By Lauren Wanko
They attract butterflies and bees — and people too, eager to fill baskets with freshly cut lavender.
“It makes you feel really good, touching it and smelling it. It kind of gives you a lift, a mental lift,” said Red Bank resident Debra Lahey.
Nearly 5,000 lavender plants are sprawled across 10 acres at Pleasant Valley Lavender. Morganville resident Ellen Karcher started growing it in 2005.
“I was in the New Jersey state Senate and in 2004 I went to visit my cousin in Sequim, Washington. Sequim is the lavender capitol of North America. We started to tour the lavender farms and even though it was off season, I got the sense of I could do this. Why shouldn’t I be planting lavender in New Jersey? Let’s see how that works,” Karcher said.
About five years after that, Karcher opened her fields to the public.
“People are drawn to lavender. The first thing people need to know is Lavender comes in all different colors. I grow two major varieties. I only grow what’s suitable for New Jersey. They like it hot, dry and sunny. I always tell people think about the Mediterranean. Over the last few years we’ve had real issues with high humidity — high, high humidity — and the heavy, wet snow tends to crack some of the older plants,” she said.
Pleasant Valley Lavender’s plants are created from plugs. A grower cuts a portion of a plant. That makes a cutting. It’s planted to develop roots, says Ellen. Then it’s ready to go into the ground.
“A lot of it now is patented so I actually need to buy from a grower that has patented the plug, who has patented that type of lavender and grow from those plugs,” Karcher said.
Once the plug is planted, it can take up to three years to reach mature size. The lavender typically blooms June to mid-August and tastes pretty good in a cookie.
“It’s a great herb to cook with. It’s in the mint family so mint, rosemary, they’re all very similar and you can use it as you would any herb. It’s well known for it’s soothing effects, but also it’s antibacterial and anti-fungal so with the oil made from it, it can be used directly on the skin,” Karcher said.
The first year Pleasant Valley Lavender opened, Karcher was overwhelmed by the interest — about 2,600 people visited that summer by appointment only. This time of the year, brides typically visit to cut their own bouquets. They come a few days before their wedding. This has become a popular spot for family pictures too.
“It gets really crazy here. People come from all over,” Karcher said.
Gardeners Karen Furnbach and Lahey are having a girls day out, collecting handfuls of the fragrant flowers.
“I love to put lavender in my pillowcase. I did it one time and my husband liked it so much he stole my pillow,” Furnbach said.
Karcher hopes to expand Pleasant Valley Lavender. She’ll start planting this fall.