When I think of lavender fields, my mind envisions row upon row of vibrant purple mounds of flowers, rolling over hills for miles somewhere in the south of France. In this fantasy, I am sitting in an old-fashioned rocking chair enjoying a glass of local wine and enjoying the peace and serenity. My local experience is not quite the same as my dream, but it reinforced the number of hard-working farmers working in the lavender space in my own backyard.
Terre Bleu, one of the largest fields in the province, is a family-owned, organic farm located in Milton, Ontario. Starting with only 10,000 plants, the farm has blossomed to over 35,000 plants and a large gift shop. This rural farm grows English and French lavender, which is where the education part of this experience started for me. French lavender is taller, with a pastel/purple colour and is not used for cooking due to the camphor levels as it will taste like soap. English lavender has a deep, rich purple.
Our guide, Madelaine, explained the harvesting process and how lavender essential oil is distilled. A full run of the still is four hours and essential oils must age between three and five months which allows it to become more subtle and enjoyable. Maybe this is where my problem lies, as (true confession), I have never been a fan of lavender. As I progressed through the tour, my opinion changed the more I learned about this amazing little plant. Lavender is excellent for sleep, stress and has antiseptic properties. I wish I knew this earlier as I am a magnet for any type of bug bite.
Terre Bleu is not only home to row upon row of beautiful lavender plants, it has its own apiary, where the bees have a close relationship with the nearby lavender plants. Madelaine explained that the farm apiary is home to about 2000 working bees per hive. I must admit that I was (very) anxious standing 10 feet from the nearest hive, but they had no interest in me. The bees buzzed past me on their way to the lavender plants and back to the hive without any consideration for their audience. Another learning point was the symbiotic relationship of growing lavender and housing apiaries at the same location. With the threat to honey bees over the past few years, this is a smart way of multi-tasking and ensuring the future of bee colonies.
We walked through the long rows of lavender plants that were yet to bloom to their full glory. We continued past the new ‘herb bar’ which is a raised garden complete with various herbs, lingered past the horse and sheep and through the 200-year old cedar forest. It was a hot and humid day and the natural shade from the cedar was appreciated. It felt like we had walked into 100-acre woods in search of Winnie the Pooh! The beauty of the forest canopy and the natural brook made me smile. They call this path through the forest the ‘yellow bench trail’, so we weren’t surprised to see a beautiful yellow bench nestled between the trees for quiet refuge or time to enjoy the scenery.
As you exit the forest, you find yourself in another field of lavender. Although not fully in bloom, each little wand looks like it is fighting to emerge and dance in the bright sun. The wonderful surprise for making it to the back field on such a hot day is a piece of art that grabs your attention immediately. Located in the middle of the lavender field, I find myself smiling at a beautiful, yellow door. An inscription at the top of the door reads, “Walk through the door, your worries behind you, your joys ahead”. These words are from the owner’s daughter, which she shared when she was just 10 years old! I wish I was as insightful at that age! So, like most grown adults, we race to get through the door and leave our worries behind. As soon as you reach the back field, a guide informs you of the rules. One of the rules is to respect the lavender plants and not walk or jump over them. If you want to go to another row, you have to walk to the end of the first row before you join the second row. In our haste to get to the door before the rest of the group, we found ourselves in the wrong row, and had to go through the walk of shame to arrive at the work of art.
The yellow door in a sea of purple is a magnificent sight and a magnet for visitors. It was nice to have a quiet day to consider the meaning of the words on the threshold. It was a gentle reminder to slow down and enjoy the beauty of nature that surrounded us.
No visit to Terre Bleu is complete without sampling their famous lavender ice cream and lemonade. They were both so refreshing on a hot day, and the colour of the ice cream was magical against the bright blue sky. The fancy lemonade was delicious and pretty, with small lavender seeds floating on top for extra flavour.
Check out the gift shop on your way out. It is amazing how many ways lavender can be infused into our daily lives. My favourite was the lavender truffles, beautifully boxed for a great hostess gift. Another favourite was the beautifully wrapped lavender bath bombs, a nice present for yourself!
A visit to Terre Bleu is a must when lavender is in season. We met some of the friendliest staff and tour guides, all of whom go out of their way to greet you as you drive in, and engage you in conversation at every opportunity. All staff are focused on the task at hand, ensuring that guests leave with a better understanding of the importance of lavender and protecting the environment.
There is nothing like a field of lavender in full bloom to pull you off the road for a better view NEOB Fields (Niagara Essential Oils and Blends) is located in Niagara-on-the-Lake with three satellite boutiques stores in Elora, Oakville and Stratford, Ontario.
My tour guide, Jennifer, explained that their ‘Glorious’ blend of Niagara lavender grows 1-2 feet wide and comes in purple, pink and white. They do not differentiate between English and French lavender but do suggest that their lavender is excellent for headaches and migraines and can be used in sweets such as biscotti and lemon loaf! The farm also grows rosemary, which is used in hair products and as skewers for BBQing, to infuse extra flavour. Who knew! They also grow calendula, which is great for eczema and dry skin and lemongrass which is quite simply, delicious!
My education started with the fact that lavender is a perennial which grows in mounds and does not like to get its feet wet. They harvest mid-to-late June as they want the flowers closed and they use a method known as the ‘Japanese tea harvester’ which involves a person on either side of the rows to cut the lavender down. More mature fields are harvested at the end of July/start of August. The tour took us to the local still, where the essential oils are harvested, and the drying tent where lavender is cut, tied and hung upside down by hand.
A new two-year project involves the production of shitake mushrooms. The producers implant spores into logs to grow mushrooms that are great for facial creams, especially anti-aging creams (another new tidbit!). The ‘grade A’ mushrooms will be sold to local restaurants and supports the farm-to-table concept which I fully support.
At the end of a very hot day and a great tour, I was greeted with an ice-cold glass of lavender water and a piece of lavender shortbread. Both were delicious and very welcome. The store sells a wide variety of lavender products and is worth the visit. Try
their lavender wine jelly and truffles, relax with your own lavender-infused pillow or purchase a lavender pot. They also sell a variety of essential oils, eye masks, diffusers, soaps and body products. I couldn’t help ending my tour with the purchase of a beautiful lavender pot that reminded me of an old French milk jug. It will go perfectly with some deep, purple lavender (also for sale) and will make a great gift (for myself…). I just hope I remember that lavender does not like to get its feet wet!
The Niagara region is home to hundreds of working farms. Try to support our local farmers, take interest in their farms and purchase their products. Lavender is only one example of what is available in the Niagara region. I encourage you to make the visit, get to know the local wineries and working farms, and fall in love with an area that has so much to offer.
Terre Bleu is located at 2501 25 Side Road in Milton. In July and August, the farm is open every day from 11am to 4pm with the last entry to the farm at 4:30pm. If you are planning a visit, please visit their website for admission prices and hours for the store (https://www.terrebleu.ca/pages/visit). The only method of getting there is by car.
NEOB NOTL is located at 758 Niagara Stone Road, NOTL. Their seasonal hours are Monday to Sunday, 10am to 6pm. Tours of the field and the distillery are every hour on the hour from 11am to 3pm. Entry fee to the field is $5. Please see their website for any changes (http://www.neoblavender.com). Access is generally by car, tour bus or bicycle. NEOB has three other stores in Oakville, Elora and Stratford.