On a pleasant mid-June morning, you can stand amongst the rows of lavender and almost feel that it is alive. Hundreds if not thousands of honeybees hover over the blooms, gathering the nectar from the flowering plants. There are butterflies, too, and the faint scent of lavender wafts through the sunlit morning air.
It’s the peak of the season at Dilly Dilly Lavender Farm on Big Ridge Road west of Oneida. Harvesting of the purple flowers is underway, with nearly 900 plants of four varieties of lavender blooming almost simultaneously, creating thousands of blooms.
Over the next couple of weeks, all of the flowers will be harvested and hung up to dry, awaiting the next phase, when they will be sold as bundles or buds.
All of it is the work of Joan Williamson, who brought the art of farming lavender to Oneida after being mesmerized by a lavender farm she visited in the Pacific Northwest.
“Over time, I thought about various things for the farm,” Williamson said. “I was thinking, ‘What am I gonna do with this?’ I had a guy who was tending it by cutting hay off it. Out of that deal, I got a beautiful field and he got some hay.”
Williamson had owned part of her family’s Big Ridge Road farm since the 1990s. She’s a sister to Jan Jeffers, who owns Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken and the Capitol 3 theatre in Oneida, and Jack Jeffers, who recently retired from Highland Communications. Another brother, Don Jeffers, lives in Birmingham, and her sister, Judy Davis, lives in Florida.
After their father, Horace M. Jeffers, died in 1993, their mother, Ardilla, decided she didn’t want to stay on the farm by herself and moved closer to town. Williamson purchased an 11-acre tract that will soon become 15 acres when an adjoining four-acre tract of the original farm is added. Then, she wondered what to do with it.
“I thought of growing grapes,” she said. “I thought, ‘Nah, I don’t know how to do that.’ I thought of a windmill farm but then I thought about the way they sound and how that might disturb the neighbors.”
It was a trip to the Northwest that started the wheels turning.
“My sister Judy, my sister-in-law Peggy and I were in Washington State for about a week and kept seeing this sign about a lavender farm,” she said. “We’d pass it up and pass it up. None of us knew what it was. Finally, on Friday, I said, ‘Alright, let’s go see this lavender farm thing.’ I was just so enchanted by it and could not get it off my mind.”
Once she got back home, Williamson started researching. She joined the Lavender Growers Association in 2013, and later attended a conference hosted by the organization. In October 2015, she put her first lavender plants in the ground, “just to see, can I make this stuff grow here,” she said.
That was the start of the Dilly Dilly Lavender Farm.
Williamson’s brother, Jan, was responsible for the farm’s name, which is derived from their mother’s name, Ardilla. As a child, Williamson can recall her mother singing the lyrics to “Lavender’s Blue Dilly Dilly.” She gave her brother three names to choose from: Dilly Dilly Lavender Farm, Big Ridge Road Lavender Farm and Big South Fork Lavender Farm.
“He said, ‘Dilly Dilly Lavender Farm sounds more fun,’” Williamson said. “And that’s what we’re after: fun.”
In many ways, the farm is still in its infancy. There are four plots, each with its own variety of lavender. The original field was Phenomenal, a variety used for making sashes, essential oil and bouquets. It is formed in the shape of Tennessee (“I have Bristol down great; my Memphis needs to be worked on,” Williamson said). Since then, she’s added Munstead and Provence lavender, known for its culinary uses, and Grosso lavender, known for its “incredibly delicious scent,” she said.
A wooden pavilion was the first structure built on the form. The small pavilion is sort of the center of Dilly Dilly’s operations, and Williamson presents classes there from time to time (she had three classes on making lavender wands last week). A wood fence was added this past spring. A labyrinth will be added next spring.
The fledgling farm is even more impressive when it’s taken into consideration that Williamson doesn’t even live in Tennessee. She followed a job with Bellsouth to Birmingham years ago and has stayed in Alabama. But she splits her time between her Alabama home and her brother’s Tennessee home, spending the spring and summer in Oneida.
After the farming season ends, she takes her dried produce back to Alabama, where her kitchen is transformed into a production space for the soaps and lotions and cremes and dried products that are sold through the farm’s website, dillydillylavenderfarm.com.
The end result is that, for the first time, agritourism has come to Scott County. Defined as any farm operation that attracts visitors, agritourism is the primary purpose of Dilly Dilly Lavender Farm, Williamson said. The state has promoted the farm through its Pick Tennessee campaign, and visitors have traveled to the farm from the middle of the state to pick their own bouquets. It’s called “you-pick,” and is offered as long as the farm has daily hours of operation, which will continue until the end of harvesting this month, then resume once the varieties that bloom twice in a summer re-flower later on.
“People come in and I show them how to pick,” Williamson said. “We have special scissors and rubber bands and we charge $5 a bundle for as many bundles as you want.”
There are lots of plans for future growth. Williamson is currently planting a biblical herb path. She has a variety of herbs growing and wants to develop a path through the five-acre woods behind the lavender fields, with plaques identifying each of the botanicals and the opportunity for people to explore the path on a Gator.
Bee hives were recently added — honeybees love lavender — and that might soon mean that lavender honey can be harvested.
This fall, Williamson will be researching butterfly houses, with an intention of building butterfly habitat next spring.
“When I was harvesting this year, the butterflies were flying all over the place. Butterflies love lavender,” she said. “It was almost magical. They were flying around me and lighting on me. It was like the virtual butterflies at some of these discovery places. I realized then that I need to build a butterfly house.”
Williamson’s mother, Ardilla, was well-known for her love of flower gardens, and perhaps the apple truly does fall close to the tree. Williamson has a plan for nearly every square inch of property. Some might find the sinkholes that have developed in the center of the field a setback. Not Williamson. She first intended to build a bridge over the sinkhole, until a geology expert said that might not be advisable. So, she decided to build wooden fences to keep people and equipment out, and milkweed grows around the sinkholes. That might be an annoyance weed to some. But at Dilly Dilly Lavender Farm, it will further enhance the butterfly population. Butterflies, after all, love milkweed.
Williamson is also hoping to work with Tom and Vicky Clark at the Appalachian Guest House in Oneida. That partnership, as Williamson envisions it, would eventually result in package deals, where visitors can lodge at the Spanish-style guest house and tour the lavender farm.
Eventually, there will be a barn on the farm, with a store for Williamson to offer her lavender products. For now, she’s selling them online and at festivals like the Museum of Scott County’s Heritage Festival, and watching foot traffic and interest in Dilly Dilly grow.
As she grows, Williamson intends to stay true to her quest to remain organic. She doesn’t like the thought of putting chemicals into the ground; herbicides and insecticides aren’t used at Dilly Dilly.
“We take extraordinary means to keep everything sanitary, clean and organic,” she said. “There have been some nurseries the past few years that haven’t been careful enough about the products and have sent out plants that were diseased. It’s incumbent on the lavender farm to maintain protocols that keep from introducing disease to the farm.”
As a result, all new plants — Williamson currently has six new varieties potted that will eventually be put into the ground alongside the four varieties that are already growing — are quarantined for 30 days, then a random sampling is sent to Clemson University, home of the world’s foremost expert on diseases that impact lavender plants.
In the meantime, Williamson continues to perfect her craft through research, and through trial and error. It leads to new discoveries, like planting in a rocky medium rather than dirt, because lavender rows need to be elevated and dirt compacts too easily.
“You have to make your environment suitable or the lavender won’t want to live her, and won’t live her,” she said.
Dilly Dilly Lavender Farm is located at 1312 Big Ridge Road and opens at 10 a.m. each day until the harvesting season is complete. For more information, find the farm on Facebook, @DillyDillyLavender.