The Lavender Way: Growth of the Soul

Aromatika_2016_3.1_coverInterview with organic farmer Gill Leonard about the evolution of the land, its plants and the self in nurturing Crete

(Editorial notes to the post: We are sitting under the olive tree, enjoying the gentle rays of sunshine on the fairly warm day of February 9, 2016. Gill wearing her signature straw hat and her eyes through the sunglasses are overlooking her field at The Lavender Way farm.

The article was originally written for and published in the issue 2016/1 of Aromatika Magazine, an online publication in Hungary to support holistic living, the practice and professional education of aromatherapy, phytotherapy, naturopathy and related subjects. My special thanks and gratitude goes to Gergely Hollódi, the editor-in-chief of this beautifully constructed aromatherapy periodical for his always encouraging support. Hope you enjoy the English version in this post. The original copy of the electronic magazine in Hungarian is available for download from the website of Aromatika Magazine.

Title credit © Derek W Pearce – husband, peasant assistant, designer and just the flow of creativity at The Lavender Way.)

We might not seem to be natural-born farmers, but we can recognise that we are. There’s more and more of us to find our ways and try working on the fields and to live a more natural lifestyle. And meanwhile, we might slowly realise that being engaged in nature actually feels really natural. Nature brings lots of joy into our life and connects us with something we truly appreciate to find.

Can you tell me about your life before becoming a farmer? How did you decide to change your life, leave everything behind and come to establish a new way of living in Crete?

Well, in brief, we started coming to Crete on holiday in the late 80s. I’ve been a bit of a traveller in my past and seen many countries, but felt very at home in Greece and my husband felt the same way. And we started planning an alternative future whereby we would both work hard in London for nine months and spend three months a year in Crete. Just renting, exploring the island, getting to relax. A complete antithesis from London’s hectic lifestyle. My husband Derek was very successful in IT consultancy, I was a project manager, we lived by deadlines, had lots of money, and lived in the fast lane. So Crete was just a switch off, and the first thing we noticed was the light and the amazing sensory experience. The smells, the laid-back quality, the fact that we could truly relax, totally. And things evolved as they always do. So once we’d made sure that his daughters went to University, we decided that we had enough money to start spending a bit more time here on Crete. And maybe building something. Of course, it’s never easy in Greece to say I’m going to do something, I’ve got the money and make it happen. But in the end we had a house and we had four stremma of land which is about 4000 m². And finally in 2002 we moved here full-time. We thought we’d give it a year and see how we enjoyed all the seasons, whether it was something we could adapt to. We had no expectations of anything, we came to relax, we were still very much in the “in Crete you can relax and forget everything” mood. And we wanted a rest.

That sounds wonderful. I can visualize you chilling out on the beach and sipping your coffee, and one day you had that crazy idea why not grow some lavender? Knowing you are sort of an adventurer, the actual story must be different. So, how come you choose lavender? How did you start growing lavender?

Well, as things happen, we also wanted to import two classic cars, two DS Citroens, one of which was a pickup which my husband decided I could learn to drive because my driving skills were so bad. And in order to import a pickup, I had to select a profession which required a pickup according to Greek law. So I decided to become a farmer. At this stage we had olive trees in our field, but we had nothing else. So we had to decide what I was going to farm. And Derek came up with lavender, I came up with lavender, we agreed on it quite quickly. I had no experience whatsoever and of course this gives enormous freedom because I didn’t have any constraints. I didn’t have any book learning, I didn’t have anyone telling me what to do. So we set about trying to get some lavender plants.

How did you choose your first plants and how did you go and make them settled in your soil at your farm?

First I contacted Norfolk Lavender in England, asked them for some cuttings, but they refused. It looked like they did not want any competition… I also talked to a man called Economakis who was at The Institute for Olive Tree and Subtropical Plants of Chania here in Crete, and asked him for some roots stock for lavender. He scoured the whole of Greece and came back with the answer that 10 years previously they had grown some in the Peloponnese, but it was no longer cost-efficient, so they stopped production. Therefore, there was no root stock available. Now, in order to have my pickup imported, I had to prove that I was serious about growing lavender. So I had to go to a shop in Chania, ask for 50 plants, no one knew what they were, there were no labels, I didn’t really know what the lavender types looked like at the time. So on good faith, I took the 50 plants and my husband Derek helped me plant, because I had never had a garden, I didn’t know what I was doing. There we go.

Fight for survival at the organic lavender farm
Fight for survival at the organic lavender farm

At that stage the field was being ploughed twice a year to get rid of all the wild plants and so the olives could have free reign without any competition. So the fifty plants were in the middle of a very barren landscape.

Oh, it is very alive now. And as opposed to the famous landscape and lavender fields in France, your land looks quite different.

Yes, we decided to plant the lavender in circles because Derek came up with this idea that it would be really nice to make a design in this barren landscape, and also he had heard that the Native American Indians planted in circles because it was better for the plants in terms of breaking up wind flows and who knows what else. We were very immature, very inexperienced…

I find it rather exciting and honourable when somebody allows and follows a free way… and also how admirable as things can evolve from one area to another. As basically, my understanding is that it is also part of the personal choice. It is also the passion about design and beauty.

Derek is a designer, a creator. He naturally goes for design. I was being very much lead at this stage by Derek, because I never had a garden. I didn’t really know how to plant anything. And also, we didn’t know how old the plants were, because it was very hard to find lavender in those days, this was in 2002, and basically because no one knew much about lavender. They gave us a lot of broken roots to plant, so some of the plants were quite old and woody, and we didn’t really know what to expect. In fact, we had two main varieties, apparently ‘kanoniki’ which is normal and French. But we didn’t know what these French things were… (smiling).

From that start I got lots of books, I started going on the internet, I was very analytical, I did a lot of research, and I tried to make notes from day one of planting. I still have my books, I still make notes, 13-14 years later, based on observation. And I thought somehow it’s going to click, I am going to understand what these things are, what they can do. I also read in my lavender books that I had to do things like pruning plants and take cuttings if I wanted to make more. Well, that seemed a sensible thing to do given I couldn’t find any lavender plants in Crete, I realised I had to make my own. So I observed them and decided which ones seemed strongest for cuttings, and put them in little pots and hoped for the best.

Lavender plant circles in January at The Lavender Way farm
Lavender plant circles in January at The Lavender Way farm

And then I produced another 200 plants the next year, so I planted even bigger circles. So all this was very much based on me making very pretty designs with small plants and waiting for flowers. I remember my first lavender harvest had about twelve flowers which I dutifully dried and took photos of hanging from a hanger. And the things that amazed me was the smell, the intensity of the smell, and I just ahhh… one small part of lavender can smell so strong, therefore you know, the more lavender I can make the better. I remember naively asking whether I had enough for a distillation? And it was ridiculous, naturally, because I hadn’t appreciated how much biomass was required.

Maybe you were just at the early stage of your journey, however, it sounds like truly being back to nature and appreciating what it has to offer. And with this respectful approach you were sort of instinctively doing the practices of natural farming. Speaking of which I have learnt from your website at The Lavender Way that you were inspired by the ideas of the Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka.

Yes, I became then much more interested in what kind of soil do I have, where does the sunshine go, how much water do they need? And then I started evolving somehow into a person who was much more aware of my environment. I started noticing some of the wildflowers that were growing alongside the lavender. But it wasn’t until 2007, when a camera crew came to film a short piece on the lavender which was looking very beautiful, I had lots of flowers at this stage. The cameraman mentioned Fukuoka. Of course, I had to look him up and find out all about him and buy his books like The One-Straw Revolution, and try to get my head around what he was talking about. And the main thrust was okay, nature knows best – well, this had been obvious to me anyway, because even planting in circles, man-made design never works perfectly. Some of the circle would die back and some would look beautiful, and I didn’t know why. You know, they’d had the same start, they’d had the same amount of water, etc, etc.

So then I started really feeling nature, as opposed to me trying to grow lavender in this environment, and certain things became so much clearer to me. I started watching how wild plants grew, where they grew, what did that mean, how much water they were getting in terms of dew for example. If I get rain in March, does that mean I have more leaf and more flower on my lavender? If I don’t get rain in March, do I need to water it starting in April, otherwise I don’t promote the new leaf? And going back to Fukuoka, the main principles were that “no till, no weed”, which means you don’t disturb the soil. After all, all the wildflowers and what we call weeds grow perfectly, happily in this “no till, no weed” environment. And it started me thinking, maybe I’m introducing lavender into a place which already exists. So instead of having the tractor in to till the land, just let it go wild and see what happens. Well, surprise, surprise, a lot of my lavender is quite happy finding itself next to a fennel, a wild carrot. And then I started working out, well that’s because the lavender roots spread laterally, and the fennel and the wild carrot have taproots, so they are not in competition. All the oxalis which covers the meadows with beautiful yellow flowers in the winter die back naturally creating some kind of green mulch. All sorts of things I started noticing, all the wild grasses that come up with the spring flowers, they have their time and there was very little affected by lavender.

Lavender bushes amongst the oxalis and the olive trees
Lavender bushes amongst the oxalis and the olive trees

I did then start thinking about the Fukuoka principle about the clay seed balls whereby he coats seeds in clay, throws them across an area and finds out where they grow. And where they grow is where they meant to grow, and where they don’t grow is unsuitable for growing. So I started thinking: having started with man-made designs, why don’t I free myself a little and let things die back? If it’s not suitable to be growing there, just let them go and choose new areas. Now, luckily I’ve got enough land to do that, so we started experimenting with different areas. I’m just letting things be much more natural. If I have bur clover covering our lavender plants, I just gently brush it off to allow the light to get to the plant, but I wouldn’t pull it up by the roots because the bur clover is a nitrogen fixer, it’s very good for the soil.

I discovered and learned a lot and I was full of enthusiasm and passion. By 2005 my plants were two years old, producing some lavender, more than enough to give away to friends. And I was kind of passionate because I’d been working practically every day in the field, apart from when it rained, just doing things on my own. I had something like five hundred lavender plants, some of them babies, some two-years old. I felt I was ready to meet the world and say look at me. Before then, it had been so much like a beautiful hobby, I did not really care if no one else saw the plants, I experienced the plants and just really loving growing lavender. But I walked into a shop called Botanika in Chania and met Maria Tolidou. She was a great influence in my development. She introduced me to the Wild Herbs of Crete, Janina Sorensen and Babis Psaroudakis (who you are very familiar with from the previous article). I was totally inspired, I felt like “Okay, next year” – I told Maria – “I’m going to provide your lavender oil.” – I was so confident. She invited Janina and Babis to visit the farm in 2005 and immediately Janina pointed out that I did not have enough biomass. So I was a little bit disappointed. But that was on the angustifolia side. On the spica side, Babis was convinced he could make some oil for me.

You obviously had identified and become very knowledgeable about the different types of lavender introduced in to your farm.

By this stage I had three main varieties, and this was all based on botanical research. I hadn’t had any analysis of plant material done in terms of GC/MS at this stage. But basically the angustifolia characteristics were present in some plants and I identified the closest relative would be for example Lavender Maillette in Provence area. But on the other side, the Spica took me many years to formally identify. But I have nailed it, I have identified in The Genus Lavandula monograph written by Tim Upson and Susyn Andrews. It’s a hybrid, lavandula dentata and lavandula latifolia, a cultivar that is called Anzac Pride. And other names are Lavandula x allardii ‘Clone B’ or lavandula spica var. gigantea. It was first spotted in 1952 in Sydney, Australia and it is still cultivated in Australia. And in Crete now!

The angustifolia has been much harder to pinpoint exactly. The botanical references I’m talking about were very detailed, but they involve things like comparison of bract size, the number of laterals on the spike, the corolla and lots of other fairly technical term, which allow you to narrow it down.  Of course, later I was to do the chemical analysis that helps also verify that. So I had an angustifolia and a spica for sure, and a lavandin which from the start I didn’t think smelt as sweet as the angustifolia, and also I decided I would use it for another purpose which was to dry tea for lavender tea, sachets, pot pourri, etc.

Beautiful organic lavender
Beautiful organic lavender

And of course you have to have your essential oil made in order to do the chemical analysis. If your story wasn’t exciting enough so far…

Yes. So having met Janina and Babis,  this led to my first distillation in 2006. January 2006 – I will never forget it. And you know what? I still rate it as one of the most magical experiences in my whole life, because suddenly somebody had made a dream of mine come true.

Okay, having grown these plants for a couple of years I was then starting to think I would really like to understand the essence of this plant. So, when my first spica distillation happened, which was a really good yield as well, and surprised Babis too, he actually thought the yield was very high. We made something like 1500 ml and this was from 18 crates of dried spica. I was absolutely delighted.

You have to remember this is a small plot of land, the lavender shares with olive trees and wild flowers, and now rosemary. And I have a very limited biomass in terms of quantity, but my yield for the biomass is very high. And I think as a digression, my view is, partly a mixture of the magic of Crete, of course, and the amazing conditions, and the intensity of everything, partly because it’s grown in an environment where it fits happily. As in nothing is changed, after all we are a certified organic farm so there is no fertiliser, no pesticides, no herbicide, no alteration of the soil, no alteration of anything. I make a small hole, plant the lavender, and hope it grows with nurture and a little bit of water. But, it’s not cultivation at all in the normal sense where in a normal situation you would expect a farmer here to till the land, plant the lavender, probably 45 cm (18 inches) apart, maximise the amount of lavender per stremma, to obtain the highest possible yield in terms of biomass. Which is absolutely fine, but if that involves changing the composition of the soil or adding lots of fertiliser or other aids, it has its detrimental effects on the oil in my opinion.

I learned that lavender does very well in a harsh environment. I’ve got a white clay soil here which isn’t ideal for lavender, so when I plant I have to mound them to make sure they don’t get waterlogged. And because there were torrential rains last winter I did lose some, so now I have a trench around the lavender to protect it from that. So basically, I have made the lavender as comfortable as possible. I haven’t changed any of the chemical components which feed the lavender plant. I think it’s a very important point. Because if you are amending soil, you’re changing the chemical composition. If you’re adding too much water, you’re changing the chemical composition of the oil. There’s a lot of factors. If you don’t have so much intense sunlight, your oil may not be as intense. When do you cut your plant? How you cut your plant for the harvest? You know… like you can’t cut your plant when you still have dew on the leaf. You have to wait for a certain optimum condition. You never want to prune your plant when it’s wet because then you’ll your damage the branches. So it’s really making sure you’re making the plants as true as it can be, as it would be, if it had just grown there naturally. So how I like to think of it is my lavender is almost like a natural addition to the wild plants in the field.

So the spica oil was produced and then I asked Babis “Well, what can I use it for?” Hahaha. I didn’t really know what to make of it because it did not smell as sweet as lavender oil I was used to. So we weren’t really sure how to market it, how to sell it, but we were just happy we made it.

Then in 2009 I was visited by a lady called Dorene Petersen who is from a ACHS, the American College of Healthcare Sciences. This was a great honour, someone coming all the way from America to visit our little old lavender farm. She was incredibly helpful, she supported me by taking my oils for the first analysis, and also pointed out that we had hypericum growing under our olive trees which we hadn’t noticed. Also, she showed me a video of how to make a lavender wand!

In the meantime, waiting for this analysis, the one for the spica came with a very unusual characteristic which is a very high 1.8-cineole content.

The other person who was really influential was Andrea Butje from Aromahead Institute who having visited me in 2011 was so supportive and gave me a year’s free access to her components’ database so that I could for the first time get a better understanding of my GC/MS analysis for both oils.

Gill welcomes savvy visitors
Gill welcomes savvy visitors

So these people were very important influences in my external development. Over the years I’ve had lots of visitors and attracted people mainly because I think it’s been very much a one-man show until recently, where everything was hands on, everything was hand-crafted. It was my ultra big project. My passion developed and developed and then I started having the confidence to talk to people who visited about my experiences, helping organic farmers in Crete, young people interested in organic farming, introducing aromatherapists from around the world to different oils growing from my particular terrain. And just really sort of showing hands on how lavender could be grown in a completely different way to the commercial huge fields, factory farmed lavender elsewhere. Now, I am in a lucky position of not having to make much money from my lavender, so of course you could either say it’s a well-paid hobby or a very badly paid farming role. But the point is that I’ve had the time and the passion to bring a lot of ideas together about the botany, about natural farming, sustainable farming, minimising water usage, biodiversity, in practice creating a little pocket of truly back-to-nature land, warts and all. I would say it’s very much about sculpting the landscape, each plant has its time, so I allow all the wild plants to seed, and then I simply cut down after that the plants which are preventing light from reaching my lavender. I don’t like to destroy anything until it’s had a good go at being alive. My idea is why should I destroy the natural plant which is very very happy growing alongside my lavender? And my lavender will have to adapt to that. So it’s very much when I make a planting hole I hope all the surrounding plants accept my lavender, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, and I have to live with that.

Not only your field layout is very special, but the way you collect the flowers is unique too. Very individual, rather a series of one-on-one sessions with the plants. It is not like a one-time cut, and indeed goes for many months to finish the harvest. How do you do that?

I wrote my farmer’s almanac about when to do things and I would do things like try to pick in full moon, try to plant at new moon, and all these kind of things wherever possible. And of course, sometimes you can’t achieve that because you need to get to harvesting quickly.

The point you are making about how I harvest… well, because it started off as a one-man job, I decided with so few plants I couldn’t lose one flower. Therefore, I picked one by one, as soon as it became the right stage. And for the distillation of angustifolia, most of the flowerhead needs to be about to wither, that maximises the oil content, as opposed to doing it for dried when you don’t want many of the flowers out because the calyx drops off. Having picked them one by one, there is no way I could do a distillation the same week, so we had to create a drying room. And then a way of storing the dried lavender, so it wouldn’t lose its essence. And then do a distillation after maybe a month’s worth of picking. Obviously we try and shorten the harvest time, but you know, that’s what we get basically.

Can you give us an idea of a year’s cycle for your land in Crete?

Well, I start in January, it’s a good place to start. In January, I have a very small number of flowers and I decided that’s a good point to do the pruning, thus January and February are pruning.

January is for pruning the bushes on the Cretan lavender farm
January is for pruning the bushes on the Cretan lavender farm

March, I’m checking irrigation and making sure all the holes are unblocked. Also checking that the wildflowers are not growing over the lavender, maybe brushing them to one side. Making sure that I haven’t got anything really nasty growing up through the lavender – like brambles, wild rose – which is just going to make picking really difficult later. But again, I just cut these back, I don’t uproot them. And then in April and May I am just clearing around plants, so this is when I get a lot of the bur clover which tends to climb up over the plants. And this is when I see the first leaves appearing and the start of the peduncles. I start cutting out any dead to promote any growth from the base if I can. June-July-August, until January is angustifolia harvesting. But for the oil part of it, I try and do that as soon as possible, so say July or August to do a distillation when I have sufficient biomass. And thereafter, the angustifolia flowers are picked to be dried, or for fresh flowers like weddings. September and October I start picking spica, and that’s the leaf as well as the flowers. In fact, most of the oil comes from the leaf. November I plant the new lavender plants, and December I take cuttings before I start the pruning in January. So that’s the basic thing. Although I noticed with rosemary, it seems to grow at a different time of the year that the lavender. So I’ve got new rosemary leaf now, but I haven’t got new lavender leaves, so lavender definitely needs warm sun and to have enough rain in March to start growing leaf in around April time. Whereas now in February I’ve got new rosemary leaf, and a few rosemary flowers. So it will be nice to have lavender and rosemary flowers all year around.

Now that the workload has increased you get help for certain tasks which allows others to touch your flowers (I was one of the lucky pioneers)… so how do you feel about the change?

Yeah, after working solo for many many years, I enlisted the help of people like yourself and other supporters. Partly because I decided it was time to share and not be so kind of egocentric about my plants. To trust other people with my plants, and that was a big thing for me, to make sure the flowers were cut properly, or the bushes were pruned properly. They are all my children, like I guess in child-care for the first time. But I decided that it’s a more productive way forward, and also I am moving more into imparting some of my knowledge now than I used to. And also I’m a bit more laid-back about allowing others to… even touch my product… big step! I used to want a hundred percent control over everything. But even though, I was letting nature control me… how interesting is that?

I would just have one additional question. If you have any wish right now for your future? A secret wish or just anything?

I think I want to build on the knowledge I’ve got to-date and to share that with as many people as are interested. I think to live each day is my wish and to evolve as I have evolved because nothing has ever been planned really. It has just happened and I’ve learnt from it and lived with it. It was such an antithesis to being a project manager and having my whole project planned from start to finish. With this project it was learning about so many new things, being open to so many new things. And I hope I grow like some of the oldest lavender in my field, where I keep losing a few branches, but I am still there, my roots are still strong and might come back with like a new idea. Who knows… 

One of the oldest lavender plants at the farm
One of the oldest lavender plants at the farm

That’s very beautiful. OMG, I have tears in my eyes… Thank you. And together with the principles, philosophy and experimental wisdom, I love listening to your story by the timeline, with all these colourful funny chapters. They are surely giving hope and inspiration to those who are currently dreaming about out-of-the-ordinary scenarios. Your example might give a gentle push that ‘YEAH, maybe things can happen in unexpected ways’ – provided we have the intention and make some steps too. Thank you!

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