Within the magical oasis that is Tuscan Farm Gardens, boasts a surprising display of not only lush lavender but also water features, flowers, trees, ponds and other hidden treasures. It is a serene escape that ignites all the senses and instills peace. Our time there began with a faint hum of bees gathering pollen from the flowers and was suitably followed by the infatuating smell of lavender. We were delighted to learn that Tuscan Farm Gardens creates their own array of products such as soaps, bath salts, and skincare products using the ingredients they grow on the farm.
TFV: What is the story behind Tuscan Farm Gardens and how it came to be?
How does one fall into a dream job? It’s a combination of circumstance, passion and opportunity that’s different for every story. We have owned Tuscan Farm Gardens for just over two years, but we’ve lived in Mt Lehman for many. When we bought this property in 2017, we moved our four boys, small flock of chickens, and bee hives down the road to their new home. To be honest, we first fell in love with the farmhouse and the location; when we saw the gardens the lavender looked dead and gray (as it does in March) and a lot of the gardens were under water during an exceptionally rainy spring. We weren’t sure what we were going to do with it, and then in May everything woke up into such beauty that we knew we had to do something. What do you do when the garden of your dreams is just outside your door and the natural products you’ve been looking for for your family are being made in your own basement? You just get started.
Our wildly steep learning curve began: we had to figure out how to harvest by the end of June and we thought we should have a few open houses as a way to pay our gardening help. People loved visiting the gardens, eating lavender ice cream and lemonade and buying natural products made from our farm’s lavender, herbs and flowers. It’s grown each year, and now we are open every weekend in June and July, with special events in fall and at Christmas. The tradition of using plants from the gardens to create natural, handcrafted soap and spa products was started by Arleigh and Heather Fair in 1997 at the original Tuscan Farm Gardens in Langley. They sold the business to Patricia Schneider in 2011, who began the gardens at our current location in Mt Lehman. She developed and ran some of the world’s top spas, and brought her years of experience to creating our incredible recipes.
TFV: What is the process of growing lavender and how is it harvested?
Lavender flourishes here on the West Coast in our mostly mild winters and dry summers. If it has full sun and perfect drainage, it’s hardy and will bloom year after year. Every part of the plant is intensely fragrant, from the woody stems to the tips of the blossoms that come in a range of shades from pale pink, to violet, to dark purple. Lavender is an ancient crop that has been beloved for centuries. Every castle and cottage in the middle ages had a few lavender plants growing nearby as an essential part of the medicine cabinet, and in many ways, the way we grow and harvest it hasn’t changed much.
We cut and bundle our lavender with a scythe by hand (rubber bands were a major technological advancement in lavender growing!) For the highest quality of dried lavender, we harvest the lavender in our field rows when the lavender buds are full but the blossoms are not yet open, usually at the end of June. We leave the thousands of lavender plants in our gardens and labyrinth to open fully over the course of the month of July, to the delight of our bees and visitors. Our cut and bundled lavender is hung in the shop to dry, and then used to create our products.
TFV: Tell us a bit about your family and how they’re involved?
This is definitely a family endeavour! We have four boys, ages 4 to 10. I homeschool them, so the farm is a huge part of what we do together. We feel blessed to be able to raise them in a place where fields and forest are their playground, and where they can learn how to work and serve others along with us. The boys take care of their chickens and are learning how to tend the gardens and help with the harvest. Even our four-year-old knows how to hand me rubber bands to wrap the lavender bundles as I’m harvesting, and our eight-year-old is our apprentice beekeeper. The favourite, most contested job is to work in the shop serving guests, and we have to make rules about how many boys can be helping at the same time! My husband James works outside the farm, but he’s also our beekeeper and the resident inventor of any gadgets, machines or systems we need to actually do the things I dream up. The floor to ceiling lavender waterfall in the shop was his answer to my request for, “a way to dry a lot of lavender in a small footprint that looks really pretty”.
TFV: Tell us a bit about the products you carry in your shop?
Tuscan Farm Gardens was making eco-friendly, essential oil based, straight-from-the-fields soap and spa products before that was even a thing, long before our family arrived. Now it’s an exciting, growing industry as people become more aware of what is in the products they use and where they come from. We are working to make clean, earth-friendly beauty products the new, healthier normal. The products are a natural extension of the beauty of the gardens, and are handmade on the farm in small batches by our aromatherapist and herbalist, Rosa. Many of our guests don’t know that even the formal gardens they wander through when they visit are full of medicinal plants and herbs, grown organically, though we are not certified. In addition to lavender, we grow and harvest echinacea, St. John’s wort, calendula, roses, raspberry leaves, bachelor’s buttons, comfrey and peppermint to make our teas, salves, balms and body scrubs. We don’t use any artificial fragrance, preservatives, or dyes, just pure essential oils and plant-based ingredients.
Our essential oil soap is what we sell the most of. Our cold process means that the benefits of the essential oils are retained, and it has a luxurious lather that is rare for natural soap. It’s eco-certified and biodegradable and you can use it as shampoo, too. (Perfect for summer camping trips!) We make eleven different kinds, and it’s really hard to choose. My personal favourites are Echinacea, made with grapefruit and eucalyptus essential oils, and Dirty Harry, which is part of our gardener’s line and has rosemary, lemon and lavender essential oils. The other product I use almost daily is our sea salt and essential oil body polish, which is an incredible gentle exfoliant and moisturizer.
We can’t forget the bees! They are literally part of our production team as they create our lavender and wildflower honeys. We think lavender and honey is the best possible combination: every beautiful flower we plant and tend feeds the bees, not only our hives of honey bees but the many native species of bees on the farm, which are the best pollinators. There’s sometimes so many bees on a lavender plant that it looks like it is blowing in a breeze, and we have to brush them off before we cut it. They are usually fully loaded with pollen and very happy, and I’ve never been stung in our lavender.
Our culinary lavender is used by Oldhand, Little Brother, Field House Brewing, Banter Ice Cream, Common Good Ice Cream, Kulture Craft Kombucha, and Rain or Shine Ice Cream to make delicious things to eat and drink, and you can find our products at Wild Orange Spa, Pharmasave, Ralph’s Farm Market, and other retailers, as well as on our website.
TFV: What’s your life like outside of Tuscan Farm Gardens?
We’re in a season where our lives are really centred on the home with our small children, and the farm where we are building our business. We work really hard but we are content – it’s meaningful work, and we are doing it together. My boys play violin, cello, and piano and sing in PMCC. We have such incredible arts in the Fraser Valley! (They play hockey too, just to balance things out.) My parents and sister and brother-in-law both live within a three minute walk. There are seven boy cousins and they run and bike from one house to the other, looking for the best snacks and selling eggs to the neighbours.
Something huge our family and neighbourhood is working on right now is hosting a Christmas house tour to rescue families from slavery through International Justice Mission this Christmas. This is a cause that is close to our hearts, as my dad is on the national board of IJM Canada. We want our boys to have a global consciousness as well as being involved in our local community, and this is a great way to use what we have to help others. We’re decorating our Victorian farmhouse and other country homes in the neighbourhood and inviting people inside. Tickets go on sale in fall and it’s going to be amazing!
TFV: What are your favourite seasons here in the Fraser Valley? Why?
Lavender bloom in June and July, of course! The fragrance and colour of our gardens in full bloom is overwhelming in the best way, and this is the time when we get to share it with our guests. Seeing their delight in the gardens we have worked hard to create during the year brings us so much joy. My second favourite season is fall. It’s a slightly slower pace, and everything just glows with warm colour: the gold, coral, burgundy, and pink of the dahlias and fall flowers and the colours of the changing leaves. In fall we’re also creating new products with our fresh harvests of lavender, echinacea and herbs.
TFV: Who in the floral industry inspires you?
We are new to this industry, and I have been thankful for the helpfulness and kindness of the people I have met. For pure inspiration, Erin Benzakein from Floret is at the top. I follow florists and flower growers from all over the world through Instagram, but Floret is just over the border in Washington, so flower varieties and growing times are the same which is really helpful. I took Dan Oostenbrink’s organic gardening course at Local Harvest and got inspiring ideas about composting and soil health which we are applying in our gardens. Brian Minter from Minter Country Gardens did a wonderful article about us in the Vancouver Sun last year and is always helpful. I was laughing with the staff at his nursery that if he tells you to buy something you just say, “Okay, Brian” and put it into your cart. Brad Jalbert at Select Roses in Langley is a world-renowned rose breeder and somehow I find room for more of his roses in the gardens every year. One of the most fun things about having an epic garden is the sheer volume of bulbs and plants I get to justify buying. I put in massive orders with Van Noort Bulbs and they are always incredibly helpful. I am a regular at Devan Greenhouse for their annuals.
Sunrise or Sunset?
Sunset. I often try to get out to the field in the evenings after my boys are in bed. We have a row of absolutely huge cedar trees along the west edge of the farm, and the evening light slants through them and illuminates the hay meadow, or lights up the poppies, or makes the lavender rows glow, depending on the season. I breathe deep and let the peace of the evening soak in after a busy day.
Tea or Coffee?
Tea. I love to curl up with a handmade pottery mug of our lavender earl grey or lavender rooibos tea (sweetened with honey from our bees!) and a book about gardening.
Linen or Denim?
Linen. I feel a deep connection to the past and the way people lived with a closer relation with nature and the rhythms of the seasons. It’s one of the reasons we do what we do – to help people make that connection through our natural products and sharing our gardens through open houses and our instagram account.
TFV: What are some of your favourite local spots in Abbotsford?
We have great businesses in downtown Abbotsford (like Oldhand – they make the lavender baking for our shop!) but we also have amazing ones here in Mt Lehman, like Tanglebank Nursery, Singletree Winery, Mt Lehman Winery, Seaside Pearl Winery, and Glenda’s Christmas Cottage. They are farm-based family businesses like ours and I love to see what they are creating on their land with their families.
TFV: Where do you find your retreat in the Fraser Valley?
In my gardens. I can spend hours watching pollinators at work, taking photos, and dreaming up plans for next year’s flowers. If we’re not in the gardens, just pick a direction! We are surrounded by natural wonders here in the Fraser Valley. We like to hike in the mountains along a river or lake and let the boys explore. When you garden or farm there is something so restful about the beauty of wild places that no one needs to tend.
TFV: If you could recommend one place in the Fraser Valley, what would it be? Why?
A table under an umbrella in our gardens in July. Surrounded by lavender with a lavender ice cream or lemonade in your hand and someone you love across from you. You might feel like you’re in an old-world garden in Europe somewhere, but you’re not. You’re right at home, in this beautiful valley where we live.
The transformative experience within the gardens can be concluded no other way than with Rain or Shine Ice Cream in hand. We were ecstatic to learn that Rain or Shine Ice Cream’s beloved lavender flavoured ice cream uses ingredients from Tuscan Farm Gardens. Thank you Tuscan Farm Gardens for a truly enchanting experience. We cannot wait to return with a raving review of your lovely lavender soap!