Stop and smell the lavender
Cold, dreary Wisconsin winters often leave us longing for spring, even before February begins. Personally, I like all four seasons, but I can admit the short daylight hours sometimes get me down. This winter, to help bring some cheer to my apartment, I decided to grow a pot of lavender. Though lavender is not native to Wisconsin, the plant is gaining popularity in household like mine, and in farmers’ fields across the state.
I originally learned about growing lavender in Wisconsin from a presentation by David Harrington and Sue Marshall, owners of Creek Farm in Darien. They recently began growing lavender to harvest and sell commercially. Together- with their son, they care for the lavender throughout the growing process, from planting to drying.
Lavender is a perennial plant that loves full sun (at least eight hours per day or more). At Creek Farm, they grow their plants in raised beds to keep the water drained. Lavender plants don’t like wet “feet”! Lavender also requires very specific soil conditions to thrive. Adding limestone will help fertilize plants and aid in drainage. A healthy plant will survive for five to fifteen years, though it will not reach maturity until three years old.
In the springtime, young lavender plants will be transplanted to beds, and existing plants will be pruned. Pruning lavender is crucial to the future yield of the plant. Mature plants are ready for harvest when they reach full bloom. It is best to harvest in late morning, after any early morning dew has evaporated. Harvesting dry lavender will prevent any mold in the bundles. Next, the lavender must be dried. Bundles of lavender (six to twelve individual lavender spikes tied together) will be hung on poles or hooks to dry in a cool, dark place.
After drying, lavender can be added to dozens of products, crafts, décor, and foods. At Creek Farm, they make everything from soaps and lotions to lip balms, bug spray and essential oil. According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, placing a few drops of lavender essential oil under your pillow or on your temples may improve your sleep.
The spikes and leaves of culinary lavender can be used in most food dishes in place of rosemary. You can also add flavor to fruit or shrimp kabobs by placing including lavender spikes or stems to your skewer. A dried lavender bouquet makes for a great kitchen table centerpiece, and can maintain its color and scent for months to years.
Specialty crops like lavender highlight the vast diversity of Wisconsin agriculture. This diversity is our greatest strength. As a state, we need farms of all types, sizes, and production methods to be successful. Once our cold winter has left us this spring and summer, consider visiting a local lavender farm, or supporting a lavender grower at your local farmer’s market. Or maybe, if you are already intrigued like me, consider brightening up your home with a pot of lavender today.
Abigail Martin is the state of Wisconsin's 72nd Alice in Dairyland