Modesto Garden Club and Lavender Hollow Farm
October 11th, 2008
I have my father to thank for my two-day trip to Modesto earlier this week. That’s because a year ago, as my folks were driving from Seattle to Phoenix, they stayed overnight at the home of Sue and Jerry Houser in Modesto, California. Like my parents, the Housers belonged to an informal bed-and-breakfast club. You pay some kind of nominal fee to join and receive a directory of hosts who will give you a room for the night, plus breakfast. My affable dad was seated in Sue Houser’s family room and he noticed all her gardening books and magazines. “My daughter writes about gardens,” he offered.
Turns out, Sue is the program chair for the Modesto Garden Club, one of the largest clubs I’ve ever encountered (it was founded 81 years ago and has more than 600 members)! How’s that for serendipity?
The next thing I know, Dad’s on the phone to me, introducing me to Sue. Several phone calls and emails later, she invited me to come speak to her club. That’s the two of us pictured above, standing in the foyer of the garden club’s beautiful office in a renovated cottage (seen at right).
I began my trip on Tuesday, driving to Bakersfield, which is 120 miles northbound on Interstate 5. I parked my car at the Amtrak station there and hopped the San Joaquin line (which begins in Bakersfield and continues to Sacramento or Oakland). I passed the 3-1/2 hour train trip quite pleasantly, looking out the window at the changing scenery, much of it agricultural (mostly corn fields and pecan orchards), napping, reading, and relaxing. My cell phone was turned off, ensuring that I really could “unplug” for a little while.
A LAVENDER WELCOME
I disembarked at the train station in Modesto, where Sue and her friend Cheryl were waiting. It was already 5:30 pm, but the first thing Sue said was: “We’re going to Lavender Hollow Farm!”
When we first met by phone, Sue told me about Lavender Hollow, suggesting it might be a subject for a cool magazine article. On my train trip, I even wondered to myself, “will we have any time to visit there?” The entire trip was pretty short and I knew Wednesday morning would be consumed by Garden Club activities. But here it was, already dinnertime, and these garden gals were going to squeeze in a horticultural field trip. Women after my own heart!
Cheryl and I hopped in Sue’s car with her and we drove beyond the outskirts of Modesto, past the orchard-packing warehouses, to the hamlet of Escalon. We turned off the two-lane country road, down a side street that curved around pecan orchards, and came upon a lettered sign that read: Lavender Hollow Farm.
As we followed the drive to a cozy “hollow” at the base of a hill, I viewed a patchwork quilt of orderly lavender shrubs in a spectrum that included silvery-gray, pale lilac, and purple. Even though it’s well after their peak bloom time in mid-summer, many of the clipped, mounded plants were producing a second flush of lavender flowers. The farm grows 42 varieties of lavender!
The three-year-old venture is owned by Alice and Bill Taylor, who have lived on this eight acres for years, raising their three children. Bill, a contractor, built their charming farmhouse. The acreage was once overgrown. The barn once housed a few horses. Then came the lavender.
Alice and Bill read and researched. They asked questions, scoured the Internet, quizzed nurserymen, tracked down resources and supplies. Pretty soon, they planted hundreds of lavender starts in their fields. That number quickly increased to thousands.
The homegrown, family-run venture took off immediately. In May and June, the fields are open for U-pick customers. Sue’s lavender tea parties sell out quickly. Culinary and aromatic lavender products are made by hand here, with attention and care given to the best ingredients. [I came home with a gorgeous Lavender Hollow Farm container filled with products, a gift from the Modesto Garden Club. It included bars of handmade Lavender Mint and Lavender Lilac soap; Lavender Hand & Body Lotion; Lavender-Grapefruit Lotion; Lavender Bath & Shower Gel; Handmade Lavender Linen Water; a huge sachet of loose lavender; and some really interesting Lavender Dryer Bags, which you toss in the dryer to give laundry a fresh scent of lavender.]
I’ll certainly have lavender to soothe and calm me for months to come! [Above, from left: Sue, Lavender Lady Alice Taylor, Cheryl, and me]
Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the delightful tea Alice and Bill shared with us in the garden ~ Lavender-Pink Lemonade and delicious lavender shortbread cookies, baked in the kitchen at Lavender Hollow Farm.
And a final treat: Lavender Dark Chocolate! Oh, my! It’s inspiring to discover all the companionable ingredients that play well with lavender to create wonderful new scents and flavors.
THE NEXT MORNING . . .
You can be sure I slept snugly that night, tucked into a comfortable bed in my own private suite at the Houser residence. Yes, the very same place my folks enjoyed when they stopped here a year ago.
We had an early morning start, but somehow, Sue managed to find time to make a savory quiche, fresh-cut fruit, and home-made bran muffins, which sent us off with enough nourishment to handle the business of the Modesto Garden Club. One needs a big breakfast to manage this group’s ambitious schedule. It starts with an 8:30 a.m. arrival at the Senior Center (Modesto Garden Club members maintain the grounds in exchange for use of the hall each month).
But we were not there first on the scene! A cadre of club members was busy setting up displays around the perimeter of the room, including tables devoted to education, library and school gardening programs, a raffle of garden goodies, a plant sale, sign-ups for the upcoming holiday luncheon, garden tours, and, of course, home-made food!
The first hour is devoted to socializing and networking. By 10:45 a.m., once everyone grabs a plate of goodies and coffee, “Snack and Learn” begins. Held in an adjacent classroom, this mini-workshop precedes the main club program and often features a hands-on demonstration, such as the lively floral design talk given by Kara Shabhazian from Scenic Nursery.
Then, after another 30-minute break for coffee and such, about 300 members and guests convened in the huge hall for club business and my talk (see audience, above). Club business included a “reality-style” slide show peppered with movie clips from the past month’s meeting, a live auction of the Halloween-themed table decoration, drawing for more than a dozen raffle items donated by local garden-related businesses, and a meditation shared by a longtime member. By the time I got up to talk about “Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways,” I felt like I was speaking to a group of old friends. These Modesto gardeners know how to welcome a newcomer and make her feel at home.
Thanks to everyone who came and took the time to say hello. During the booksigning, I met many kindred spirits with stories to share about their yet-to-be-built “dream shed,” or the makeover ideas planned for the dusty potting shed out back. A few women confided plans to help their husbands “enjoy” a new retirement project. Ahem. I loved hearing each one of those highly personal anecdotes, and made everyone promise to send me photos of their hideaways when completed.
Sue and Jerry deposited me at the Modesto train station with plenty of time to spare for my 3:30 p.m. departure to Bakersfield. By the time I boarded, I was ready for a nap! I found a window seat with an empty seat next to it and figured out how to make my laptop case serve as a quasi-pillow. My overnight bag was filled with all my lavender souveniers, plus a bag of sweet potatoes (Another “gift” from Sue, who took delivery of a huge box of sweet potatoes from a garden club friend. Suffice it to say, I’m going to start experimenting with some autumnal sweet potato recipes this weekend).
In the end, a very fun, and satisfying adventure. I know this is a long story for such a short short trip. But now you know a little bit more about Modesto. And if you’re ever driving through, try and schedule your visit for the second Wednesday of the month!