The Farm

Wild Gardens – working with native plants

September 25, 2017 / The Farm

 

Guest Contributor: Karen Plá,

Boyds Maryland, September 23, 2017

Two years ago, I retired from federal service.  I wanted to volunteer my time in a meaningful way and had to look no farther than my own backyard which is the Black Hill Regional Park (BHRP) in Boyds, MD.  I visited the www.montgomeryparks.org website and found they were looking for volunteers to assist with gardening.  Since I have always enjoyed being outdoors and playing in the dirt, I recently began volunteering at Soleado Lavender Farm which allows me to channel my “inner farm girl”.

 

At the start of 2016, I began volunteering in the BHRP greenhouse, planting seeds, transferring them to larger pots, watering the seedlings and marveling at nature as the plants grew.  In late April, after a lot of tender loving care, the Friends of the Black Hill Nature Programs held its annual native plant sale and that’s when I discovered the importance of attracting pollinators to my garden and planting a habitat to support the pollinators.  I learned local wildlife often only eat native plants and berries they’ve eaten since the beginning of time.

 

Native plants occur naturally in a region where they evolved.  They adapt to local environmental conditions and require less water, time and money.  I have lived in Montgomery County for more than 20 years, and in Maryland much of my life, and never knew that many important pollinators are in decline due primarily to the loss of habitat.  I also learned there is an abundance of plants native to our area that provide food and shelter for bees, butterflies, birds, and other wildlife.

 

Since I had grown pretty tired of trying unsuccessfully to grow grass in my extremely hot and sunny front yard, and I wanted to attract birds and other wildlife to my yard, I decided to grow plants native to the Maryland region.  In the years since I bid farewell to my lawnmower, I’ve enjoyed having a garden that is host to nature’s “3Bs” – bees, butterflies, and birds.  I cannot stress strongly enough the ease of this type of gardening!  Traditional plants reward you with blooms for a couple of weeks per year and require a lot of watering, harmful weed killers and fertilizers.  Native plants grow in abundance, require zero care and provide a splash of color and focal interest year round.  They are adapted to our soil and climate so they often perform better than cultivated and hybrid varieties.  Gardening with locally native flowering plants has been immensely rewarding and fun.  It’s the best gardening you can choose to benefit your local pollinators.  I’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of bees, butterflies, dragonflies and hummingbirds, and it’s been a joy to watch them from my kitchen window.  If you want to give back to your community, plant a native species and create a habitat lost to new housing development and increased road construction.

 

Soleado Lavender Farm has set aside land and planted a wildflower area to serve as a pollinator habitat.  For those able to walk amongst the flowers growing wild in the meadow and around the pond, it’s exciting to hear the sound of bees, beetles and crickets and to see nature’s pollinators enjoying the nectar of the host plants.  The value of growing a variety of native flowering trees, shrubs, and wildflowers is that they bloom successively throughout the seasons, which allows the pollinators to forage for most of the year.  In particular, it ensures the farm’s honey bees, along with the native pollinators, have a source of food outside of the short lavender bloom season.  The wildlife benefits us all because of the invaluable ecosystem services they provide to the environment, and to our farms, forests, and gardens.

 

Visit Soleado Lavender Farm.  Come for the lavender and enjoy the wildflowers!  Experience the amazing natural habitat that we share with pollinators and flowering plants.

 

Photo Credit:  Karen Plá

Photo 1 – Thistle

Photo 2 – Black-Eyed Susan

Photo 3 – Horse Nettle

Photo 4 – Goldenrod

Photo 5 – Aromatic Aster

Photo 6 – Spotted Jewelweed/Touch-Me-Not

Photo 7 – Peppermint

Photo 8 – Purple Sneezeweed

Photo 9 – Queen Anne’s Lace

Photo 10 – New York Ironweed

Photo 11 – Goldenrod

Photo 12 – Blue Mistflower

Photo 13 – Dragonfly

Photo 14 – White Wood Aster

Photo 16 – Boneset

Gratitude for Time and Knowledge

April 15, 2015 / The Farm

It is not often in life that you find a bona fide mentor, in my case it was a soap mentor that I was in need of, and sure enough eventually I found one.  Suzanne would describe soap making as being “just the same as making a cake,” but then she swears she can’t bake a cake!  She can sure make soap though.  I had always heard of the Wooly Queen as she is known, and had always heard the best things, I had always hoped to run into her, but never sought her out.  Well it turns out that we are (for farm country anyway) fairly literally neighbors.  It was ironically because of missed connections with other soap makers that I ended up giving Suzanne a call.  I was really pleased that she had heard great things about me and the farm and had been told she should come see the farm.

I needed a mentor because here we are growing and harvesting lavender by hand, distilling it into an incredible, local, single source essential oil.  We are creating a thing of great beauty and purity, a rare thing, and then I was adding it to soap that I was just not proud of.  It was like using the best wine to cook up in pasta sauce, just a waste even if everyone was happy eating that sauce!

Suzanne came out to see the farm to get a feel for the place and what we do, and then I made a visit to her studio, just being in any creative space or studio is a great privilege, for creative people these spaces can be more particularly personal than a bed room and they are not always easily shared with others.  In this case the studio, which had been a large apartment over a horse barn, is now a large open kitchen, and a weaving room. Just the words “Studio over a barn,” “weaving room,” and “soap kitchen” these words hold great magic for me and a romance linked directly to the projects and productivity they suggest.

The studio kitchen is noteworthy because it really literally has become a soap kitchen, a soap ONLY kitchen, which is what you need if you have a soap business.  Racks from floor to ceiling filled with bars of soap, great quantities of materials and molds.

The lavender oil from Soleado Lavender Farm is a blend of several varieties of lavender distilled together, it has a sweetness, the floral freshness you would expect and a clear, bright evergreen or almost citrus quality.  It was very important to develop a soap, where none of the ingredients competed or interfered with the lavender,  Suzanne helped me develop a recipe that lets the lavender really shine through, and also has all the other qualities of a great handmade soap, it has rich hydrating lather, and is a really nice long lasting hard bar.

After covering the nuts and bolts there was a moment standing in the soap kitchen when the practical kitchen science side of soap making was displaced by alchemy and a hint of white magic, I peered over Suzanne’s shoulder into a cupboard full of dark glass bottles containing a large collection of essential oils.  Essential oils are so intense, so purely an essential force of the plant they were made from, there is no doubt that they have a strong energetic profile and can affect us on any number of levels.  What really affects me when I see a large selection of oils is that they are often not just provocative and vivacious flowers, but also substances that have historically been seen as sacred, Frankincense, Myrrh, Sandalwood, Rose, I cannot help but feel a certain resonance. It is easy for the mind to see significance wherever we are told to look for it; here is a biblical substance it must be important, but for whatever reason these substances do have a very interesting presence or charge.  They represent the globe, the spice trade and traditions both lost and continued.

That excitement around organic compounds carries over into the use of local plants and I have only just begun to scratch the surface of that bunch of ingredients. There is a supreme and simple pleasure even in discussing jewel weed, how to collect and process it for a poison ivy soap, and to remember how my mother would pick the leaves for me when we crossed a stream and hold them under water to show me their silver shine, she would crush the leaves for us when we got poison ivy.  30 years later, I’ll go back to those same spots on the farm that she showed me, only this time it’s to make soap.

A person’s knowledge and their time are two of the most precious things they can give to another person and I do not take either lightly. With help, I’m now making a really high quality soap to mirror the incredible scent mixed into it!

Feels Like home

April 14, 2014 / The Farm

Soleado Lavender Farm,
Dickerson Maryland

I’m always amazed by the number of people who tell us that the farm reminds them of home. Even more I am amazed at how many people say it “feels” like home.  I focus on that because the places referenced are often too exotic for me to find a visual likeness.

Our friend from upstate NY told me with a note of surprise, that the farm was very similar to where he grew up.  I was very pleased that he had that reaction, but had to laugh, this was probably the least remarkable comparison yet.  By that time we had heard the same thing from a man from Poland, a woman from Sweden, a couple from south India, two men from Africa, and many people from South and Central America who were powerfully reminded of home. It was very surprising at first to hear this about such a wide range of places, with very different climates and distinctive features.  
I began to see what I had hoped to find; that people were responding to this area and specifically this farm with a deep emotional pull back to a more carefree, peaceful feeling of growing up in any beautiful natural spot.  It resonated for them on the same level even if it did not really look like the countries mentioned.

My own experience of this was the reverse, and directly confirmed the comparison to South India where I spent part of my childhood and teen years, and a place I have a deep emotional attachment to.  Here on the farm there are days when the oppressive humidity and the brilliance of the sun seems almost to rival that equatorial searing we received in Kerala.  It is when the heat breaks though, and black and slate gray thunderheads move in that I am taken back in time.  As children swimming in the Pamba River, we would sometimes stay too long.  We would see one of our parents waving to us from the shore and would swim back frantically with lightning crashing in the distance behind us.  Looking back we’d see a wall of rain gliding toward us.  It is not often that I experience the sensation of being there, but days like yesterday when we have a little bit of monsoon to break up the August heat, I see that same curtain of rain shutting us in, advancing up the driveway or rolling down off Sugarloaf Mt. and across the lavender fields  then pelting down on the roof!  I have that feeling of being transported by weather and by twisting white/green leaves against a dark sky.

This past weekend the farm was in Jamaica!  Rohan, who is working on the electric for the store, was sitting under the maple tree by the store waiting for Kevin to let him in.  It was a hot bright day but breezy.  He closed his eyes again as Kevin walked up and he said in a low voice, “right HERE it feels like Jamaica, not out there,” he said gesturing to right outside the line the shade made on the gravel, “but here it feels exactly like Jamaica.”

I never get tired of hearing it, and I love that people have a visceral reaction to this place.

It had to be that sense of peace that first attracted my grandmother.  It was her friend, Karl, who brought her out to see the farm on a very wet rainy morning in the early spring of 1962, and within minutes she knew she wanted to buy the farm.  According to the story told many times over the years, she felt immediately that she was home.

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