Close your eyes and imagine strolling through rows and rows of sweet-smelling lavender on a warm summer day. Did your mind immediately wander to France or one of those famously impeccable English gardens? There’s actually no need to cash in any of your miles; all that’s required is a car ride, along with a slight sense of adventure.
Driving to Pleasant Valley Lavender Farm in Morganville is a little bit like going off road, at least for a few minutes. When you finally do arrive (it’s minutes off of Route 34), you realize this farm is actually located on the lawn of someone’s house. Pleasant Valley is owned by Ellen Karcher, a former New Jersey Senator turned lavender farmer, who exudes passion for this fragrant flower and has inspired many other New Jersey farmers to follow in her footsteps.
Karcher began planting the first 150 plants in 2006 after a trip to Sequim, Washington–the Lavender Capital of North America. A Senator at the time, Karcher spoke with a number of small farmers who benefited greatly from their dedication to lavender and the public’s interest in visiting during peak season. She decided to bring that same passion to New Jersey, despite some naysayers who told her it couldn’t be done in the northeast. Karcher persisted and today grows over 20 different types of English and French lavender hybrids.
“I believe we have a microclimate, being near the ocean and in the valley,” says Karcher, whose plants have blossomed. “The soil is well drained and we take measures to protect them during the heavy snow.”
However, what makes Pleasant Valley Lavender Farm unique is that you can experience what it would be like to own your very own lavender field. With three different fields over 10 rolling acres to choose from, just grab a basket and some scissors before heading out to pick your very own bunches of Hidcote, Superblue, Ellagance Snow, Munstead, Provence, Phenomenal and Edelweiss varieties. And don’t be afraid to pick a bunch, as Karcher says, that’s what the plants are there for!
Known for being one of the most calming herbs, lavender (Lavandula) is a part of the mint family and refers to a particular genus with 39 species of flowering plants. The plant is quite hardy and according to Karcher, it can withstand frigid NJ winters (just be sure to brush the snow off the plants after a heavy storm). With so many varietals, picking one to bring home for your own backyard is as easy as telling Karcher what you’re looking for. For example, the Phenomenal hybrid was created to address the northeast climate, but those looking for something smaller or an herb to use for baking or cooking may prefer other options.
So, what do you do with all the lavender you collect? Essential oils are extremely popular but lavender can also be a tasty addition to cooking and baking. According to Karcher, it can make you look like a true chef even if your abilities are actually quite limited.
One of Karcher’s favorite ways to enjoy lavender is by adding it to creamy brie or butter and slathering it over a baguette. Or if you’re looking for something sweeter, try the Lavender Lemon Cookies (recipe below). Karcher and her family call them the “Blame On Kate,” after the cousin she was visiting in Sequim when she first fell in love with lavender.
Whatever you plan to do with it, remember that it’s all about the experience. “Be bold with it and do what you like,” says Karcher. “In the end, I want people to remember the experience of picking the lavender.” The scents, the bees, and the utter bliss. I’ll definitely be back.
Lavender Lemon Cookies Recipe
Courtesy of Pleasant Valley Lavender Farm
2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
zest of one large lemon
**We use angustifolia buds as they are sweeter than x intermedia varieties.
**Lavender and lemon can be adjusted according to taste.
**We use 1 to 3 tablespoons of lavender, depending on our mood.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Stir together flour, baking soda and baking powder, and set aside.
In large bowl, mix together butter and sugar until smooth, then beat in egg and vanilla.
Gradually blend in dry ingredients using a mixer.
Add lemon zest and lavender and stir together with spoon, not mixer.
**You can muddle the lavender (squash it with back of spoon against the bowl) at this point to break up the buds and release more flavor.
**For crispier cookies, add squeezed lemon juice.
Drop rounded teaspoonfuls of dough onto ungreased parchment paper on cookie sheets and bake 8-10 minutes. Sprinkle more buds on top before you bake or after they are out of the oven if you like.
Hero (Top) Feature Image: BillionPhotos.com/Adobe Stock
Additional Body Images (in order) Courtesy:
Pleasant Valley Lavender