he breeze rolling over a Morgan County ridge carried with it the sweet smell of Provençal France.
Kieran and Libbe O’Connor sat on their front porch, which they remade with 120-year-old barn timbers and other repurposed wood. In the shade of the nearby forest, downwind from the 2,000 lavender plants growing nearby, it was easy to get lost in the revery of the farm.
At least, until Kieran O’Connor started pondering the planting, trimming, harvesting and dozens of other jobs ahead of them.
“People come out and say this is so beautiful, and I’m thinking of the next job to do,” he said. “That’s why you have to have a porch like this to sit back and realize that you’re doing OK.”
The O’Connors have been growing lavender for more than 15 years, eventually transitioning from their own garden to a large farm operation. They have the oldest lavender farm in Indiana and have expanded to host weddings among its pale purple plants, sell lavender-related goods and help people start their own small lavender gardens.
Working with one of the most essential and popular herbs in human history, they’ve relished the opportunity to introduce their product to the people of Indiana.
But for all of the beauty and enjoyment of their farm, it’s still hard work.
“We’re small-fry, and it’s a retirement business. Lavender is a new industry in the Midwest, and it’s a challenge,” Kieran O’Connor said. “Still, it’s something we really enjoy.”
Lavender has been grown and used by people for centuries. The plant originated around the Mediterranean Sea, and was carried throughout Europe — including to Britain — by Roman soldiers.
The most popular species is Angustifolia, better known as English lavender.
Essential oils from the plant can be used to soothe burns, help with headaches, repel insects and serve as a sleep aid. You can put it in food, such as the lavender shortbread cookies and lavender lemon poundcake the O’Connors serve during events at the farm.
The plant can be brewed with tea, used to make soap or turned into a relaxing body spray.
“Lavender has this culture about it. It’s the most popular plant in the world, and it grows pretty much all over the world,” Kieran O’Connor said.
Willowfield Lavender Farm had its start around 2001. Kieran O’Connor was retiring from the Indianapolis Fire Department, and looking for his next adventure.
He has always had an interest in wildflowers and gardening, and he started thinking about a way to implement his hobby into post-retirement life.
In what had been a corn field on their Mooresville property, they decided to start a small hobby farm. Other businesses locally were growing day lilies and hostas, and the O’Connors were at a loss as to what to grow.
When Libbe O’Connor watched a television program about a lavender farm in California, their curiosity was piqued.
“We had grown some lavender plants of our own when we lived in Southport. We thought it would be perfect,” Kieran O’Connor said.
That first year, the farm put in 100 lavender plants that they had bought from local nurseries. Most of them survived the winter, and the O’Connors had their start.
At its peak, Willowfield had 2,500 plants growing in about 30 different types of lavender. They’ve cut back on the varieties that they offer, judging which ones grow best and can survive Indiana’s unique climate.
The O’Connors have traveled to the Sequim Valley in Washington, the richest lavender-growing region in the U.S. They’ve also taken regular visits to southern France, where fields of lavender grown for the perfume industry stretch for miles in pale purple splendor.
Lavender requires full, hot sun for at least six hours during the day. The plant grows best in well-drained, rocky soil, particularly in areas where limestone is common.
The soil around the O’Connors farm is standard Indiana clay, so Kieran O’Connor tills his land, creating mounds of dirt to plant the lavender in. He aerates the soil, then adds crushed lime to it in order to get the proper alkaline conditions.
Kieran O’Connor advised to prune it once a year, either in the spring or fall, and to avoid overwatering the plants.
“It’s a Mediterranean plant, so it doesn’t need constant watering,” he said. “It’s a good plant to let go on vacation. What kills lavender the most is people watering it too much.”
While the O’Connors can replicate the soil conditions that lavender enjoys, it’s more difficult to shape Indiana’s famously unpredictable weather to meet the needs of the plant.
“It’s such a challenge to grow lavender in Indiana. The weather is so different every year,” Kieran O’Connor said. “The extremes are so different. Every year we grow lavender, I’m having to tweak the plants because of the weather.”
During the last five years, alterations to the jet stream have brought more late spring freezes, which kills the budding plants as they get started. Though lavender is drought-resistant, long stretches without water combined with 90-degree heat fries the plant.
They suspect the drought that ravaged farms throughout Indiana in 2012 weakened many of their crops. Successive brutal winters and hot summers have then taken too great a toll.
“You’re depending on Mother Nature to cooperate. Sometimes you get a bumper crop, and then sometimes you get a pretty big loss,” Libby O’Connor said.
One year, when a spring ice storm popped up unexpectedly, Kieran O’Connor had to borrow sheets, tarps and any other cover he could find from neighbors to protect his plants.
“A lot of gardening gurus say you can’t grow lavender in Indiana, just because of the extremes,” Kieran O’Connor said. “You’ve got to always be on your toes.”
In the last three years, Willowfield lost all of its hybrid plants. Much of its Angustifolia was killed off as well.
“We’re basically replanting the whole field. We’re starting over,” Kieran O’Connor said.
The farm has contracted with a company who blends the base for the sprays, soaps and other products they sell. Libbe O’Connor finishes the items, but it’s too much to do the entire process on her own.
“It’s a cottage industry, and we’ve kept it that way,” she said. “We’ve had lots of inquiries for wholesale, and we know if we do that we’d have to turn it over to the company who does the blends. It’s just that we haven’t made the decision to go that far.”
The O’Connors have tried to diversify its offerings as much as possible to help the farm thrive.
They sell potted plants to gardeners, blend teas, with vanilla and mint versions that balance the soothing effects of the lavender, and the Provence hybrid lavender to area restaurants to use in their recipes.
Throughout the summer, the O’Connors host a concert series inviting people to set up a picnic on the grounds, spread out under the last summer sky and breath in the perfumed air.
“Everyone that comes out here seems to always be smiling. They’re all very content. It’s so nice to see that,” Libby O’Connor said.
The farm is also available for weddings, which Willowfield hosts three or four times each summer. The O’Connors offer up their home for the bride to get ready, and ceremonies are often in the gazebo among all of the lavender plants.
While Willowfield attracts gardeners, nature lovers and other outdoorsy people, it also brings out prospective lavender farmers, who want to pick the O’Connors’ knowledge and find out what they need do to be successful.
It takes three years before lavender plants are mature enough to sell the harvest, so starting a farm is a long-term endeavor.
Kieran O’Connor is happy to share, but he doles out his advice with a warning.
“There is no way to duplicate what we’re doing. They come here thinking they’re going to get that ‘magic bullet,’ but you just have to put your hands in the ground,” he said.
Willowfield Lavender Farm
What: A 28-acre lavender operation with about 2,000 plants. The farm sells lavender plants, as well as using the oils to produce sprays, soaps and other products.
Owners: Kieran and Libbe O’Connor
Where: 6176 E. Smokey View Road, Mooresville
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday through September.
Summer concert series
6 to 9 p.m.
- Today: Greg Ziesemer and Kriss Luckett
- July 18: Davis and Devitt
- Aug. 8: Wilson & Co.
Plant in full sun: It is our recommendation that you plant it in an area that will get eight hours of the hottest sun of the day. Plants with less sun will not thrive as well.
Think Mediterranean: Lavender needs sandy, well-drained, amended soil, like the kind found in the Mediterranean region. Prepare your soil with good garden soil dug 8 to 12 inches deep. Add sand, gravel, or stone for drainage. Lavender does not like to have wet feet as it promotes root rot.
Watch your water: Lavender wants regular watering until the roots are established. In the first year of growth, lavender should be watered when it becomes dry to the touch. After its roots are established, mature plants become drought tolerant and do well on their own.
Room to grow: In multiple planting, keep enough space for your young plants to mature as air around the base of the plant discourages mold, an enemy of lavender. Also, lavender roots do not like to compete with other plants.
Island in the sun: Lavender should be mulched with non-organic material. Lavender is susceptible to mold and mildew at its base. To eliminate this possibility, we only use gravel or rock as mulch instead of the more popular wood mulch products.
Planting season: Lavender can be planted in early spring into late fall. The optimum planting for lavender is spring, which allows the plant to experience a full growing season. However, lavender can be planted up until late fall.
Give it attention: Lavender wants to be pruned, pinched back, and harvested. As a rule-of-thumb, true lavenders, such as angustifolias, can be pruned in spring or fall while hybrid lavenders should only be pruned in the fall. Diligent harvesting of our lavenders promotes new growth and bushy habits.
— Information from Willowfield Lavender Farm