Long ago, there was an episode of the Twilight Zone in which two children, seeking respite from bickering parents, jumped into a swimming pool and came out on the other side, in a land that was beautiful, serene, and bucolic. A real-life equivalent of that world exists in Bucks County, and the magical pool could be the Delaware River. Swim across it and there are lush farm fields, winding roads, grazing horses and sheep, stone barns, and the artists who live amid it all.
Carousel Farm Lavender is one such enchanted place, and now is the time to visit, while the lavender is scenting the fields with its bloom. Lavender itself is a magical herb, not only making soaps and other cleansers smell deliciously good, but it is said to relax the soul of those who spray it on their pillows, repel mosquitoes and other pesky insects, and to make headaches go away. The dried herb is not only useful for sachets but enhances roasted vegetables, chicken, and lamb, and just being around lavender has the charming effect of making you feel as if you’re in Provence.
The perennial herb with gray-green foliage is also a beautiful subject for painters and photographers, who set up in the fields at Carousel Farm this time of the year. Llamas and donkeys draw the attention of children.
On a recent spring morning, before the official lavender season and Carousel Farm tours began, Niko Christou took me out to see the fields. He has just completed a new feature, a lavender labyrinth. Beginning under a white iron arbor, a visitor begins the walk on stone paths surrounded by lavender, getting to the center at their own pace, through their own meanderings, where they reach a magnificent orange tree planted in an enormous gray urn. There are tuteurs on which vines with red flowers trace their way up, attracting hummingbirds, as does the trumpet vine on the nearby stone gazebo.
Walking a labyrinth can be a meditative experience. Unlike a maze where you encounter a wrong turn or a dead end, the labyrinth has one way in, leading to the center, and one way out. You can never get lost in a labyrinth. “It is said to help people overcome depression,” says Christou, “but it’s also a very beautiful design.”
Christou propagates a winter-hardy variety of lavender, which is also available for sale in the shop. In the 10 years he’s been growing lavender here, the past two years have been the most difficult — he lost half his crop due to the harsh winters. “This year everything is late, and it’s the first year I’ve had to water,” he says. In his native Cypress, a kind of lavender called sponge lavender grows wild on mountains. “You can’t get oil from it but it’s beautiful,” he says.
The main requirements for growing lavender are full sun and drainage, and a soil pH of about 7 to 8. Here it is planted on a slope. “Once it’s established you don’t have to worry,” he says.
The sign at the entrance says everything here is grown organically, and no herbicides or pesticides have been used. “But we can’t control what the bees bring to the honey, or if neighboring farms spray and it reaches our crops,” says Christou. Rather than go through the organic certification process, Christou is among a growing group of ecologically conscious farmers who believe it’s more important to know the source and the practices than the certification label.
Christou, a photographer, and his partner David Braff, an attorney, bought the 35-acre property in 2000. Christou, 55, came to the U.S. in the 1980s to study photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. He grew up on an olive oil farm, the youngest of seven children, and though he loved his family and the farming life, he never felt like he fit in. He was interested in ballet, theater, and design, and New York offered what he needed to fulfill his creative desires.
Christou and Braff visited Bucks County in the late 1990s and were enchanted by the beauty and history of the region, and its farms. Christou had been shooting architectural interiors and portraits but wanted to do something different. The lavender farm started as a hobby, but “as we began to get a nice response from the local community, I became passionate about it, and it grew into a business,” says Christou, who also trained as a ballet dancer.
Even on the farm, his design sensibility is in full gear. He has created alternating rows of blue and white blooms that form a patchwork pattern.
Christou and Braff still keep an apartment in the city — Braff works in the city, and they have season tickets to the New York City Ballet. But during the growing season, Christou spends about 90 percent of his time on the farm. He has a full-time caretaker and hires seasonal help for harvesting and distilling.
The first three years after purchasing the property were spent restoring it. The farm was first deeded in 1682 by William Penn to Nicholas Walk. It was held by generations of families for 100 or so years, but in the past 30 years has seen three owners. Originally a 300-acre farm, the surrounding acres were subdivided and developed.
The previous owner, an antiques dealer, had a 40-car heated garage that Christou and Braff no longer needed. There were other buildings that served no purpose and were removed, along with blacktop, creating the fields where lavender now grows, and the enclosed vegetable garden. They kept, of course, the magnificent stone house where they live, and a stone bank barn built in the 1740s with 27 stables. The slate roof needed to be repaired and new wood floors, to look like old wood floors, were put in. There is a dark dry area used to dry lavender, and then several enormous spaces that make ideal party spaces. One room has a 200-year-old hand-carved pool table, over which hangs metal light fixtures, designed by Christou, suspended on 30-foot chains. From the window is a magnificent view of the lavender fields.
“We’ve had several benefits here,” says Christou: for Fox Chase Cancer Center, the Michener Art Museum, and an animal rescue operation in Stockton.
Another enormous room, set up with a 4-by-5-inch view camera on a monopod with a hydraulic lift and theatrical lighting, as well as props — an antique perambulator, high chair, and several wagons — is where Christou did photo shoots during the first five years of living here. These days, he says, he only does photographic work for himself, occasionally shooting a friend who is a ballet dancer. The barre is not a prop for the shoots — Christou uses it for his own practice. “But I don’t practice enough,” he says. He takes apart the old carriages and uses the parts to build new things.
Massive French doors that extend up to the 30-foot ceiling, separating the two main rooms, were also designed by Christou. “When they are opened, the two rooms become one space,” he says.
Pear trees and peonies lead to an old carriage house Christou and Braff have restored. When they purchased the property, walls covered the stone, purple carpet covered the floor, and the original hayloft had been turned into a second floor. Christou and Braff exposed the stone and the original wood beams, and in the loft is a bedroom, reached by a spiral staircase, with an antique brass bed and a view of the lavender fields. One wall of the original stone building was open, and Christou and Braff have added windows to that wall to expose the view. They lived in the carriage house while restoring the main house, and now use it as a guest house for friends and family. The kitchen, with dark red wood cabinets, fits the Bucks County farmhouse style.
The former corn crib has been gutted and converted into a sort of utility area (it too had been carpeted and had a dropped ceiling added) where the distilling operation takes place. “During the harvest season, the distillery runs every day for three months,” says Christou, who hires helpers but remains hands-on during the operation. Steam is used to separate the lavender water and oil.
“We produce 50 gallons of oil in a year,” says Christou. If that seems like a small amount, consider that the yield from lavender is far less than from olives. During a single distillation, less than an ounce of lavender oil is rendered, but there can be up to a gallon of lavender water. Lavender water is a happy byproduct of the distilling operation. Visitors during the harvest season can watch the distilling, see the jars filled, and learn about the benefits of lavender oil and water. In addition to the above named benefits, Christou cites that lavender oil is good for treating burns and mosquito bites, and it has antiseptic qualities and has been used to clean hospitals. Lavender water can be used for sun burns and as a room spray.
The vegetable garden is sited where a former garage was removed. Along the stone walls, Christou has espaliered apple trees. Here, a worker in a sun hat tends to basil, pepper plants, tomatoes, artichokes, and various herbs. The paths between the raised beds are appointed with potted olive, lemon and fig trees — these are brought inside over winter.
Even before the lavender is blooming, the store is redolent from the key ingredient in herbs de Provence. The store, as well as the tours, helps generate revenue to sustain the farming operations. Many of the items are raised at Carousel Farm, such as lavender honey from the bees raised here. Soaps, beeswax candles, and other products are made in a small factory in Pottstown from Carousel’s lavender.
“We only sell products we would buy,” says Christou. “We also sell linens and soap dishes that complement our products.” Baskets from Africa are fair trade. Cards are from Christou’s photographs of the lavender farm, and “Images in Time: Portrait of a Bucks County Farm,” Christou’s photographic paean to his agrarian creation, is available for $20.
After the tour, visitors are welcome to picnic on the grounds.
Carousel Farm Lavender, 5966 Mechanicsville Road, Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania, is open Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays, June 14 to July 9, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours are offered Wednesdays, June 10 through July 22, 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Reservations not necessary. $10/person. Group tours for parties of 15 or more can be scheduled. The farm is closed January through March. www.carouselfarmlavender.com