land for about 100 years. Morgan and Edwards' lavender farm originated on Thompson Road near Langley, but two years ago, it was flooded by a nearby irrigation system. That's when the couple transplanted their lavender and put down roots in Coupeville.Edwards, an affable man who obviously loves his work, told me that the farm began with 12 plants he purchased from growers on the Isle of Jersey in the Channel Islands. He claims that Whidbey Island's maritime climate is perfect for growing lavender. It prefers an alkaline soil and ours is typically acid, but very easy to amend. Edwards said he added tons of lime and raised the soil pH from 5.3 to the high sixes. Sweetwater features English, French, and Spanish lavenders. The scent of English lavender (Lavandulaangustifolia) is subtle, says Edwards, and is the one most used for colognes and perfumes. French lavender (Lavandula dentata), on the other hand, has brisk overtones of camphor, and is most frequently used in soaps. Spanish lavender (Lavendula stoechas) is fragrant, but is mainly grown for it's unusual flower, which Gordon Edwards describes as a small purple butterfly emerging from a cocoon.Working with a fragrance chemist, Sweetwater's proprietors have created their own lavender colognes, lotions, soaps, oils, sachets , potpourris, and other boutique items, which they sell at the farm as well as through a catalog and on the Internet. They have also propagated more than 10,000 plants from cuttings of their original stock. They sell these Whidbey-hardy lavenders, pointing out that deer and wild rabbits dislike the fragrance of lavender immensely and tend to stay away from areas where lavender has been planted. Susan and Gordon offer the following tips to local lavender lovers: Plant in full sun in really well drained soil. Add a handful of garden lime and bone meal to the soil when planting. The lime will raise the pH of acid soils to an acceptably alkaline level. Lavender can take high levels of rainfall if the soil drains well, but does not do well in a humid environment. It enjoys a nutritional boost of half-strength liquid fertilizer once during the growing season. Flower spikes bud from mid June through August. Cut flowers when you see them just beginning to open. If you harvest them for drying when they're in full bloom, they tend to lose moisture and turn brown. Flowers that are to be used for sachets can be harvested after you've enjoyed their blooms, since color won't matter when encased in sachet bags. Each time you harvest your flowers, you're encouraging the plant to rebloom.Susan and Gordon recommend trimming lavender back about two inches in the fall to prevent legginess and prolong the life of the plant. Protect it over winter with a light compost mulch. In early spring you may notice blackened foliage at the base of the plant caused by too much moisture. Gently pull it off. Within weeks, new growth will fill in.For more good information on lavender, see the June 2000 issue of Fine Gardening magazine. You'll find it at the Langley and Freeland libraries, and may request it through any Sno-Isle Library branch.Mariana Graham, a writer and former editor, is a Master Gardener certified through the WSU-Island County Cooperative Extension Service.If you have questions or comments, contact her at the Whidbey News Times, 675-6611; fax 675-2732; or e-mail garden checklist * Keep the compost pile moist throughout the summer and turn it occasionally to have finished compost by the fall planting season.* Fill in empty spaces in front of the border with blooming annuals such as alyssum and ageratum. Purchase fall-blooming plants such as chrysanthemum and aster to keep the color coming.* An inch or more of organic mulch applied around your ornamentals and edibles will help reduce moisture loss, moderate soil temperature, and help prevent weeds from sprouting.* Keep your roses blooming all summer. Deadhead spent flowers. Try digging in some alfalfa meal, then top dress with composted manure. Keep the soil adequately moist.* You're harvesting vegetables now, but its not too late to plant again. Sow beets, chard, lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots, pole, dry or bush beans for late-season harvest. Start planning your winter vegetable garden.* Keep growing tomatoes off the ground; prop or tie them up. Water tomatoes at soil level; splashing or spraying the plant promotes blight.* Don't let weeds go to seed in your garden. Pull or dig them now and you'll thank yourself next year. * Water your lawn early in the morning or during cool, overcast days so moisture soaks into the soil instead of evaporating. Turf needs approximately one inch of water per week during the dry season. * Consider replacing your lawn with low-maintenance, drought-tolerant ground covers or low-growing plants.* Your plants may have infestations of spittlebugs. The tiny insects encased in a protective layer of spit are harmless. They're best removed by washing them off with a strong stream of water.* Inspect your plants for aphids, and wash them off with a spray of water. Heavy infestations may be treated with insecticidal soap.* Deadhead herbaceous perennials, including those hanging fuchsia baskets, to encourage repeat bloom. "

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