Growing lavender in Harwich
PUBLISHED: 11:20 26 July 2013
With its aromatic and heady fragrance, lavender is seen as quintessentially English and a backbone plant for gardens; lovely under roses, as hedging, in gravel gardens or planted near paths to release its heady perfume as you brush past. We traditionally associate lavender growing in the eastern region with the sandy soils of North Norfolk, but Essex has its very own lavender farm at Ramsey near Harwich where instead of the heavy clay soil usually found across the county, a wedge of land has the ideal growing conditions for lavender.
Mark and Adrienne De Roy moved to Copperas Wood Farm near Ramsey in the early 1990s with a view to becoming farmers. ‘I used to work in engineering,’ explains Mark, ‘but we wanted to own a farm and came across this one which seemed to suit our needs as it was pretty much a blank canvas.’
The land was once owned by the Admiralty and used as a mining substation before it was decommissioned in the 1950s and it then was bought by a local farmer who raised turkeys and pigs. ‘We weren’t originally sure what we wanted to do with the farm,’ says Mark. ‘It was only after getting the results from a soil test that we decided to grow lavender.’
The test showed that the farm’s soil was of a very poor quality, but the low alkaline level meant it was ideal to grow either herbs, including lavender, or vines. In fact, the soil here is probably the best in the UK to grow lavender as it closely resembles the soil type where lavenders are grown and farmed in Provence in France. As well as lavender, Mark and Adrienne decided to raise geese and both are farmed organically.
‘Geese are the perfect animal to have here,’ says Mark, ‘as they don’t eat lavender.’ Stour Valley Organic Lavender Company at Copperas Wood Farm is one of very few Soil Association Certified Organic Lavender Farms in the UK and the De Roys are one of very few organic geese breeders in the UK.
To find the perfect lavender plant for growing as a crop, many trials were done and it was six years before Lavendula grosso became the firm favourite for the exceptional quality of oil it produces. Lavendula grosso is also the main lavender grown in France and oils and essences produced at Stour Valley Organic Lavender Company closely resemble the high quality products made in Provence. Mark specialises in producing two lavender oils at the farm: highest quality therapeutic oil and fine culinary oil for food flavouring uses. The area where the lavender is grown only covers an acre, but unique planting methods means that the yield is high.
‘We have to maximise this small area of soil that is perfect for lavender growing,’ Mark explains. ‘Our oil yield is equivalent to us growing six acres of lavender plants.’
The secret, apart from the ideal soil conditions, for getting a high yield of oil is by growing the plants very close together. Another unique aspect of the farm is the way the lavender is harvested as they are the only UK lavender grower to hand-cut the plants by using a mixture of knives and shears.
‘We have lots of friends and relatives coming to help at harvest time,’ says Mark with a smile, which is usually around mid-July and it takes about eight days to harvest the crop. The farm is also the only UK grower to use the 4,000-year-old method of ‘apothecary pot still’ distillation. This is traditionally how oils from Provence were produced and distillation is at a much lower temperature to produce the highest quality. The flowers are distilled direct in situ in the field within hours of harvesting using their own specially-built distillation trailer.
Oils are sold to specialist food and skincare manufactures, but the farm also makes a small range of natural basic skincare products as well as some specialist food items which includes a Soil Association Food award-winning Lemon and Lavender Marmalade, a range of Lavender Honey and Organic Damson Fruit Cheese, made from wild damsons on the farm. Current projects include the development of a natural dairy lavender ice cream, using local milk and cream.
You may not have thought you would find a Provence-style sea of blue lavender in Essex in July, but if you know where to look, you can find this wonderful sight. ‘Lavender is a special crop,’ says Mark, ‘and we’re proud to be farming it in Essex.’
Find out more
Visit Stour Valley Organic Lavender Company
Copperas Wood Farm
The farm is not open to the public, but groups are welcome by appointment. Mark and Adrienne are also happy to present talks to local community groups. Please contact them for further information.
Mark and Adrienne attend the Suffolk Show and the Tendring Show as goose breeders, so can be found in the poultry tent. They bring along their Stour Valley Organic Lavender Company products and are always happy to talk to visitors.