Sunflower and Lavender Dreams

Local sunflower and lavender farms are bursting with some of nature’s showiest blooms. Here’s how to enjoy them in person and via handmade products that capture the magic.

June 22, 2021 | | Farming

Wheat, hay and corn may dominate the rural landscape in Headwaters, but in recent summers it has become harder to miss the acres of tall yellow sunflower heads swaying in the breeze and the mounds of purple lavender plants unfolding in long, aromatic rows. This is especially obvious when they have been gleefully swarmed by Instagrammers. Just ask Sean Davis of Davis Family Farm, who estimates that millions of photos have been taken at his family’s Caledon sunflower field since it opened to visitors in 2016.

At Caledon’s Davis Family Farm, sunflowers grown for birdseed have become a popular Instagram backdrop for paying visitors. Photo courtesy Sean Davis.

At Caledon’s Davis Family Farm, sunflowers grown for birdseed have become a popular Instagram backdrop for paying visitors. Photo courtesy Sean Davis.

If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that this summer we’ll all be on the hunt for life-affirming – or at least boredom-busting – experiences. How does a relaxing stroll through more than 100 acres of golden sunflowers sound? What about practising meditation in a fragrant field of thousands of lavender plants?

These are just a few of the escapist public and bespoke experiences offered by some of the most popular flower farms in the hills. Every farm has its own specialty, and you can expect to find country snacks, small-batch skincare products, cooking oils and even birdseed as souvenirs.

Some farms are open for shopping all summer, but the bloom season is short, so call ahead or check online to make sure you don’t miss out and you understand each location’s entry policies, fees and Covid protocols. Lavender is in its prime from mid-June through July, and local sunflowers reach their peak during August.

At some farms you’re welcome to take as many photos as you like during operating hours. However, commercial photography sessions must be booked in advance and generally happen in the evenings before sunset. Farms that are not open to the public or take only private bookings often have products for sale online.

But beyond the immediate gratification of breathing in the scent of lavender or taking a great photo of your kids in a sunflower field, there is something deeper at play. These farmers are also stewarding the land for future generations. “Everyone wants to make and leave something beautiful behind. This is our something beautiful,” says Dawn Levine, whose Avalon Lavender Farm in Mono is a new kid on the block.

Dawn and others report that lavender and sunflower farmers are working collaboratively, sharing ideas and supporting one another to create a tourism pocket where everyone, including the land, can thrive. Sunflowers, for example, bloom for only about two weeks, so the Caledon sunflower farms stage their plantings so the season lasts five or six weeks, from the final week of July to about Labour Day. Visitors who are too late for the bloom at one farm might still catch sunflowers in all their glory at a nearby farm.

Here’s a guide to where and how to commune with the best blooms.

Lavender Farms

At Avalon Lavender Farm in Mono, rows of young lavender plants thrive as weed-suppressing fabric keeps competitors at bay. Photo courtesy Avalon Lavender Farm.

At Avalon Lavender Farm in Mono, rows of young lavender plants thrive as weed-suppressing fabric keeps competitors at bay. Photo courtesy Avalon Lavender Farm.

Avalon Lavender Farm, Mono

In 2019, Dawn and Alexis Levine began their dream of operating a peaceful place of healing and responsible land stewardship. Dawn and her husband, a practising lawyer, packed up their three small children and moved from Toronto to a 55-acre farm in Mono.

This spring the farm became home to 27,000 lavender plants, including Folgate, Melissa, Phenomenal and Munstead varieties, making Avalon one of the larger lavender farms in Ontario. Their adventure is just beginning.

Focus: Dawn plans to offer nature-inspired micro retreats in the fields and around the property’s Celtic-style stone circle. Avalon is gearing up for seasonal vendor markets and workshops on topics such as wildflower arranging. Dawn believes “smells ring bells,” so she uses lavender in her small-batch products to evoke memories and boost moods. She produces distilled oils and hydrosols, which are the aromatic or floral water left over after a flower has been steam distilled, as well as fresh and dried lavender bouquets. All will be available online.

Best known for: Mood Honey botanical perfumes, such as Cake Break and Dream Weaver. Covid-inspired Mask Mist – also good as a pillow spray – and Tub Tea, a blend of salts, flowers, and herbs.

Hours: Avalon will have its grand opening in 2022, but stay tuned for 2021 events and local market appearances.

Find them: moodhoney.ca, @avalonlavender on Instagram

Deerfields Lavender Farm, Palgrave

Vivian Roy and her husband, James Wilson, were touring the French countryside in 2015 when they came across stunning fields of lavender. Vivian was enamoured of the flowers, and when they returned to their sprawling 220-acre horse farm in Palgrave, her businessman husband planted 10,000 Hidcote and Munstead lavender plants for her. “It’s such a feeling of serenity being in the fields,” she says.

Focus: This one-woman operation began merely for pleasure and as a feast for the eyes, but Vivian soon had other plans. She intended to debut a cut-your-own lavender experience in 2020 but was deterred by Covid. Since then, she and James have sold 100 acres of their farm and now reside on the portion that contains the lavender operation. For now, Vivian has decided to keep the business closed to the public but hopes to see her dream up and running in 2022.

Best known for: Vivian assembles about 200 fragrant bouquets each summer, available for purchase at Rock Garden Farms on Airport Road north of Caledon East.

Hardest part of the job: Weather is the biggest challenge for Vivian – a May frost can do serious damage to the plants, for example. She once had to replant 1,000 lavender seedlings that didn’t survive a late spring freeze.

Find them: dflavender.com

Hereward Farms, East Garafraxa

In fall 2019, Julie Thurgood-Burnett looked around the 250-acre East Garafraxa family farm she shares with husband, Stephen, and wondered if they could grow something other than wheat and corn. Not expecting much from the heavy clay soil because lavender typically loves drier, more alkaline soil, she ordered 40 lavender plants as a trial. To her surprise the plants flourished and she experimented with making lavender products. She launched Hereward Farms in honour of the 1867 East Garafraxa hamlet of Hereward, where five generations of Burnetts have lived. Today, Julie has planted about 3,000 Munstead, Phenomenal and Hidcote plants.

Focus: Julie extracts the essences of her lavender through a six-week cold infusion in sunflower, grapeseed and sweet almond oils. To date she has infused more than 800 ounces of oil, and sells small-batch, all-natural body-care products online. The farm is now open to the public. In the future she hopes to partner with local businesses to host private groups, events and workshops.

Best known for: Pucker Up vanilla and lavender lip balm, deeply moisturizing face and body oils, and Angry Dad nourishing beard oil. Products are available online.

Hardest part of the job: “Managing it all!” says Julie, who is also co-owner of a local marketing agency called Green Monkey Creative. “Hereward took off faster than I ever thought.”

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Outside these hours, please call 519-217-7160 for an appointment. Free.

Find them: herewardfarm.com, @herewardfarms on Instagram

Lavender farmer Lee Anne Downey communes with the colourful crop on her picturesque farm in Erin. Photo courtesy Allison Clark.

Lavender farmer Lee Anne Downey communes with the colourful crop on her picturesque farm in Erin. Photo courtesy Allison Clark.

Stonewell Farm, Erin

Lee Anne Downey recalls the moment her future was decided. “I was in a gift shop and there was this book, Lavender Fields of America, and a lightbulb just went off!” After devouring the book and researching everything she could, she joined the Ontario Lavender Association where she is currently president, and she and her now-retired husband, Tom Hitchman, continued searching for their dream property. After buying a 93-acre farm in southeast Erin, she left the fashion and finance industries behind and now tends more than 4,000 lavender plants.

Focus: Stonewell produces six different cultivars, most of them English varieties. Lee Anne harvests the buds, distills the oils and creates small-batch lavender products in her 1872 farmhouse. Her mission is to “share our piece of land on a very personal level” and connect people to nature through intimate transformative experiences.

Best known for: A stunning location, complete with a guest house rental (sorry, it’s already booked for this summer), as well as essential oils, teas, dried lavender and floral waters. She has also created a Health Canada-approved lavender hand sanitizer. Products are available online and on-site during pre-booked visits.

Most magical moment: In July 2020, Lee Anne invited her yoga teacher to host her classes in the lavender fields. Lee Anne remembers many clients in tears, as it was the first time they’d gone anywhere in several months. “The honeybees were humming around the lavender, and we were doing our sun salutations as the sun was setting in this spectacular orange, and then a coyote started howling.”

Hardest part of the job: “The industry is really in its infancy,” says Lee Anne. “You have to do everything by hand and there’s no equipment for small-scale producers.” One of the many goals of the Ontario Lavender Association is to help members source affordable equipment.

Hours: Private tours can be booked online for $10 a person (children under two are free). Special events TBA.

Find them: stonewellfarm.ca, @stonewell_farm on Instagram

A visitor takes in the epic view at Purple Hill Lavender in Mulmur. Photo courtesy Emma Courtney.

A visitor takes in the epic view at Purple Hill Lavender in Mulmur. Photo courtesy Emma Courtney.

Purple Hill Lavender, Creemore

When sisters Emma Greasley and Jessica Ridding were busy with their corporate careers in Toronto, it became evident their happiness was deeply rooted in the rolling hills of their family farm near Creemore. “Coming home was always such a treat,” says Emma. The sisters soon discovered that growing organic lavender on the nearly 50-acre farm would be the perfect way to create a business. In 2016, they planted 3,000 organic lavender plants and haven’t looked back.

Focus: The pair grows seven varieties of lavender, including Royal Velvet, Purple Bouquet and Melissa, more than 9,000 plants in all. The lavender is distilled at the farm in a copper still imported from Portugal. The essential oils are used to craft small batches of lavender products. The farm is open to the public from mid-June to Labour Day. Visitors are encouraged to stop by local eateries, including Jessica’s husband’s Singhampton restaurant, Mylar and Loreta’s, and bring food back to the farm for a picnic.

Best known for: Being a winning day trip location, as well as lavender essential oils, hand-harvested fragrant dried bouquets, which last for up to a year, and room sprays, available onsite and online.

Most magical moment: When Covid restrictions began to lift in the summer of 2020, Emma recalls a visit from an elderly woman who came all dressed up to celebrate her 80th birthday with her family. Emma felt so honoured that of the many places the woman could have gone to celebrate, she chose Purple Hill Lavender.

Hardest part of the job: Emma echoes Lee Anne’s admission that lavender farming is very physically demanding and there isn’t much machinery available to maximize efficiency. She says, “It’s a big team effort. We have a large supporting cast.”

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday to Sunday from mid-June to Labour Day. Entry fee is $15 a person; children younger than 12 are free.

Find them: purplehilllavender.com, @purplehill_lavender on Instagram

Sunflower Farms

Flowers start blossoming during the first week of August. Photo courtesy of Campbell’s Cross Farm.

Flowers start blossoming during the first week of August. Photo courtesy of Campbell’s Cross Farm.

Campbell’s Cross Farm, Caledon

This 60-acre farm on King St. in Caledon is home to high school sweethearts Michael and Josie Gallo and their two young children. Both Michael and Josie grew up in Caledon and had a strong desire to stay near their roots while creating a health and wellness destination. The Gallos, both teachers, purchased the former Bailey’s Farm in 2017 and have since planted about 30 acres of Talon sunflowers, some 700,000 plants.

Focus: The couple envisions the farm as a place where people can come for inspiration and relaxation. As a former chef, Michael is particularly excited about the farm-to-table dinners they hope to offer again this year. The farm will host yoga in the fields, forest bathing, meditation and wellness events. “We want people to leave our farm and feel as if they’ve been in another world,” Michael says.

Best known for: The watermelon sandwich! When Michael was growing up, his nonna would often serve a crisp slice of watermelon between two slices of Italian bread in summertime. Nonna’s original recipe is now served with feta cheese, fresh basil, a balsamic reduction and olive oil on traditional Italian bread. The farm shop also offers sunflower oil, as well as locally sourced honey, body care and wellness products.

Most magical moment: Michael recalls a visit from a 97-year-old woman in a wheelchair. When the woman saw the fields of blooming sunflowers, her eyes filled with tears and she told him they reminded her of her childhood.

Twist of fate: Josie’s first job as a teenager was working at Bailey’s Farm.

Bloom time: Flowers start blossoming during the first week of August. Check the website for information about hours and entry fees.

Find them: campbellscrossfarm.com, @campbellscrossfarms on Instagram

The sunflowers stretch into the distance at Davis Family Farm in Caledon East. Photo courtesy Sean Davis.

The sunflowers stretch into the distance at Davis Family Farm in Caledon East. Photo courtesy Sean Davis.

Davis Family Farm, Caledon East

The Davis family has been farming their 112-acre property on Mountainview Road near Caledon East for four generations. Although Davis Feed and Farm Supply has been operating for more than 30 years, a serendipitous encounter led to the addition of agritourism. In 2015, Sean Davis saw – and photographed – a family of wild boars on a roadside near Caledon East, and television reporters arrived to do interviews. One reporter asked to come back the following summer to film the sunflowers in bloom. Sean says that when that segment aired in 2016, the secret was out, and they’ve been flooded with visitors ever since.

Focus: Davis Family Farm is all about the birds. Every year, the Davises grow more than 40 acres of Talon sunflowers, and about 90 per cent of the seeds are sold for birdseed, both on the farm and in independent stores. The rest are pressed into a rich oil for cooking and baking. During bloom season, about 20,000 people visit the farm to take photos, paint pictures, stroll and shop at the special sunflower-season market that includes other local vendors.

Best known for: The ultimate Instagram-worthy backdrop, as well as birdseed, sunflower honey and sunflower oil.

Hardest part of the job: The look of disappointment on people’s faces when they arrive either before or long after the sunflowers have bloomed. Sean gently reminds people that the sunflowers are in bloom for only about two weeks.

Bloom time: The sunflower season kicks off during the final week of July. For about the next two weeks, the farm is open to visitors from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily – and until about 9 p.m. for special events that must be booked ahead of time. Tickets are $13.50 a person (plus tax). Children younger than 12 are free.

Find them: davisfamilyfarm.ca, @davisfamilyfarmcaledon on Instagram

Dixie Orchards, Caledon

For 15 years, Paul and Lynnette Gray have been steadily diversifying their 100-acre Caledon farm on Dixie Road just north of King St. Starting with a pick-your-own apple orchard, they expanded to include pumpkins, hazelnuts, and family-friendly fun. Then, in 2019, the Grays planted more than 10 acres of sunflowers. The addition of sunflowers is a way to attract visitors a few weeks before apple season begins and to provide another striking backdrop for beautiful family memories.

Focus: At Dixie Orchards, the sunflowers are strategically planted in stages so there is a rolling availability of blooming sunflowers over about a month. The last flowers to bloom, usually around Labour Day, mark the grand finale of the Caledon sunflower season and the arrival of the Grays’ apple harvest. Visitors are invited to pick more than 18 varieties in the orchard. The Grays also host a porch market, featuring delicious local food.

Best known for: Great snacks, including farm-fresh candy apples, 20 kinds of gelato courtesy of local producers, and jams (blackcurrant, plum, apple pie and O Canada, a mix of four berries).

Hardest part of the job: Covid has caused many uncertainties, but the Grays have found that offering an online reservation system has eased people’s anxiety and helped them feel safe during their visits.

Most magical moment: “The beauty of the golden hour,” says Lynnette, referring to the time just before the sun sets, when the fields are bathed in golden light. During that magical hour, the Grays have witnessed many families reuniting at a distance in the fields and were happy to offer them a safe outdoor space.

Bloom time: During sunflower season, the farm is open from 10 a.m. to sunset. Check the website for this year’s entry fee.

Find them: dixieorchards.com, @dixie_orchards on Instagram

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the good news that Hereward Farms is now open to the public for tours.

About the Author More by Johanna Bernhardt

Writer and dancer Johanna Bernhardt lives in Orangeville.

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