Lavender crops, a tradition in Haute Provence. Agricultural and cultural heritage
Far from all pollution, our fields of True lavender or “population lavender” stretch over more than 80 hectares of the 300 hectares that make up our farm. Our lavender fields account for more than 10% of all French true lavender production. We rotate the fields, for lavender must be uprooted and burned every 10 years.
We grow only Augustifolia P. Miller lavender, which is the species known as “true lavender”, “fine lavender” or “population lavender”. Population lavender means that each lavender plant is grown from a seed and is an individual plant, different from every other plant in the field. These differences are important in the quality and olfactive complexity of essential oil. True lavender is very resistant to cold, and thrives at 1100-meter altitude. It is very calciphile – it loves limestone soils – and does not like acid, clayey, compact heavy soils. Good strong sunshine is another vital factor to producing essential oil. In a word, true lavender is ideally suited to our soils and climate. The timing of the rainfall is also ideal, for rains come just as plants are growing after being planted, in May and June as the flowers are forming, and in the late summer after harvesting.
When you bring up lavender, thoughts immediately turn to the lovely blue flower, warm summer weather, distilleries and the gorgeous fragrance. But lavender growing is not a seasonal activity – lavender requires year-round work.
- March: Planting time. As the earth begins to unfreeze, we select true lavender seedlings from our nurseries, which are also located at high altitude, and we gather wild seedlings. We plant these bare-root seedlings in prepared soils. We use a wheel with clamps on it which clamps the seedlings one by one and plants them 30 centimeters apart. Rows are separated by a distance of 1.50 meters. There are 17,000 lavender plants on one hectare. Each year, at our lavender farm Le Château du Bois, we replant 7 to 10 hectares.
April-May: Weeding starts. We use a “claw” attached to the tractor. The big fingers on this claw scratch out the weeds between the rows of lavender. For young lavender plants under 3 years old, we don’t use the claw, for the plants are too little and would be uprooted by the claw. We hoe the rows of lavender plants under 3 years old. Also in April and May, we add organic fertilizer to the soils.
- Mid-June: Flowering starts! We stop weeding because this could harm the delicate young flowers. We start preparing the distillery. We fill the gas tank, check the rainwater storage tanks, and make contact with the seasonal workers.
Mid-July: Height of the flowering season. We observe the spikes on our lavenders to smell for maturity, and we begin defining the date for starting up the harvest, or the “campaign”. In late July, between the 20th and the 27th, we start harvesting the lavender. Today, on our farm, we use a machine to cut the lavender. This lavender-cutting machine is attached to the back of a “tracteur enjambeur”, or high-clearance tractor, from which the driver easily can see what he is doing, for he is the one to decide at what height to cut the stems. The tractor has a conveyor belt which allows the driver to work on 6 rows at a time. The cut flowers are spread to dry without fermenting in the field, in long rows called windrows. 2 or 3 days after being cut, they are distilled. If all goes well – with no rain to come spoil our fun – the campaign lasts approximately 15 days. This is the most exciting period, for it is the culmination of an entire year of work.
- August: Time to start weeding again – lots of grass has grown since early June.
- October: the old lavender plants that are over 10 years old have to be uprooted and burned. We prepare the soil for the new planting in March. This entails removing large stones, breaking up the smaller stones, tilling and aerating the earth so that it can rest all winter.
- November: This is when we sow seed in our nurseries, just before the cold months of winter. These seeds will start to sprout in April of the following year. We wait 3 years before transplanting these seedlings in new fields.
- December-January-February: the ground freezes and the earth rests – so does the lavender grower! However, this is also the time to repair and replace farming equipment. Farming methods have changed. We have had to adapt to the occurrence of blight, a contagious syndrome which is often due to stress from farming practices and bacteria. Any intervention is carefully decided. The trend now is to be very attentive to the evolution and the character of the plant, from seed to flower to cutting to distillation. There is more rotation to regenerate the soils, better cleaning and better fertilization. When we do apply treatments, we use rainwater, with products and methods that are biodynamic.
The role of bees
The bee is the lavender grower’s ally. Bees are very important, and this is why the Lincelé family invites their bee-keeper friends to come and bring their beehives to the farm, and place the hives near the lavender fields. Bees simply love buzzing for nectar in lavender – lavender is delicious and full of nectar for bees. Bees’ incessant foraging in the lavender increases yield. Did you know that in one hour, a single bee forages in 700 flowers? When bees draw nectar off a flower, the flowers stop secreting. This saves a certain quantity of sugar which then goes to synthesizing essence. The honey made by bees that forage in true lavender is the finest, most elegant and tasty of any kind of honey. You can understand why beekeepers come from far and wide to bring their hives to the highlands where true lavender grows. True lavender and bees – a beneficial exchange for all!