The sweet, bold scent of lavender filled our lungs as we stepped inside the high tunnel, a wood- and metal-framed outbuilding covered with a foggy greenhouse plastic. While most Maine farmers participating in the high tunnel study (conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) were growing tomatoes and cucumbers, the Costigan family in Appleton had planted 300 French lavender plugs. The resulting aroma had a wondrous effect, seeming to simultaneously clear the mind, invigorate the senses and coax one to relaxation.
Early September, it was post-harvest at the Glendarragh Lavender Farm, a lavender farm in Maine. Farm co-owner Lorie Costigan led the Belfast Garden Club around the 26-acre farmland on the St. George River, habitually running her fingers over the plants’ stiff branches and frosty green foliage as she discussed her family’s passion for the aromatic herb.
“It’s a lot like parading your children out for people you don’t know,” said Costigan. The lavender is 3-4 feet tall when in bloom, but it had been harvested in July. The plants were dwarfed with only a few wands shooting skyward — a second bloom.
In other words, her “children” didn’t look their best, nor did they smell their best. Even though, they still looked beautiful and smelled delicious.
The high tunnel is an experiment, and so far, a successful one. Most of their lavender grows outside in plots that expand each year, flooding the fields in purple. Starting with just a few hundred plants in 2007, the Costigans now have 2,000 adult plants. Next June, they’ll add 1,200 more.
Glendarragh is Gaelic for “Glen of the Oaks,” a nod to their Irish lineage and the oak forests that line their fields, land that once was home to dairy cows, pigs and rows of corn and potatoes — not lavender. When the Costigan family purchased the 1822 Appleton homestead, they planned to reclaim the farm’s agricultural heritage, which went by the wayside in the 1960s, in their own way. Instead of rebuilding a sustenance and dairy farm, they built “The Fragrance Farm.”
“We knew better than to tackle livestock, except for our seven chickens, which you’ll see around the place — and the children, which at times can be like livestock,” said Costigan, who grew up in Camden.
The family of four — Patrick and Lorie Costigan and their sons Hugh, 9, and Sam, 18 — have worked hard to educate the public about their organic products and keep the crop healthy. Sam, now attending Hampshire College in Massachusetts for environmental studies and film, laid the stone walkways between the rows, and his younger brother now helps with nearly every aspect of the farm.
“Hugh has grown up knowing the varieties and taking care of the plants,” said Costigan to the visiting garden club. “He can answer your questions as well as I can.”
“There are multiple English and French varieties of lavender, and they all smell different and taste different,” said Costigan, who grows more than a dozen varieties.
French lavender is known for its potent scent, but in general, it has a bitter aftertaste and therefore isn’t ideal for culinary use. English lavender has a more subdued aroma but retains its brilliant purple color when dried and can be a chef’s secret ingredient.
Lavender isn’t always purple. In the high tunnel, they decided to grow dramatic French varieties with long, wispy wands and blooms of white, pink and purple that fade to silver when dried. Their English varieties “Jean Davis” and “Coconut Ice” bloom pink.
They sort the seed by hand. Their goal is to keep the farm family operated, and they only anticipate expanding to have 5,000-10,000 plants, though by then, they may graduate to a seed sorter.
Successful lavender gardening in Maine
Lavender has been grown all around the world. In ancient Egypt, it was used for cosmetics of the living and the dead (mummification), and the ancient Romans recognized lavender for its healing, from headaches to indigestion, and antiseptic properties — and also as an insect repellent. They also bathed in lavender, which is fitting since lavender is derived from the Latin word “lavare,” which means “to wash.” And throughout time, the royals of Europe have continued to use lavender in their linens and on their skin.
In the Victorian era, shakers began growing lavender commercially in the United States.
Today, just outside Montreal is the largest lavender farm in Canada and the second-largest lavender farm in North America, Bleu Lavande, with more than 300,000 lavender plants.
This told the Costigans that Maine’s cool climate couldn’t hold them back.
Lavender isn’t your typical nutrient-needy plant. It basically requires mock neglect.
“Lavender really likes poor, chalky, horrible soil,” said Costigan. “And if anything, our soil is lovely and too rich.”
Lavender is resistant to disease and pests, such as the common garden visitor, the white-tailed deer, but it’s susceptible to mold. The biggest thing to consider while planting lavender in Maine is drainage. Good soil drainage is essential, as is sunlight.
“We get emails from people asking why their lavender is dying, and nine times out of 10, it’s because of their great fondness for bark mulch,” said Costigan. Bark holds water around the base of the lavender and the roots, rotting the plant’s flesh.
High soil acidity also stunts lavender growth, and unfortunately, Maine doesn’t have particularly sweet soil. So the Costigans sprinkle perforated limestone over their fields to bring the acidity down. Lavender can tolerate soil PH as high as 7.5.
One of the most important aspects of growing healthy lavender is pruning it at the right time to keep woody branches from becoming unruly. The Costigans never allow their plants to grow laterally beyond a few feet. In the fall, they prune the plants back to within ¼ inches of woody part of the stems, so the cuts can heal before cold weather sweeps over the farm.
Lavender plants will grow bigger the second year, if you have the restraint to prune them before their beautiful purple (or white or pink) blossoms open for their first year. That’s what the Costigans did with their plants for the first year — “which only further confused our neighbors,” said Lorie Costigan.
During Thanksgiving weekend, they cover the plants with row covers, laying the fabric directly on the hardy plants and securing the edges with 6-inch metal stakes. In the sheltered perennial gardens near their house, they protect their lavender with a layer of pine boughs.
In the spring, they simply run their hands over the top of the plants, snapping off any brittle ends in the process.
“People think we’re petting our plants,” said Costigan, running her hand through the frosty green foliage of a lavender mound like she might lovingly ruffle her sons’ hair.
If you follow these rules, lavender is a long-lived perennial, though most commercial lavender farmers dig up plants by the time they reach 10 years because they don’t produce as much bloom.
“I don’t have the heart to do that,” said Costigan. “The original plants on our farm will turn into pick-your-own for as long as they can.”
Harvesting and using lavender
Gardeners selectively harvest lavender buds to keep the plant looking beautiful, but farmers want it all, collecting wands by the handful.
These handfuls are ideal bundles for drying, because if you try to dry lavender in a larger bundle, the plants in the center will never dry before they begin to mold. Potential mold also is the reason not to harvest lavender while it’s raining.
For the Costigans, who make a variety of lavender products, it’s important to harvest the buds before they bloom and the oils within the buds bake in the sun, losing some of the fragrance and flavor.
The day of the Belfast Garden Club visit, thousands of freshly harvested bundles where drying on chains fastened to the barn rafters, waiting to be turned into product or simply sold as dried bouquets.
With a raw material that smells, tastes and looks good, the product line is limitless. Top sellers on their online store and Camden shop at 22 Main St. are bath salts, candles, embroidered linen sachets, shortbread cookies and body butter — all containing lavender.
They also sell aroma pillows, balms, lotions, salves, soap, furniture polish and tea.
“There’s no waste in what we’re doing here,” said Costigan. “When prunings fall to the side, we use it as fire-starter, kindling, which is a great mosquito deterrent when we burn it in the fire pit beside the plots and we’re working late into the night.”
By 2015, they hope to use the less fragrant foliage in the production of their own oil.
“We have nothing but a demand for more,” said Costigan.
Lemon Cheesecake with Lavender Scented Shortbread Crust
Courtesy of Lindsey Schortz of Let Them Eat Cake in Belfast
2 pounds cream cheese
1 cup sugar
1 cup sour cream
¼ teaspoon salt
zest of 2 lemons
1 1/3 cup flour
1/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons very cold butter
1 tablespoon culinary lavender
For the crust: Use a food processor to combine the sugar and lavender (if you don’t have a food processor you can crumble the lavender into the sugar with your fingers). Add the flour, then the butter. Pulse (or cut by hand) until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Press this mixture lightly into the bottom of a baking pan with a removable bottom (a spring-form pan will also work). Bake crust at 350 degrees for 20 minutes until lightly browned. The crust may crack a bit but this is fine.
For the cake: While the crust is baking, combine the cream cheese, sugar and salt at a medium-high speed until smooth in a mixer using the paddle attachment. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Add the sour cream until just combined. Lastly, add the fresh lemon juice and zest and mix in at low speed or by hand. Once the crust has been removed from the oven, turn the oven temperature down to 275 degrees. I usually center two racks in the oven and place a pan of water on the lower rack while baking the cheesecake to help with cracking. Pour the cheesecake batter into the cake pan and bake for two hours and fifteen minutes. Of course ovens vary, the cheesecake should be puffed up like a souffle when finished and a bit firm to touch, although it will wobble a bit. Once removed from the oven, let it sit for about 20 minutes, then slide a knife lightly around the top edges to loosen the cake from the sides of the pan. Place in the refrigerator until thoroughly chilled. For the best results, bake the cake the day before you need it, so that is completely chilled when served.
An early version of this story incorrectly categorized Glendarragh Lavender Farm in Appleton as the only lavender farm in Maine. There are other lavender farms in Maine, such as Sweet Dreams Lavender in St. Albans.