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Lavender Fields Forever: Good Hope couple cultivates a flowering herb farm

 Steve Harlin and Lisa Coleman at Purple Prairie Lavender Farm on Illinois Route 9 east of Good Hope.
Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio
Steve Harlin and Lisa Coleman at Purple Prairie Lavender Farm on Illinois Route 9 east of Good Hope.

Mass-growing lavender in the clay-rich soil and extreme seasons of west central Illinois is not for the faint of heart.

The sweet-smelling flowering purple herb is a bit of a fickle plant that thrives best in a rocky and dry climate like the Mediterranean.

But a McDonough County couple is making it work.

Steve Harlin and Lisa Coleman are the owners of Purple Prairie Lavender Farm, a mile and a half east of Good Hope.

Around 800 lavender plants are growing there on two acres of land that used to be a hayfield.

“We started in 2012, and we started with 24 plants,” Harlin said. “We wanted to do some experimentation because we know out of 200 plus cultivars of lavender, only certain ones can grow in certain areas.”

Harlin and Coleman are not farmers by trade.

He was a truck driver and she worked for a construction company, a few hours north of Good Hope.

But Coleman is originally from McDonough County and has always been an avid gardener.

The couple’s lavender dreams started taking root when they bought the property in 2005, years before they put the first plant in the ground.

They built the farm and nurtured their lavender by coming down every other weekend from their day jobs.

“We just wanted something to do in retirement and I happened to see an article about a farm that produced a million dollars,” Coleman said. “So I was like, if we could just do like one percent of that.”

Lavender doesn’t like “wet feet,” which can be a struggle in summers that reach 100 percent humidity. Sub-zero winters aren’t so easy on the plants, either.

So Harlin and Coleman picked some hardier varieties and got started by hand-tilling 220-feet rows.

They found the land was nothing but clay, which holds in moisture.

“So we had to reconfigure the soil to be able to allow that plant to expand through the years. And in doing so, we discovered a few dos and don’ts,” Harlin said.

One of those don’ts was mixing clay with sand and topsoil, because it essentially becomes concrete.

Instead, they plant lavender in loose soil to allow the roots to expand.

In the first year the plants go in the ground, they water them, then let them dry out, and water again.

But in the years after that, they don’t water the plants at all.

There were other lessons along the way.

“A lot of times people will let that plant flower basically from the first time they put it in the ground and onward. And we found that by cutting the flowers off before they flower that first year, that allows all that energy to go into the root ball,” Harlin said.

There were also frustrations, like the year they lost 75 percent of their plants because of some warm February weather followed by freezing rain.

But Harlin and Coleman said they have never been deterred by the challenges.

It’s a love of the plant and what it offers that keeps them going.

They grow varieties meant for both culinary and medicinal use.

Coleman said in addition to the calming and anti-inflammatory effects of lavender, the culinary varieties can be used in anything from cookies and cupcakes to vegetables and fish.

It even enhances the flavor of chocolate.

“People say that when they’ve cooked with it, it has a soapy taste. That’s because they’re using too much. It’s just a little bit, not a lot,” she said.

The couple harvests all the lavender themselves. That’s typically four or five bundles per plant.

They dry the cuttings, distill their own essential oils from it, and then make a number of products from it.

If cultivating lavender has taken ingenuity, patience, and time, their lavender-scented products are a tribute to their creativity.

“We make soaps, lotions, linen sprays, just anything I can think of as far as bath and body items. We’ve been doing some CBD,” Coleman said.

They’ve sold those products online and at events for years.

But after years of long-distance farming, Harlin and Coleman officially retired and moved to Good Hope last year.

 Lisa Coleman and Steve Harlin in the shop full of lavender-scented products at Purple Prairie Lavender Farm.
Jane Carlson
Tri States Public Radio
Lisa Coleman and Steve Harlin in the shop full of lavender-scented products at Purple Prairie Lavender Farm.

That’s when the Purple Prairie Lavender Farm shop opened at the property. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Inside the shop, it’s peaceful – and pungent.

Despite living and breathing lavender even in retirement, Harlin and Coleman say they never tire of that scent.

For more information about Purple Prairie Lavender Farm, visit their website or Facebook page.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.