Retirement was looming for Indianapolis fire fighter, owner Kieran O’Connor. Kieran and his wife, Libbe, knew it was time to come up with something else, something else that, preferably, would involve growing something–and to start a small business in the process. But what? Folks were already growing hosta and daylilies nearby. Not wanting to compete with his neighbors, they needed to get creative.
But what to do? They discussed and mulled it over for several years. One day, Libbe happened to catch a TV program featuring a California lavender farm. As Kieran told me, “That’s when it hit her. No one in indiana is doing it! We were off and running.” That was in 2001. The rest, as they say, was history.
Corn Fields to LavenderThey put 100 lavender plants in a field that once belonged to corn or soybeans. Surprisingly, lavender shares a surprising similarity with other unique crops, like wine grapes, that take some time to mature before they are ready to be sold. Fortunately, it only takes from two to five years for that to happen with lavender.
As the first lavender farm in Indiana, and natural gardeners, they experimented with different plants to see what could handle our temperamental climate. You know what they say about Indiana weather: if you don’t like what it’s like outside, just wait a minute, and it will change!
Kieran shared that at one time they had 30-35 varieties of lavender but that they now have it down to a good solid four for sale. That isn’t exactly all that they have. Ever the gardeners, he confessed that they have roughly twenty varieties on their property. They have learned what works. What works is the type of lavender frequently referred to as English lavender of the species angustifolia.
They are very hardy, according to Kieran. The two varieties that they sell are called hidtote and munstead. Kirran said that the term English lavender came from “two varieties grown on two English estates in Britain. They were developed in Rome in the late 1800s, early 1900s, and that is the reason why people call them English lavender. They have been around since I was a kid. When I was a kid that was all you could find. That and munstead.”
And to think Willowfield Lavender Farm once had 30-35 varieties but still contain around 20! That’s a huge leap forward for these plants in a relatively small amount of time.
The Ins and Outs of an Organic Lavender FarmThis is an organic lavender farm. Weeding is done by hand. No pesticides are used. Kieran stated that lavender is a natural bug repellent! He said that deer and rabbits don’t even eat it. Now that’s an unusual plant for sure!
But it isn’t easy. Three winters back to back with -20* made them loose all of their hybrid lavenders so they are starting over with them. This spring, especially June and July, they had 13 1/2″ of rain! They lost all of their angustifolia, or true lavender, and are starting over with that as well. They probably have only 1/4 of the plants they once had–but Kieran assures they will get back to what they originally possessed.
Lavender is a Mediterranean plant. Kieran says that “this specialty crop growing in Indiana is a big challenge because our winters are mixed up.” His hybrid plants get 3 1/2 feet wide but on the west coast, like in Washington state where they have huge lavender farms, they reach at least 7 feet wide. That’s a huge difference and helps illustrate a bit better what Willowfield Lavender Farm is up against in terms of weather.
So why do it? Why deal with the changes in weather and the loss of plants? “A love of lavender and a love of the culture of lavender keeps us going with this. It is the most popular plant in the world. People respond to the farm: the quiet, the beauty of the farm…we wanted to create something that was not only neat and unusual plant to grow but also to create a space where people can come relax, meditate, and enjoy some solitude and the beauty of the garden.”
Retail SideWillowfield Lavender Farm is more than a pretty face that has hosted plenty of weddings. It’s also the site of a wonderfully decorated and truly awesome retail shop!
How wonderful? Kieran states that they “go to France every three to four years and ship tablecloths, napkins, and french linens back that we sell in our shop. Our shop, that we made out of recycled material, is a feature of the farm that is pretty unique.”
He continued, “The beams were built out of hand-tuned barn beams over 100 years old. All the cabinetry, all the furniture is recycled.” Would you believe that 60% of house is recycled material? That’s pretty incredible!
How did he find all that material? As a fellow picker, I had to know! My boys know to point out any furniture they see placed by the side of the road for trash. You wouldn’t believe the things people throw away. Many times it has only needed a good cleaning or a fresh coat of paint. So, where did all these amazing items come from? Kieran shared, “I tore down six barns over the years. Being a firefighter, I was connected with the training academy that burned houses for practice. They let me get in there and take out things that I felt were of value or recyclable.” I love that!
He said, “The porch beam is 8 x 14, a hand-tuned beam fifty feet long. People would also give me things once they knew I was a picker, or I would get them out of trash, or out of dumpsters. Something people threw away I turned into something that was valuable. I have been doing that for forty years, collecting for this house that I have had as a plan in my head for a long time.” Now that is someone staying true to their goals. You have to admire that kind of foresight.
It doesn’t end there.Although they let the bride and her wedding party pick lavender, they handle most of the lavender picking themselves. Then the make the sachets, pillows, soaps, and other products for the shop. They cook with it, make floral arrangements for weddings and special events, and put it in teas.
Tea lovers should take note! Kieran was quick to share a bit more about his excellent line of teas. “We have a variety of gourmet teas that we offer. We blend those teas ourselves. Our most popular is lavender mint, an herbal tea. It is a blend of lavender, spearmint, and peppermint.” That’s the tea I tried during my visit to the lavender farm. It was delicious–and decaffeinated. I think you will love it as well.
There’s more. There’s also a lavender mint and a black tea flavored with raspberry leaves and lavender and a black tea flavored with vanilla and lavender. They even have an earl grey that they pair with lavender. Yes, there are plenty of options here.
How to Start a Lavender FarmOf course, I had to ask if Kieran had any advice for first time folks or people who might feel like they want to try their hand at lavender farming. I figured that their farm feels so magical that the reality might help bring people back down to earth. Although the O’Connors were city people, they have always liked gardening. They didn’t go in to this unprepared or ill-equipped for the work involved.
Kieran confides, “If they want to start a lavender farm, they need to do their research, and do it right the first time. Full sun, well drained soil, a lot of gravel in the soil, and prune the plants once a year.”
“I hand weed it but in our commercial situation we also use wheat cloth which controls the weeks. I don’t recommend wheat cloth in a family garden because it will get covered in dirt. We replace it every three to five years. It eventually starts to break down and the grass and weeds start growing through it. In a family garden it doesn’t work well. The fun part of a family garden is the weeding.”
“If you go to Europe, they can take a very small space and do a lot of beauty with it. It is really inspiring. We thought maybe we have gotten too big and should back off and take care of something small but it got away from us. We enjoy the challenge of building a huge garden and keep creating. That’s fun! But in Europe, I have talked to people and when I tell them I have 28 acres they can’t believe it because most people don’t own large tracts of land. The like to go vertical. You will see flowers all the way up to the second story, big window boxes on the second story balcony that hang over the side. It’s beautiful, really charming.”
So, what hurts the lavender? “About the only thing that attacks lavender,” Kieran continued, “is over-watering. It will create mold and will rot the plant. Don’t use wood mulch. You use rock, you use gravel–that’s where it gets a lot of reflective heat. It likes it dry.” That’s not an easy feat our few years of too-wet summers.
“Do research, be patient, and enjoy it. You are not going to be a millionaire. You have to love it, to do it.”
Walking through the LavenderLove it they do. They fill in the blanks between weddings with live music events. Local musicians come in and play. People bring in picnics and settle themselves in the lavender fields while the band plays in the scenic gazebo. A local winery, like Mallow Run Winery, sets up a booth for wine tasting and sales.
The O’Connors set out their famous lavender shortbread cookies, their lavender pound cake, or their lavender cheesecake. The evenings are always well-received, with the same faces returning, and new faces joining in, as word spreads of the event.
“They say that gardeners live longer,” states Kieran. If anyone would know, surely it would be he and his wife who magically transformed the fields into such an inviting and comfortable space. “Put your hands in the dirt and enjoy what God gave us…we need to take care of it. Once you start dong that, you start seeing things that are so beautiful. Just the inside of a flower or watching bees pollinate or the birds or bugs that come to it, there are some really beautiful creatures that are out there and really fun. It starts with the children. Teach them to take care of the Earth and to grow things.”
What better way to inspire a child with what they can do, and show them a place that is truly soul satisfying, than a visit to Willowfield Lavender Farm in Mooresville, Indiana?
Visiting the Lavender Farm
This is a seasonal business that hosts weddings and other private events. Please call ahead before visiting–and bring a camera. Follow along in the adventures of the lavender farm with the Willowfield Lavender Farm Facebook Page and the Willowfield Lavender Farm Instagram account.
I dug up the video below. It is an old video from “The Weekly Special,” the same PBS program in which I have a Little Indiana segment (although I am not in this one). I thought you would enjoy hearing Kieran share a little more of his story on film. I am so appreciative of the time Kieran spent chatting with me. That’s my favorite part of Little Indiana–hearing the stories of the people I meet!
Small Towns: Destinations, not Drive-Thrus! I’m Jessica Nunemaker and THIS is little Indiana!
Just don’t forget to tell ’em that little Indiana sent you!
Willowfield Lavender Farm
6176 E Smokey View Rd
Mooresville, IN 46158
Targeted. Relevant. Affordable! little Indiana advertising.