‘Scents come in and out of fashion but lavender doesn’t,’ says Caroline Alexander of the Hop Shop at Castle Farm in Kent, one of the largest English lavender growers.
Anyone fortunate enough to visit Castle Farm during the few weeks when the 90 acres of lavender plants are in flower is in for a visual treat. Located in stunning undulating countryside near Shoreham, home of the celebrated 19th-century painter, Samuel Palmer, it is hard to believe that Westminster Bridge is only seventeen and a half miles away. Ninety acres of lavender stretch out into more than one hundred and twenty miles if one were to walk up and down each row. Not surprisingly the fields are in great demand for photo shoots and aromatherapy massages amongst the lavender have proved to be extraordinarily popular.
The Alexanders have farmed the 1,100 acres for more than a century, only diversifying into lavender in the late 1990s. They also grow wheat, barley, rape, two acres of hops for drying as decorative garlands and they have a large herd of beef cattle. Their Hop Shop, open daily, is an excellent farm shop selling a diverse range of products. Mail order is available.
‘We decided to stop commercial production of hops for brewing and canvassed opinion of what new crop to grow,’ says Caroline. ‘We had been told that we should be looking at quality essential oils as the perfumery and pharmaceutical industries are increasingly keen on localism and traceability. Mint, camomile, Melissa, rosemary and lemon balm were among the herbs suggested. But we knew that we could grow lavender here as we had already grown it for cut flowers to sell in the shop and that it would appeal to the shop customers.
Our slightly alkaline soil and sunny slopes here on the North Downs are free draining and ideal for lavender. We also wanted to do something additional with the oil and flowers ourselves rather than just supply in bulk to the world market.’ The wide range of products in the shop is testimony to the versatility of lavender: chocolates, soaps, biscuits, teas, sleep pillows, honey – the scope is endless.
Before my visit to Castle Farm I was not aware that there are two VERY different ‘lavender’ oils each with markedly different characteristics: Lavender oil distilled from Lavandula angustifolia has a sweet powerful perfume with soothing antiseptic elements. It is used as a relaxant – try adding a few drops to a bath or on a pillow. It also ameliorates burns, stings and reduces itching and inflammation. The ‘Folgate’ variety is great for decorative cut bunches and each year a group of Indians from Chatham cut some 24,000 bunches by hand which are then kiln dried. We needed a different specialist variety for the high grade lavender oil so, back in 1998, bought three plants of the ‘Maillette’ variety from France which we micro-propagated, turning into 24,000 plants the next year and the following year 40,000.’
Then there is Lavandin oil distilled from Lavandula x intermedia ‘Grosso. It is a hybrid cross intermedia (95% of the lavender grown in France is Lavandin), very strong growing and high yielding with a strong heady smell. ‘You can feel it zinging up your nose,’ says Caroline. It has a camphor element, making it a stimulant. It is Lavandin that most people associate with the scent of lavender as it widely used for lavender bags. But the oil is also good for deterring flies by rubbing it on windows, as a mosquito repellent or even better as a moth deterrent. And of course it has the opposite effect to Lavender oil, being a stimulant to combat drowsiness.
‘We are breeding two new varieties in conjunction with Downderry, the specialist lavender nursery, to increase the yield and improve the quality of the oil. We are the centre of lavender farming in the area, sharing the specialist lavender harvesting machinery with the three other local lavender farmers and doing all their distillation.’ In 2002 the Alexanders invested in a purpose built steam-distillation plant. ‘We distil in one trailer load what it takes the biggest lavender farm in the world in Tasmania do in a day.’
The flowers are cut at a fairly early stage of flowering from late June to early August to ensure the best shade of bluey/mauve. ‘Most people cut too late as they want to enjoy the colour. Ideally the plants should be producing new buds in the autumn.’ If the plants are well pruned each year straight after flowering they should last between twelve and sixteen years.
Finally the excellent weekly blog ‘The Mid Sized Garden’ here has lots of tips on how to care for lavender in a domestic setting – absolutely the best-way to prune English lavender.
The Hop Shop, Shoreham, Sevenoaks, Kent TN14 7UB