Catbird Griddle

  (Angelica, New York)
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Purple Passion: Provençal lavender fields in Western NY?

Gardening is often a mutual accommodation of the crop and the gardener. Our lavender plants, just starting to bloom now, remind me of that truth. The genus Lavandula is native from North Africa and the Mediterranean to southwest Asia and India. If we think of domesticated lavender, our strongest association might be with fields blooming under the hot, dry skies of the Provence region of France. In fact, the extensive cultivation of lavender in southern France is fairly recent—only since the 1920s. Over the preceding century, lavender perfumes had been derived from blossoms collected mostly from wild plants. These had rapidly colonized the rocky hills that were just as rapidly being abandoned by French peasants migrating to industrial jobs in the cities.

So growing lavender in cool, moist western New York, our chief concession was to plant it on our rockiest knoll with a southerly slope. Actually, our friend Hope had started the plants in the comfort of her sun room. In May 2008, we’d transplanted them to our garden, where, despite our pampering, half died over that first year. So in 2009, we transplanted the survivors to the hard rock pile. Our problem was the strips between the rows, which were too rough to be tamed by any lawnmower blade. Our solution was to cultivate with tractor and disk. But even as we picked the largest stones after each cultivation, the next pass of the disk would levitate another crop of rocks. And the taproots of dock and burdock wedged themselves among the stones, where even the disk could not dislodge them. Hoeing and hand-pulling were our unenviable options, and were effective only after the rocks had been lubricated by a good rainfall.

Young NY lavender plants.

Our weedy, stony lavender plot is rarely photogenic. But after our recent rains, we’ve cleared two thirds of the plot of almost all of its weeds. We proudly present a carefully-cropped view of lavender in early bloom. In the foreground is the lavandin (“French lavender”) variety, Dilly-Dilly. The upper part of the row is the hardy “English lavender” variety, Munstead. Our efforts are repaid with a sprig of fresh lavender in our lemonade, as we rest our weary backs. And contemplate a lavender-rosemary-apricot glaze on chicken breasts—for dinner.

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