Garden Variety: A glimpse of lavender farming at Washington Creek

Whether you are curious about lavender or already an enthusiast, Washington Creek Lavender’s annual open house is an opportunity to learn more about growing, harvesting, and creating usable products with this aromatic herb. The farm, located at 858 East 800 Road, will be open for the special event June 10 and 11 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Washington Creek Lavender is home to about 6,000 lavender plants and is certified organic. The flower stems are harvested from the lavender plants each year and dried, then incorporated into sachets, dryer sheets, goat’s milk soap and several other products. Jack and Kathy Wilson started the business about 10 years ago.

The lavender farm is a partnership between the couple. Jack does the marketing and the bulk of the farming and is at the Farmers Market booth most often. Kathy takes care of the lavender products, including sewing the sachets and other fabric products by hand.

Open house attendees can stroll through the lavender fields, tour the drying barn, and get in-depth information about growing, harvesting, drying, stripping and product inclusion. They can see the new test garden, where the Wilsons are trying out 20 different varieties of lavender to potentially add to the six varieties they already grow. They can also see the still used to extract lavender oil and learn about the distillation process.

The Wilsons planned their open house around previous years’ experience of purple fields and hopefully mild weather. In farming, every year is a different though, and this time the fields are only beginning to show a little purple.

“It’s a true farming story,” says Jack. “There’s a beginning and a middle, but you really can’t control the end. We don’t want people to think they will see fields of purple. They will see what a lavender farm is like at this stage.”

The lavender is most likely behind its normal growth stage this year because of a couple of very cold days in December, the lack of moisture and snow cover over the past winter, and the cool wet spring the area is currently experiencing.

Jack and Kathy have faced a few challenges over the years with the weather. Lavender is hardy in the region and thrives in hot, dry temperatures and poor soil, meaning it can survive Kansas summers with few inputs. On the downside, lavender may perish in extreme cold temperatures and is completely intolerant of excess moisture.

“A few years ago we lost about 500 plants,” Kathy explains. The loss came after a winter with one episode of extreme cold. “They were the older ones, so we weren’t really sure if it was the cold or the age of the plants.”

Besides the weather, the Wilsons have faced a challenge with variety selection. They planted a test garden when they started and selected the varieties that grew best then, but recent experience convinced them to re-trial some of the varieties. They also added 300 Munstead lavender plants this year — a variety that did not perform well in their original trials but is favored by gardeners in the region.

Despite the trials and tribulations, Jack says “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”

The farm’s most popular products are reusable dryer sheets, sachets, eye pillows, neck comforters, and soap. They recently added lavender filled fabric garden gnomes.

If you are attending the open house, please be aware that County Road 458, the most direct route to the farm, is closed. Attendees are advised to use County Road 460 to access the farm from the south.

The farm is open in summer months Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show.”