Friday, September 28, 2007

It's not the heat, it's the Phytophthora. Maybe.

Thousands of times we've said to customers who buy our plants, "They love the heat, but don't overwater." Yet this year, in the heat of August, we began losing plants. First our Abrialli lavenders started declining -- one or two plants would wilt, right next to healthy plants that received the same treatment. In a few days more would appear weak. Within a month, all of what had been our healthiest plants were dark and wilted. It was hot, right in the middle of August, and being Oklahoma it didn't cool off significantly at night. And it had been a wetter than average summer although the field could not be called wet at all. In September we began seeing the same trend in our field of Provence which, too, had been healthy and strong.

This is our fifth year growing lavender and we know more now than we did when we started. But in trying to figure out our problem we felt helpless. What could we have done wrong? Call it a case of choking -- the same phenomenon that lets a basketball player miss a shot he'd make any other time right when it matters most.

We needed fresh perspectives, so we called our friends Emily and Mike, nearby organic vegetable growers, who stopped by to see our field. They began asking questions.

"Did you harvest and prune the dead Abrialli?" -- Yes, we harvested them in June and pruned a few weeks later.

"Did you harvest and prune the healthy Tuscan next to the Abrialli?" -- No, the Tuscan didn't bloom this year, and we didn't bother to prune them yet.

"Is there any chance you harvested only from the Provence plants that are now dying?" -- Unlikely, but possible, and we started to see where this was leading.

Mike said, "You've done everything right. There's good drainage, the plants are spaced well and get lots of air circulation." Furthermore, we must have created favorable conditions because the plants had grown well until recently.

Emily and Mike are experienced farmers, much more than we are, and they were unsure of our situation. But their questions led us all to suspect a fungus or disease that is triggered by hot and humid conditions, and spreads, among other means, by hand tools. This would explain why plants that had been harvested and pruned were suffering, while those that hadn't been touched were fine.

To try and verify our suspicions we dug up two plants and delivered them to the Oklahoma State University Extension Office in Tulsa, and left them with Sue Grey, a great asset to local growers and a true professional. We'll have to wait for a culture to be grown off the plants to determine a specific culprit, and then decide how to treat the field. We're not a Disneyland lavender field where everything is perfect, so look here in the future for what we discover and decide to do. Early suspicion points to Phytopthora, a fungus that is widely present in Oklahoma soil and is active when temperatures reach 90 degrees with 90% humidity. We'll have to wait and see.

We're frustrated and hampered by the death in our field and want to know WHAT it is, WHY it happened and WHAT NOW. Of course, nothing is that easy, which is why the lavender business keeps our interest despite rough times. Figuring out the problems IS the point.

What interested us the most is how the very educated and experienced people we engaged in this problem were reluctant to tell us what to do. They didn't know, and they knew that they didn't know. Always be wary of those with answers.

We'll update as to the pathology findings, possible solutions and outcomes. And we'll reconsider our line about heat and watering. It's not that simple.

Friday, June 22, 2007


Briefly, the seasons overlapped. spring butterhead and summer blueberries were available in adjacent booths at the farmer’s market.

I’m an experimental cook. Not all my efforts are successful, as Chris and Hillarey can attest, but getting creative in the kitchen is fun for me. At the farm, food preparation is limited to what you grow and what we bring with us once a week as we leave the city.

As I was preparing a fast dinner after working in the field during the auspicious week when the growing season was slipping from spring to summer, I gave in to the temptation to be creative. Maybe it was the muses at play, maybe it was necessity, or maybe it was boredom with bottle dressings. And launching our new culinary line using primarily our own recipes is important to me.

Summer Solstice is upon us. Enjoying the bounty of the season’s harvest is great way to celebrate.

Lavender Blueberry Vinaigrette

¼ cup cooking sherry splash of white wine vinegar
½ cup fresh blueberries ¼ cup olive oil
2 Tablespoons Clear Creek Lavender Sugar
Add all ingredients to blender and blend until berries are liquid. Pour into curette.
Great over butterhead lettuce with sliced apples or peaches.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Almost Edible

As organic lavender farmers of the do-it-yourself variety we get to see many aspects of a business that often is missed in the larger commercial world. Both Chris and I have been working hard at hand-harvesting lavender and both fields for the last few weeks and we’re close to being finished.
Today though, it’s raining. We’re generally not fair-weather farmers but it’s a good day to catch up on inside tasks. Each January I try to estimate how many products we need on hand to get us through the first part of the season – essentially past harvest. With trusty spreadsheets color-coded and printed we start the winter chores such as making soap. All of our soaps are vegetable based and contain no synthetic ingredients. They’re also made completely by us – never farmed out to a contracted soap maker.
Soap making is like chemistry class in high school. It involves great care in mixing and measuring numerous ingredients and checking temperatures. Solid and liquid oils, essential oils for scent, our organic lavender buds, other herbs and spices and of course, sodium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide, or lye, is the ingredient that makes the soap hard, and as I overhead a chemistry student customer telling her mother – it’s what pulls the dirt away from whatever you’re washing.
Making soap also involves a bit of fun. I’ve searched around to find natural ingredients to use for colorants in our lavender soap. In the basic Lavender Bud soap I add an East Indian spice called Rattanjot to achieve a purple color. Other vegetable matter could be used too – like blueberries or indigo, but I’m not sure our customers want the lasting effect of lavender skin after showering. If it’s been a good year for Chamomile, and it generally is, we’ll have Lavender Chamomile soap. A bit of turmeric gives that soft yellow color. Another soap we enjoy is the Wicked Witch bar. It’s an avocado based soap, as opposed to olive oil, so it has a soft green color when cured. Avocado is emollient and very soothing on dry skin.
Often when I’ve got multiple batches of soap curing I’m struck by the colors of the bars that are lined up on the drying rack. They are lovely and have an almost edible appearance.
My calculations back in January were pretty accurate. We made more soap than my spreadsheet called for and I began soaping again recently to prepare for late summer and fall events. Today’s soap will be cured and ready for sale in six weeks.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Field of Truths, not Dreams

Writing this may be bad for business.

It's the second week in June, what should be the peak of lavender season. Our first two years saw this week with a field full of stems bursting with color, and for novice farmers, scarce understanding of how to go about bringing it all in. Those early seasons we saw long hours, days, and weeks with sickles in our hands, rubber bands around the arms of the wheelbarrow for containing our bundles, and a garage full of drying lavender.

We'd been lucky. Those first couple of years took mercy and gave us no problems to solve. Our first summer in the field never saw 100 degrees. In August. In Oklahoma. That's unheard of. But eighteen months ago in fall a severe drought began, and because we'd never had to water in the off season, we didn't irrigate. Many plants died, and the rest suffered.

This year eastern Oklahoma was hit with a brutal, sustained, mid-April freeze. Plants that had been rebounding from the drought were dealt another blow. Granted, there wasn't much we could have done about the cold.

So now we're again in mid-June, but only a small section of plants looks like a postcard. The rest just looks like life -- some good, some bad.

It's hard working as much as we do and not having a beautiful field for our efforts. We're full of doubt over what we might have done wrong, and full of insecurities over the other, larger lavender farm that has the festival. We know we wouldn't want a festival at our place with it looking as it does.

But this evening , after we surveyed our two half-acre plots we ended up by the few rows that do look spectacular and took a picture of ourselves with them, we were both saddened by some sense of failure, and still overwhelmed by the success of the whole venture. This is the best thing either of us has done, and although it's not what we'd imagined, what is? It's as real as it can be. There is no Disneyland perfection here, just hard work from a couple that loves what they do, and who have had their share of success and failure.

If the field were perfect we'd be thrilled. It's not, and we're reminded by our work that there's more truth when things don't go the way one hopes.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Freeze update

In April, a hard freeze in the teens killed much new growth on our lavender plants (see blog entry below). We decided to prune off the dead growth, and allow sunlight to reach into the plants. We think we made the right move -- more new growth is appearing. We think harvest will be less than it would have been, and later, but the plants will recover.

In this photo below, there's lots of growth on the perimeter, and some from the center of the plant, coming off the old growth.

And below is a close-up of the center of the plant. It'll be fine.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Why I farm.

19 April 2007

Farm Journal Entry

by Denise

Yesterday when a Tulsa World reporter asked what I liked best about what we do, I gave a good answer --but not a complete one. The in-depth answer for me comes now when I’m in the field weeding. It’s more philosophical and spiritual. Sitting in freshly tilled soil I can get to a lower and more basic level and even below the surface of why I love farming lavender.

During peak harvest of 2005 when the plants were lush with spikes and blooms, two large trees were blown down in the bottom section during high winds. Twenty-eight plants were crushed or covered as we continued to harvest in the short window of June. It would be fall and winter before the windfall could be tended to. Enough firewood for several winters was cut. The field survived, as did several of the crushed plants.

Fall of 2005 through Spring of 2006 brought one of the worst droughts in Oklahoma history. We were under burn bans for most of a twelve-month period. Neighbors had wells go dry and carted water in plastic gallons for drinking and washing. We were fortunate -- our well, though shallow, continued pumping. But without rain the irrigated fields suffered. We had a smaller harvest yield but the majority of plants survived and by late fall were healthy again. I learned a lot about farming in that time. I was amazed by the plant's ability to survive.

A few months ago we were hit by a severe ice storm. Plants were covered in an inch of ice for almost a week. We walked the fields and farm amazed as much by the devastation as by the beauty. And I wondered if the plants would survive.

By the first week of April the angustifolia cultivars were thick with new green growth and the beginnings of spikes were appearing. The intermedias were coming out of dormancy and it appeared that the coat of ice had done little damage.

Then two weeks ago - a late hard freeze. The temperature dropped into the teens. When we walked the fields my spirit dropped and I wondered if everything we had grown and tended for the last five years would die from this most recent blow. It emotionally set me back. We talked about what we would do if the plants didn’t survive, whether to replant or stop farming. We decided to wait.

I realized again how emotionally and spiritually I’m invested and entangled with this work -- digging and planting, tending and harvesting, creating what we can from the earth and our efforts.

Today I’m weeding plants that from a distance appear dead. I will spend countless hours with hoe in hand working in a field that has been dealt with by Nature. Yet -- time and again as I pull weeds and leaves from the bases of gray brittle plants I see three or five tiny green leaves of lavender. And I have hope.

Not just hope for our field, but hope for humanity. We too will survive if we reconnect with Nature.

Most of us have become so distant from the elemental aspects of our surroundings that we think we cannot exist without text messaging or cell phones. People go crazy thinking they must maintain control of their surroundings and receive instant gratification. But here in our lavender field I slow down and sit in the cool earth. I watch a lizard two inches long scuttle over a plant, hoppers flick and fly from leaf to leaf, the earliest bees hum and buzz and through this I learn about survival, growth and Nature herself. This is what I like best about farming.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Hard April Freeze

Everything at the farm was looking so good -- our Munstead lavender in particular was off to such a promising Spring. Then a cold snap with temperatures in the teens killed much new growth on these plants. We think they will survive, but our harvest will be lesser and later than we'd hoped.

Here is a Munstead lavender showing new growth a week before the freeze.

...and here is a similar plant a week later after a night in the teens.

Oddly enough, the new growth seen above that was not whacked by the freeze is seen consistently on the west side of the Munstead plants -- almost all of them. The cold front came in from the west, yet the west side of the plants was spared.

We have fertilized and are hopeful there will still be a good harvest.

Here is a photo from a severe ice storm in January, 2007 which didn't do any damage to the plants.