Lavender Fields Forever - Alton

Lavender is more popular than ever. Sarah Peters talks to the owners of Lavender Fields in Alton to find out more about this evocative herb that is enjoying renewed popularity

Wide rows of nodding, purple flowers stretch into the distance towards dark, looming trees. The sky is clear blue and the flowers seem to be basking in the warmth. Bumble bees, drowsy with the scent and dizzy with exhaustion, visit each bloom and create a calming background hum. The air is heavy with the warm fragrance of summer: grass, sunshine and heavenly lavender. Welcome to Lavender Fields at Hartley Park Farm!Over recent decades lavender has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance. It used to be associated with dear, little old ladies, but as more people turn to natural remedies the demands for lavender and its essential oils have meant a whole new set of consumers have appeared on the market. Lavender is well known for being a good all-round essential oil. It is used to treat a wide range of conditions from migraines and skin complaints to stress, depression and exhaustion. It’s become a sought-after ingredient in aromatherapy and herbal medicine because it’s so versatile and can be used for both its antiseptic and calming properties.  And, because it just smells nice, it’s also a fragrance used to simply scent a room.

Hopping to lavenderTim and Anne Butler have grown lavender at Lavender Fields, just outside Alton, since 2001. They have a massive 24 acres of lavender fields which have become a local land mark (and in July something of a phenomenon) as the fields become a vision of dramatic purple. “My family have been farming this land for nearly 200 years,” says Tim. “We used to grow hops, but turned to lavender about 10 years ago.”  The switch from hops to lavender was not an easy decision to make. There was not much research on growing lavender commercially and they had to learn a great deal in a short time. “Cultivating lavender on a large scale is very different from growing it in a garden environment. We were willing to farm lavender as its hardy and not prone to many pests and diseases. However, our main problem was weeds: how to keep them at bay!”The answer was to grow the plants through polythene and this seems to be working very effectively.Best in their fieldThe Butlers chose to grow four main varieties of lavender for harvesting, each with its own characteristics and each used in a different way. Folgate has a mild aroma and produces a top quality oil. Maillette is originally from France and has a strong perfume ideal for essential lavender oil. Imperial Gem has a vibrant colour and is used exclusively for dried seed and bunching. And Grosso is a hybrid variety grown for its oil and its elegant, long stems, used bunches and sheaths.“It takes three years for the lavender plants to mature,” Tim explains. “Each plant has a lifecycle of between seven to 10 years. So once they are established, it’s a bit easier but during early years they can be a bit temperamental.“We harvest during July depending on weather. Once cut, it is immediately taken to the distillery, as it starts to lose oil from the moment it is harvested. The pure essential oils then have to be stored and aged (like wine) for six to nine months before it can be made into the final products.”All the drying, cleaning and packing of the lavender is done on site as well as the distilling and bottling, so it is a very busy place.

At home in HampshireHampshire is not traditionally known for its lavender: not like Norfolk. However, the geology of the land lends itself to growing lavender because of its light, well-draining soil and sunny weather.  “Lavender plants don’t like to get their feet wet. They won’t grow well in heavy soils. The geology of the land at Hartley Park Farm means that lavender can really thrive.”The distinctive aroma is found in all parts of the plant, but the essential oil is produced from the flowers and flower-stalks. The best time of day to harvest is in the morning as the yield will be greater.“We’ve learned so much over the years,” says Tim.  “Once the plugs are established, then it’s a bit easier and by year four we are getting the maximum oils we can from each plant.”Tim also has one acre dedicated to growing rosemary. Another pungent herb that requires similar growing conditions, it compliments the fragrance of lavender and a blend of the two essential oils is used to fragrance several of the hand and body care products.   The couple began selling their range of hand, body care and home fragrance products at Farmers’ Markets throughout Hampshire about 10 years ago. They still travel to many of the markets, but tend to focus on their shop as the main retail source where there is an enticing array of lotions and potions and food made from or with lavender. Mrs LavenderLavender has also been used as a culinary herb since Roman and Greek times and lends a delicate flavour to casseroles, scones and ice cream. It can be used in many recipes as a substitute herb for rosemary; especially roast lamb with lavender. Freshly cut flower heads can also be used to decorate salads and cakes. The food range at Lavender Fields includes delights such as Ice Cream with Honey & Lavender, Meringues with Lavender, Honey with Lavender. The Lavender and Lemon Biscuits are made locally using a recipe created by Tim’s wife, Anne, fondly known as Mrs Lavender. The entire farm is permeated with the intoxicating scent of lavender, especially the shop. Does Tim ever get bored with the fragrance? “Not really,” he laughs. “If anything I become immune to it and I don’t notice it any more. I do appreciate it though and like the idea that our visitors can take a little bit of the magic home with them.”

Tips on growing lavender

• Well drained soil: ideally lime, gravel or chalk. Add sand if you have a clay soil.• Sunny position: ideally south facing as they will not flower if grown in shade.  • Watering: throughout summer months water containers well. Plants in the ground should be self sufficient except during particularly dry periods.• Feeding: feed with potash once a year to improve flowering.• Pruning: cut back hard in August down to the old wood.

Lavender through time

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• The Romans introduced lavender to England. • The Egyptians used it for mummification and perfume. • During medieval times it was grown in monasteries for culinary and medicinal use. • During the 17th Century’s Great Plague people wore lavender on their wrists to protect themselves.• By Tudor times there were acres of lavender fields across the country and it was very popular.  During the Victorian era, it was used as perfume and for flavouring food such as honey, jams and custard. • During World War One its antiseptic properties were of great importance. It was even used to disinfect the hospital walls.

Hampshire Lavender growers

Isle of Wight Lavender, Staplehurst Grange, Staplers Road, Isle of Wight  PO30 2LU. Tel. 01983 825272

Lavender Wheat Bags, 95, Garstons Close, Fareham  PO14 4EU. Tel. 01329 846273

Long Barn Growers and Distillers, The Old Sheep Fair, Bishops Sutton Road, Alresford  SO24 9EJ. Tel. 01962 738684

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