Lush lavender fields

Fifteen thousand plants spread their loveliness in a bucolic corner of Bucks County.

Posted: June 22, 2008

On a morning last month at Carousel Farm, Niko Christou was finishing the planting of his elegant kitchen garden - cucumbers at the moment, many of the other raised beds already sown and well under way.

The lavender fields that are the farm's more public face are just beyond the fieldstone barns and garden. But why not save the best for last and ease into this moment: full, pregnant spring, horses and llamas and donkeys idling in the pasture, the sun warm and shining down.

We are in Solebury Township, which is to say not all that far beyond Doylestown, Bucks County, off Mechanicsville Road, named for the crossroads here, which is also just around the bend from Carversville, its surprisingly artisanal general store, and its cozy, stone inn across the street.

As the fields approach first bloom, another feature of the landscape will be in full throat, as well: Not more than a mile from Carousel Farm and its sloping flanks and spreading chestnut, Solebury Orchards' first crops - cherries, blueberries and raspberries - will be ripe for the picking; later come the blended-apple cider and sublime applesauce, a regional specialty of great and deserved popularity.

So I am in no hurry. There is so much to take in here: Niko Christou will have 60 tomato plants in the garden soon, he says, and eggplant, peppers, Swiss chard, kohlrabi, melons, herbs, and the tender okra that he treasures from his childhood in a rural village in Cyprus.

A dark fountain bubbles at the center of the raised beds. Along their edges are potted and espaliered fruit trees, taking the sun - fig, apricot, a blossoming lemon tree as fragrant as gardenia, and an olive tree, another reminder, to Christou, of home.

Once this particular space was an indoor riding arena, then a 40 (yes, 40) -car garage for a collector, a former owner of the farm.

But Christou and his partner, Wall Street lawyer David Braff, had it torn down, opened the space to full sun, ripped out the concrete pad, buried irrigation piping, created a pristine and ordered Eden.

Then four years ago they planted 15,000 lavender plants - eight achingly beautiful acres of them on these old dairylands that run down to Mechanicsville Road before rising again in corn and soy fields that, in the fall, turn golden against the stripes of blue.

Why, you wonder, is it called Carousel Farm? The land and the oldest of the barns date to 1748, having served various agricultural purposes, one of the last as a home to performing animals - horses, giraffes and, I'm told, even elephants on call to Radio City Music Hall and other venues - startling sights in the 1960s to passersby unfamiliar with the curious wrinkle in the natural order.

In fact, until recently when a motorist swerved off the road and took it out, a carved sign of a carousel horse still announced the farm; Christou, 48, an accomplished interiors and portrait photographer, has a poster of it hanging in one of the barns that he uses for a photo studio, and for practicing his passion: ballet.

Christou and Braff, who still commutes to the couple's New York apartment, rented a weekend retreat nearby for eight months, about seven years ago. Then they bought the farm, which was somewhat disheveled at the time.

It is a showplace now, the scented lavender "water" (for spraying linens and soothing sunburn) stored in the stone springhouse in balloon-shaped vinegar bottles from Provence, dried bouquets hung in the drying room, a potting shed, for goodness' sake, featured in a photo spread in the April issue of Country Home. (Another love letter to Carousel Farm graced Martha Stewart Living the month before.)

Still on Saturdays, the only day the farm is open to the public, a visitor will occasionally ask, sometimes a touch peevishly, "Isn't there a shop?"

The answer is that, no, there is no shop, except a month or two before Christmas when the weather outside gets too cold; then a room in one of the barns is temporarily employed.

But why, in the fullness of late spring, asks Christou, in a countryside as lovely as the storied south of France (which inspired the farm), would you want to go inside?

You stand there with him under the leafing mulberry tree next to the farm wagon where he sells sprays of dried lavender, and soaps and fragrant candles, and packets of lavender as a culinary herb, looking over the bushy rows of 15,000 organic lavender plants, a hummocky field running down to the horse (and llama) pasture, and you nod reflexively, "Why, indeed?"

Because of the lavender varieties - two considered French in the vernacular, two considered English (and more suited for cookery) - that were planted here, portions of the stone-walled fields are typically in bloom by late June.

Their purple-blue flowering, and attendant festival of butterflies, will continue on - week after week - through September.

Some of the lavender will end up (pulverized) in cookies; fresh (not dried) in salads; in marinades with the rest of the herbes de Provence; tossed on meat grilling on the great stone fireplace beside the farmhouse; or shipped off to the Bent Spoon gelateria in Princeton, where you will find on a given day subtle scoops of creamy lavender gelato.

By the end of July, if things work out, new beehives that are being installed on the stone walls will be producing a fresh addition to the inventory - sweet lavender honey.

So it goes at Carousel Farm, a weekend retreat returned to its farming roots, gardens planted behind the barns, rough-hewn beams exposed, and slate roofs repaired.

The lavender is established, and the equipment for distilling the essential oils is in place, for use in candles and moisturizing creams (as lanolin from local sheep farms once was), soaps and, sparingly, cookery.

But truth be told, the oil of lavender - though it gives off pleasing notes of cedar and sage or rosemary - is hardly in a category that you would call, exactly, "essential."

Nor is a lavender farm itself, resonant as it may be of a vacation to Provence, or a memory of romance: It is a grace note, at most, an unexpected wrinkle - as was the circus farm before it - in the natural order, perhaps a refuge for painters who flock here, as sheep once did.

It is a backdrop for a summer picnic, which you may wish to bring along, of fresh-baked bread and cheese from Carversville General Store, or one of its grand sandwiches of braised pork and coleslaw, or a bottle of chilled wine.

But it is not what you could call "essential," any more than beauty is essential, or art or dance - or a canopy of butterflies shimmering at the edge of a road that still clings to the name - obsoletely prosaic now - of Mechanicsville.


Carousel Farm

5966 Mechanicsville, Pa.

917-837-6903

www.carouselfarmlavender.com

Solebury Orchards

3325 Creamery Rd.

Solebury Township, Pa.

215-297-8079

www.soleburyorchards.com

The Carversville General Store

6208 Fleecy Dale Rd.

Carversville, Pa.

215-297-5353



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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