Sequim sitting pretty in a purple haze | Beyond Kitsap
By JENNIFER MORRIS
North Kitsap Herald Reporter
April 22, 2010 · Updated 10:30 AM
In the sleepy town of Sequim, a patchwork land of lolling green fields and crisp mountain views, something is beginning to stir.
“It’s just starting to wake up,” says Carmen Ragsdale, a farm owner in the Dungeness Valley.
She’s talking about lavender, the region’s famed purplish commodity for which it has been branded. A month from now, thousands of lavender bushes will bloom in Sequim, filling the air with a sweet, minty smell and calling to an international audience, as people the world over come to breathe in this small, peninsula town. In this, the calm before the storm of agritourism, growers keep their sights peeled for the first bloom of the season — and, as always, keep the weeds at bay.
It’s hard to say where one lavender season ends and another begins. Sure, there’s the obvious blooming come June and July, when different varieties make their debut, coloring Sequim’s fields in a wash of bluish purple. Later, after July and its full bloom of lavender festivities, the plants are harvested, the oil distilled, the foliage dried and the sachets stuffed.
But once the blooms have been cut — in a finicky time window of roughly a week, during which the plants are just ripe enough, but not too much so — the bare mounds are reshaped into their half-spherical form, an aesthetic touch that allows them to produce maximum blooms in their next season.
Vincent Sepulveda, 21, the grandson of Carmen Ragsdale, who owns Sunshine Herb & Lavender Farm, counts the reshaping task in days, not hours. On the farm of more than 8,000 plants, it takes about a week with electric trimmers.
Sepulveda stands in the farm’s green house, where rows of new lavender plants sit — really, where each purply bushel begins. Most are grown from cuttings, and have yet to grow beyond the size of a small porch plant. Each new plant takes a few years to mature, and can produce blooms for nearly two decades. Sepulveda points to large, thick tubing, strung like garland above him, and explains that heat from a fire in the green house is pumped through the tubing and has kept the growing plants warm during winter. The mature plants are lined in rows outdoors, and need little in the way of winter care save for vigilant weeding.
“We spend hours and hours just weeding,” Carmen Ragsdale says.
Claudine Oliver, a delightfully kind great grandmother and owner of Oliver’s Lavender Farm on the opposite side of the valley, agrees: “It is constant weeding,” she says.
She and husband Don Oliver grow 2,100 plants. In the fall, after harvest, their barn is strung with drying bushels. So full, its aroma wafts clear down their country road.
If Poulsbo were ever called Norwegian — heck, if Leavenworth is at all Bavarian — then you might say Sequim is a theme town too. Lavender does, after all, take over every summer, inundating residents with shades of purple as visitors flock to buy oils and lotions and walk the rows in fragrant gardens.
As Kelly Jo Hill put it, there are lovers and there are haters of lavender.
Hill is a director for the Sequim Lavender Festival (which, like many, bills the city as the Lavender Capital of North America), an annual three-day lavender lover’s affair during which 30,000 people, representing all 50 states and various other countries and continents, descend upon Sequim for a tour of local lavender farms and a street fair bustling with vendors. It takes place mid-July, just before harvesting season; a final hoopla before the town’s favorite export settles into dormancy over winter.
Carmen Ragsdale’s farm, Sunshine Herb & Lavender, is on the tour’s map of destinations. Standing in its gift shop, one could imagine lavender as an art of camouflage; with so much purple around, from the dried buds hanging from the ceiling to the piles and stacks of jars, canisters and fabrics, you could lose track of your own bruise.
“These are my happy colors,” Carmen Ragsdale says. She’s wearing purple from head to toe — literally, from her purple shoes to her purple eye makeup — and the walls around her are the complementary sage, a mellowing touch, she explains, to the bright purple paraphernalia.
It’s been a decade since she and husband Steve Ragsdale opened the farm, a new activity for retirement in line with her affinity for gardening and mixing and making things.
“If you enjoy it,” she says, “it’s not work. If you don’t like it, it’s work.”
Steve Ragsdale is president of the Sequim Lavender Growers Association, a group of local growers and product makers that have cooperated to make Sequim a true lavender destination. They’ve clearly succeeded: Aside from the visitors during the town’s annual festival, most farms receive thousands of unique patrons throughout each year’s bloom. Grower training and lavender conferences have been held in Sequim, and come the start of each season Carmen Ragsdale budgets out for a new gift shop guestbook, since the previous year’s is invariably filled.
It was also 10 years ago that Pam and Randy Nicholson traded the booming city of Las Vegas for an old Victorian farmhouse and 10 acres of crab grass in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. Put off by Vegas’ growth — 6,000 new people every month, Pam Nicholson said — she and her husband got in on Sequim’s lavender industry in its infancy.
The area was in flux in the mid-90s, having lost its original agriculture economy to a host of new development. Eight lavender farms were planted within the next few years, and they began yielding a crop that received a warm community welcome. The Nicholson’s farm, Jardin du Soleil, and three dozen others were installed in the late 90s, and now more than 100,000 lavender plants are grown in and around the arid Sequim area annually.
Pam Nicholson said the growers association has created a network of healthy competition, in which each farm, with its own specific niche, can thrive.
“This is a destination point,” said Don Oliver, who retired to Sequim from a law career in Lynwood with Claudine just shy of a decade ago. “It’s neat to have people come from all over the world and enjoy the lavender.”
The lavender plants are just starting to turn green at Jardin du Soleil, a farm equal parts vintage charm and Victorian poise on idyllic Sequim-Dungeness Way. The Nicholsons employ two full-time gardeners to tend the grounds, and more during late summer’s harvest season, when much of the 10,000 bushels are cut and distilled to make oil there on the farm.
Lavender has been associated with luck, love and protection over the years. Used in the Roman baths, then spread throughout Europe centuries ago, its natural insect-repelling qualities popularized it as an herb that could prevent plague. It has been thought to repel ghosts, and is believed to be pharaohess Cleopatra’s secret to seduction.
“Lavender cosmetics are absolutely wonderful on the skin,” explains Carmen Ragsdale. Products derived of the plant are said to work well against wrinkles, scars and burns — and there is a rising demand for the product because of it.
“Our society is just discovering the benefits of lavender again,” she adds.
There are more than 200 varieties of lavender, and at least that many uses for it, as shown by the Sunshine Herb & Lavender gift shop.
There are jellies, sauces, spices and preserves, products made in response to lavender’s culinary draw.
Like any herb, Carmen Ragsdale says, it must be used correctly. She puts lavender in barbeque rubs and salad dressings, along with every edible product the farm serves. It sometimes takes on a muted nutty flavor, difficult at first to identify; other times, because it is part of the mint family, it is more noticeable — deliciously so, in foods like the farm’s lavender-white-chocolate-raspberry-cheesecake ice cream.
Carmen Ragsdale also sells lotions, drawer liners, salt crystals, balms, oils, candles, soaps and spritzes — her place is a veritable lavender outlet with a delightfully Willy Wonka-esque product menu.
But perhaps the most lovely and simplest of her stock is a dried cutting of lavender itself. Hold it in your palm and rub your hands together, and its smell will be released, she explains. I do, and it does.
“It’s the beauty of it,” says Claudine Oliver. “The fragrance is very soothing.”
Lavender has healing and theraputic properties to it, making it ideal for bee stings — and the weary and worried.
“In a way,” she continues, “it’s kind of magical.”Contact North Kitsap Herald Reporter Jennifer Morris at email@example.com or 360-779-4464.