A family finds harmony with
the land through lavender
BY PATRICE VECCHIONE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA
When she smelled fire one hot June day eight years ago, lavender grower Mary Nulph Jessen became suspicious and went outside. It was clearly not a chimney fire she was getting a whiff of—the season was too warm for that. The wind was coming from the northeast, not as it usually does, off the ocean a few miles to the west. Mary looked up at the sky, saw a big plume of smoke and knew it meant trouble. She grabbed her three dogs and two cats and got them safely in her car. By the time she drove out her driveway less than an hour later, flames had reached her property and were nearly licking the bottom of her car. Quickly, helicopters had begun dropping fire retardant.
Mary and her husband, David, live in a 10-acre meadow, a wide bowl of earth that’s surrounded by the forested Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve. A farm for more than 100 years, it’s been a pear and a plum orchard as well as a Prohibition-era vineyard. Part of this quiet green sanctuary was once almost lost to a golf course as well as to fire, and it is only a couple of miles away from Highway 1. But it feels miles and miles away from the pace of city life. It’s here that Mary grows lavender. Lots of lavender.
The property is filled with big fields of the clustering pale green bushes with uplifted stalks and purple heads. Brush against the lavender as you walk by or bend down to rub it between your fingers, and the sweet, pungent scent fills the air and stays with you for a long time.
Mary and David started their lavender growing in the early 1990s just for pleasure, with about 30 ornamental lavender plants. They’d just recently bought the property from The Nature Conservancy after the nonprofit acquired the surrounding area for preservation. The Jessens had already rented it for more than 10 years and Mary had grown tired of watching the deer eat pretty much everything but the lavender, including her beloved roses.
“Lavender is the only thing they wouldn’t eat,” Mary says, and she figured she could work with that.
By 2004, she and David recognized a business opportunity that would fit their family’s lifestyle.
Mary and David had both been raised in Bonny Doon and loved the rural life.
“I grew up learning from the area’s Italian wine growers what we now call organic, biodynamic growing practices, following nature’s rhythm, in tune with the seasons,” David says. “Those growers did everything by hand, as we do.”
“I grew up outdoors,” Mary says, “This is what I know.”
Lavender is also not hard to cultivate.
“Lavender is one of the easiest things to grow—it’ll even grow in very rocky soil. That’s why I can grow it,” Mary says with a laugh. Its requirements are simple: sun, sandy or other well-draining soil and barely any fertilizer. Deerhaven Herb and Flower Farm began small, with about 1,500 lavender plants.
At first Mary took her bouquets down the hill to Fambrini Farms at Highway 1 between the months of May and October. Soon she extended her reach to New Leaf Community Markets, the Bonny Doon Garden Co. and a few Bay Area florists. Her lavender products, which include handcrafted soaps, essential oil, gardener’s salve and sachets are now also carried by such stores as Mountain Feed & Farm Supply, Flower Outlet and Shopper’s Corner.
Mary also shares her expertise with the community, offering, for example, training in the production of soap and salves to the Homeless Garden Project.
Summer is the height of lavender season, and June is when the lavender varietal called Grosso, the type that Mary was growing at the time of the fire, begins to come into its own. It gets harvested in early July. But as Mary left her home that summer day of the fire in 2008, her purple, budding crop was the last thing on her mind—she couldn’t think about her hard work literally going up in flames.
With the fire rapidly encroaching on their property, a fire crew determined it was a goner and decided to put its efforts elsewhere. However, they’d not taken David into account. He’d stayed on to defend the farm and could be seen from a helicopter above, one lone man on a tractor.
Undeterred, David moved mound after mound of dirt, using it to serve as a firebreak to protect his and Mary’s home and outbuildings. By this time, two 5,000-gallon water tanks had melted and the power was out. Seeing David’s determination, the fire crew returned to help, filling garbage can after garbage can with water from the Jessens’ swimming pool to help put out the flames.
Despite their efforts, one house on the compound and Mary’s soap shop burned to the ground. In total. they lost four buildings and most of Mary’s nearly harvestable lavender plants.
On a recent visit, the marks of the fire were still apparent—there are many charred tree trunks still standing. A meadow that was once scattered with trees is now nearly entirely open, as not only did the fire destroy many trees, but afterwards, a number of stressed but surviving pines were killed off by pine bark beetles. The remaining snags look ghostly, just the husks of trees. But since nature is ever resourceful and appalled by waste, those unbeautiful trees have been transformed into ideal nesting places for acorn woodpeckers and red-tailed hawks.
“After the fire,” Mary says, “we took a step back and realized we could grow much more lavender.” The forced clearing allowed her to double the size of her lavender fields, and she now grows about 3,000 plants. The loss of so much also gave her the impetus to try new varieties, leading her eventually to what she refers to as “the most scented lavender,” Violet Intrigue.
Inhale the best-known lavender, Grosso, and you breathe in that familiar, heady, camphoraceous lavender scent. Violet Intrigue, on the other hand, is sweeter, less pungent and far more delicate. For her essential oils, Mary blends the two varieties through a process of steam distillation. The byproduct of the distilling process is what she uses to create floral water. But for her handmade soap, Grosso is her choice.
For the culinary lavender that Mary uses to make lavender sugar, she says Violet Intrigue buds are the best. She also grows a bit of Maillette lavender for this purpose.
“Lavender sugar is delicious in shortbread and scones,” Mary says, and this visitor can attest to that. The shortbread is sweet and buttery with a hint of lavender, making what is normally a plain cookie anything but.
The fire might well have destroyed the Jessens’ lavender farm forever. But today, both the farm and the deer are thriving, and for that, Mary is grateful.
From the window of her rebuilt soap shop Mary watches deer graze.
“When I’m wrapping soap, the deer are peeking in. I’m reminded daily how lucky I am that my workshop is here.”
Monterey artist and writer Patrice Vecchione’s latest book is Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life. For more, go to www.patricevecchione.com.
Deerhaven Herb and Flower Farm
854 Martin Road, Santa Cruz
EXPLORE: Deerhaven Farm is open to the public for U-pick lavender on weekends throughout June and July.
Three lavender recipes from Ellie Lavender, proprietor of Lavender Design + Cuisine in Santa Cruz:
Moroccan Couscous Salad with Lavender Lemon Tahini Dressing
Strawberry Lavender Tart
Lavender Lemon Vinaigrette.
At Edible Monterey Bay, our mission is to celebrate the local food cultures of Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey Counties, season by season.