Gazing at the rows of deep purple flowers, their heady perfume hovering like a heat haze, you might imagine you were in the lavender fields of Provence.
But as ANGELA KEMP discovered, this visual and olfactory delight is in a rather less auspicious location much closer to home.
Mention Glenbrook and there’s two things that spring to mind – the steel mill and the vintage railway. It certainly isn’t somewhere you would expect to find a profitable lavender farm.
Glenbrook Lavender produces some of the finest lavender oil you’ll find – so special Harrods asked to stock it. But its down-to-earth grower, Paul Chainey prefers to peddle his fragrant beauty products at local markets such as Howick Village, Pokeno Country Market, Red Shed Palazzo and Parnell Farmers Market.
Paul started Glenbrook Lavender about 14 years ago after he and wife Miriam moved from Auckland to the 11 acre block when she was appointed head of art at Wesley College.
After some brainstorming about what to do with their lifestyle block, they decided to plant lavender in a semi-commercial capacity to keep Paul out of mischief after his retirement from real estate.
“We started with 5000 plants but had a battle with the pukekos; they were pulling the plants out nearly as fast as we were putting them in. I was putting anything between 150 and 200 plants back in the ground every morning.”
Paul subsequently reduced the planting to around 3000 plants which grow on a hectare of land with Glenbrook Steel Mill in clear view on the horizon.
He said there was no secret to growing lavender, he just ploughed up a former paddock and ‘stuck the plants in’.
“I devised a gadget on the back of our small tractor and rotary hoe which mounded up the rows and we just went from there. The clay soil isn’t the best for growing lavender, it’s claggy in winter and dries out into big cracks in summer.”
Although it may not be ideal growing conditions, the grosso lavender plants don’t seem to mind too much and produce more than enough oil to meet Glenbrook Lavender’s needs.
As with any crop, oil production varies year to year. “When we had 5000 plants our first crop of oil was 25 litres. The second year that went up to 40 litres and by the time we were up to the fifth and sixth year we were at nearly 80 litres of oil.”
The couple’s son Bradley is in charge of distilling the precious oil, a process his father says he’s especially good at.
They now have their own distillation plant on the farm after Paul became fed up driving his harvest to Taupo for processing.
“It’s like a giant pressure cooker and the main basket we put in there holds 300kgs of flowers which produces five to seven litres of oil. We’re expecting about five lots like that from this year’s harvest.”
At harvest time in early January, Bradley’s job was to cut the florets and stems with a hedgetrimmer before they were collected in sacks and taken to the distillation shed. With extra help drafted in, the entire crop was gathered in a day.
“The smell of the lavender oil when it is first done is quite acidic and I won’t use that, I leave it to mature for at least 12 months because the longer you leave it the better it is,” Paul says.
Virtually all the lavender oil goes into soaps and other beauty products such as hand and body creams, shower gel and shampoo which Paul sells at local markets as well as online.
A specialist soap company produces several types of soap to Paul’s recipe. He insists on including extra oil to ensure the lavender scent lingers right to the end.
One of the best sellers is lavender and goats’ milk soap which he said was very popular among people with skin conditions.
“I had a woman come up to me to say her grandson’s eczema had all but cleared after using my soap.”
Another satisfied customer in Howick swears by the company’s blended lavender oil for curing stretch marks and had to be prevented from showing Paul the results.
Growing lavender as a money-maker is only possible if you are prepared to turn the oil into product yourself, Paul says. His one experience of supplying oil wholesale convinced him that he would do it his way or not at all.
“I did have a rep who wanted to try and sell it to shops but they wanted to change the packaging, said it was too plain, not fancy wrapped.
“I said I didn’t believe in fancy wrapping because the first thing you do when you take it home is rip off the wrapping and throw it away. That’s a waste of money plus it’s only going to add to the price.”
“I’m confident that our soaps and beauty products are as good as, and in many cases better than, anything you’ll find on the shelf.”
The pukekos are still pecking around the lavender but that doesn’t worry Paul anymore.
“The plants have become too big for them to pull up and I’m happy for them to eat up some of the thousands of snails that live amongst them.”