Tucked at the end of West Harris Road at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain in the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve is a unique, family-owned and sustainable 286-acre farm with 26 acres dedicated to the cultivation of lavender. Sophia Watkins and her partner, Kevin Salmeron, have kept the farm, which was purchased by Sophia’s grandmother in 1963, alive out of Watkins’ commitment to preserve a family tradition.
“I was raised with a lot of ideals of land stewardship—how to continue to take care of and care for a piece of land,” Watkins said. The name of the farm—Soleado Lavender Farm—is a nod to Salmeron’s Latin American background. Soleado means sunny or baking in the sun.
Watkins and Salmeron are also artists. They wanted a shelf-stable product, not a perishable, and together decided to follow the idea of growing lavender. “(Salmeron) became just as interested in it as I was,” Watkins said. “He has been instrumental in it—approaches it as an artist. He also has a construction background and brought those skills.”
Salmeron is responsible for developing the aquaponics system that changed the way they grow their lavender plants. Aquaponics refers to any system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. To complement this, Watkins developed a lava rock growing medium that is nourished by the fish emulsion water pumped onto it and the plants from the aquaponic tank.
As Maryland is not suited to lavender and it takes years to root plants, the lavender is grown almost exclusively from cuttings. It is a sun-loving plant with low water needs and is resistant to most pests and disease. Planting is done in April/May and the lavender blooms by July. Plants are not fully mature until having grown for two to three years.
Soleado Lavender Farm grows seven different varieties of lavender. These include a yellow flowering plant and a rare variety of white flowering for culinary use.
Soleado’s goal is to continue as an organic farm and bring something different to the area. Growing lavender and inviting visitors to cut their own doesn’t exhaust the farm’s production. Watkins distills the plants to make an essential oil used to formulate soap, soy candles, lip balm, body lotion and bug spray.
The farm has partnered with beekeeper David Mecklenberg to install beehives and produce lavender honey. “It is a variety hard to produce and so few farms in the region make it,” said Watkins. “It takes a very skilled beekeeper to manage the hives and timing properly to get honey as close to pure lavender as possible.” The honey is harvested in July and the number of hives has been doubled this year. It is ordered at the farm and sells out before its scheduled pick-up date in September.
In addition to lavender, the farm offers yoga classes in a small bamboo forest, as well as plant care classes and workshops. A pond in the middle of the fields attracts many species of birds and wildlife.
Soleado’s 2019 opening day is June 1. The season runs through July 31, closes for August, and reopens September through November. Firewood is also for sale.
Mark your calendar for June 22, Lavender Day. This is Soleado’s main event, and it includes an artisan vendor market.
“We are happy that people are using our business to purchase gifts that they give to others and are made where they are from,” Watkins said. She is proud of products made in Maryland and particularly supportive of sustainable products.
Check the website www.soleadolavender.com for specific dates and times of events as the farm is growing season and weather dependent. The website also has an interesting blog and sells the farm’s products.