I chose just ten highlights to discuss from the many stories of 2013 at Dr. Maze’s Farm. Since I have combined them all into one post, the post is very long. They are listed in alphabetical order. Read on to learn about the Giant Chair, naked seed pumpkins, distillations, our labyrinth, the big Goat Walk field maze, and more.
NOTE: This entry was originally a series of newsletters at the turn of the year. I present them here so more folks can see them. Some of the comments are dated, it is now several months since I first wrote these entries.
Highlight 1: Farmyard Expansion
In 2012 we created the Farmyard and added a number of new activities, including the Singing Chicken Show, the Music Garden, and the Spiderweb climber.
This year we expanded the Farmyard by 50%. We more than doubled the size of the Critter Corral and added new activities such as the Tall Wall Maze, the Big Chair, the Human Sundial, Giant Jenga, and more.
Included with the Farmyard were our new Lavender Labyrinth, our Sunflower/Corn Maze and scheduled activities such as Farm Tot Fridays, Bubble Fridays, and Simple Farm Crafts.
Attendance to the Farmyard was up more than 80% over 2012, so I’m already planning new additions to the 2014 Farmyard.
We’re hoping to see you down in the Farmyard in 2014.
Highlight 2: Kids Garden addition to Farm Tots Friday
Farm Tot Fridays has long been one of our most popular activities. Farm Tots is our farm adventure for tots with an accompanying adult. This year we added our new Kids Garden, full of vegetables and flowers to pick. Each week was a different harvest. Tots were able to see the peas and bean plants grow, flower, and produce pods and beans. They could pull beets or carrots out of the ground. Other weeks they harvested spinach, lettuce, Swiss chard, or tomatoes. Some weeks they picked zinnias or sunflowers. Tour leader Nancy even set up a compost staion so the tots could learn about composting.
Creating this small garden was a lot of work, but it also added a lot to the Farm Tot Friday experience for the kids. It’s amazing how many time we have heard statements like “My daughter used to refuse to eat her vegetables, but she always eats whatever she picks herself at the farm.”
We are already contemplating what varieties to plant in the Kids Garden next year. Seed ordering time is coming fast.
Highlight 3: Lavender Labyrinth
After years of mowing down the corn maze each year at the end of the season we started talking about creating a living maze that stays intact from year to year. In accord with my goal that everything on the farm should serve multiple purposes and in line with our increasing production of essential oils, it became obvious that lavender plants were the best choice. I added a rosemary outer ring to also increase our rosemary plantings. Rosemary and lavender plants are both scented and visually attractive throughout the year, but during the lavender bloom in July, I expect the labyrinth to be a sensory delight.
Most of my mazes are true mazes with a single solution or are puzzles of some sort. The Lavender Labyrinth is something different. A long winding path with no branches or decisions leads you to the center of the labyrinth. The same path leads you back out.
The labyrinth is not about the race to finish or the thrill of victory. A walk through the labyrinth is a journey. The destination in the center is not hidden from you. The path is not the shortest way to the center, but rather winds round and round, gradually getting closer and closer. The path may lead you in unexpected directions, but you won’t be surprised at reaching the center.
As you walk the labyrinth you create your own journey. Traditionally a labyrinth walk is an opportunity for contemplation or meditation. Or you may enjoy the chance to stroll with a friend or just a chance to slow down and enjoy the day.
The quarter-acre lavender labyrinth is planted with 400 rosemary and lavender plants in five concentric rings. The outer ring is rosemary. The four inner rings are planted with four varieties of lavender. Proceeding inward you will find White Spike, a large white lavender plant. Next is Super, a striking large lavender with a high essential oil production. The next is Melissa, a pink-flowered lavender with a delightful aroma. The inner ring is planted with my favorite lavender, Royal Velvet, a deep blue-purple lavender.
This year the plants were small, but they did produce some flowers. In 2014 the plants will be bigger and produce more flowers and oil. In a couple of years as the plants mature I expect the labyrinth will be spectacular.
As I observed folks in the labyrinth I saw some walking the path into the center, but then short-cutting across the plantings to exit. I suspect that people will spend more time in the garden as the plants grow and fill in, but I am all for creating multiple ways to enjoy our installations. So, the big modification we will make to the Lavender Labyrinth in 2014 will be to add a shortcut exit from the center. Even so, I do encourage you to slow down and smell the lavender.
Highlight 4: Maillette lavender essential oil
Maillette lavender essential oil is a new customer favorite. This year I finally distilled enough Maillette lavender essential oil to bottle and sell, and it immediately became the new customer favorite. Maillette’s aroma is complex: sweet and warm, soft and a bit fruity. Personally, I still like Royal Velvet the best, but maybe that is because Royal Velvet was my first lavender love.
Maillette is the aroma of French lavender. Of the true lavender oils produced in France, Maillette is the standard and the most frequently grown. France also grows a lot of Grosso and Super hybrid lavenders, fine for soaps and other less-demanding uses, but Maillette is the genuine article.
Maillette is also the lavender we provide as buds for culinary use. Maillette flowers are a soft gray-lavender color, making a more subtle statement in the garden than the deep blue Royal Velvet plants.
Bumblebees and honeybees are frequent visitors to the flowering lavenders as you can see in the photograph.
I’ll be harvesting and distilling Maillette lavender from now on.
And there is another contender coming. This summer I made my first small distillation of Melissa, a pink-flowered lavender. Melissa is another favorite of chefs for culinary use, so it is not surprising that the oil is also spectacular. I’m hoping that my Melissa plantings will have matured enough in 2014 for a production-scale distillation. Come by in July and find out!
Highlight 5: New crop variety of the year!
Naked pumpkin seeds! Khaki is our choice for favorite new crop variety of 2013. We love the taste of roasted pumpkin seeds, but frankly, we could do without the tough chewy shells. Do you chew them up? Crack them in your mouth and spit them out? Shell them by hand? Why not just skip them altogether?
There are a few varieties of pumpkins that have seeds without the hard outer shell. I chose Khaki to try this year. Khaki is the green-striped orange pumpkin in the photo. There are apple and snake gourds to the left, and another favorite pumpkin the warty Galeux D’ Eysines to the right and behind.
Without that hard shell, the seeds are delicate and must be handled with care during planting. Even so, fewer of the seeds sprout successfully. The number and size of pumpkins produced was so-so. The flesh of the pumpkin is pale and unappetizing. The only reason to grow these pumpkins is for the seeds. But, the roasted seeds were outstanding. We will be planting more Khaki naked-seed pumpkins next year.
The seed catalogs are arriving. I’ve been stacking them up, waiting for a snowy day to relax with a cup of tea and a pile of seed catalogs. Who knows what treasures we will find for 2014?
Highlight 6: October Weather
The year 2013 brought us the least rainy October weather we have ever experienced at the farm. Most years we see at least one rainy weekend in October. This being the Pacific Northwest, there are still folks who come to the farm in rain gear and boots to select that perfect pumpkin, but there is nothing to match a visit to the farm on a beautiful sunny October day.
This year the fall rains seemed to start as usual in late September, but then they stopped. We had a few showers here and there and plenty of overcast days, but no rainy weekend days. Our visitors came when they liked instead of waiting for a nicer day, which in some years never came.
I took the photo of the Pumpkin Patch at the beginning of the last weekend of October. You can see that there is no mud in the field. The pumpkins are still clean and dry. I am sure there were some kids who left disappointed about the lack of mud pits, but there were plenty of other activities to replace stomping in mud puddles.
It is now mid December and we still have not received the big fall rains. I’m saving a lot of wear and tear on my boots and my feet have been staying dry. Well see what January brings.
I have been ending each of these highlights with a hint about what we will be doing in 2014. One thing of which I am confident. As much as I may hope, we will not see another such October any time soon. Next year will bring what it brings, and we can still look forward to enjoying some perfect October days at the farm.
Highlight 7: Sammamish Valley Celebration of Lavender
and the Arts
This year a group of us created the first annual Sammamish Valley Celebration of Lavender and the Arts, and it deserves to be added to our list of the ten highlights of 2013 at Dr. Maze’s Farm.
This was the first multi-stop event focused on farms and other lavender venues in the Sammamish Valley. We hoped that the combination of lavender and art would help draw attention to the beautiful Sammamish Valley and increase the appreciation of the wonderful resource and asset the valley is to the community.
Here are just a few of the opportunities for you at the four Celebration locations. You could experience art exhibits, sculpture and pottery demos, and wine tasting at Apple Farm Village, The ginger-lavender cider at Minea Farm was a huge hit. You could make a lavender wand, hear a Master Gardener discuss lavender, or try lavender ice cream bars at Woodinville Lavender. And here at Dr. Maze’s farm you could join me on a walk and talk in the lavender plantings, watch a lavender essential oil distillation, learn how to cook with lavender in a Dutch oven, be one of the first to walk our new Lavender Labyrinth, and more!
We were all pleased with the attendance to our first event, and immediately started discussing how to make it bigger and better in 2014. We hope to have more locations in 2014. The Celebration of Lavender and the Arts will always take place in mid-July.
We are even discussing adding a September Harvest event, and maybe a Start the Summer June event. Watch for more Sammamish Valley Celebrations!
Highlight 8: School group pumpkin farm tours:
Kids having fun and learning on the farm: One of the favorite things we love to see, it is also one of our most important services to the community. Our second year of school and group pumpkin farm tours was bigger and better than our first year. and it deserves to be added to our list of the ten highlights of 2013 at Dr. Maze’s Farm.
Weeks before the start of tour season Nancy came to me and told me we would need more teachers to lead all the groups signing up. The photo taken at a training session in September shows the group of four from last year, plus two more she had just recruited. And we gained yet another before October was half-over. We added Friday sessions and afternoon sessions to fit in more tour groups. In the end, we had almost 400 more kids in tours than we did last year!
Why is our Pumpkin Farm Tour so popular? I believe there are three main reasons: The setting, the program, and the teachers. Located in the beautiful Sammamish Valley, our farm is very conveniently located. If there is such a thing, we are a neighborhood farm. Our farm is small, and we strive to make all contacts personal. We are in the heart of northern East Side and just two miles from I-405, keeping that drive with squirming first-graders to the minimum. Less travel time means a happier trip for everyone. Our program is fun, hands-on, and full of information. Yes, you get to climb the hay pyramid and search the pumpkin field for your perfect pumpkins, but you also search for worm eggs and baby worms, touch a goat and a chicken, learn the signs for goat and farmer, sing a bit, and learn how a seed grows into a pumpkin plant to make more seeds. Our teachers are the heart of our program. Our tour leaders stay with the group throughout the visit. Each teacher puts their own stamp on the program, but they are also great at adjusting the program on the fly to best suit the interests and needs of each group.
Nancy and I are already discussing our 2014 Pumpkin Tour season. Check the website in the next month or so to see the updates. And if you have a favorite date and time for a tour, it is never too early to reserve your spot!
Highlight 9: Still House
After years of setting up my essential oil distillations wherever I could find a convenient spot I finally built a dedicated still house in 2013. While perhaps not as noticeable to our visitors as the other ten highlights of the year, the new still house contributes in several important ways.
I like plastic-covered metal hoop structures, also known as hoop houses. They are the most economical and flexible way to build a farm structure. I like to find multiple uses for everything on the farm, and the hoop houses are a prime example. The same big structure that serves as a meeting hall and picnic shelter during the farm season also shelters the tens of thousands of pumpkin seedlings that we start each spring. Other hoop structures house our tractors and other equipment or shelter our school tour groups. These structures are twenty to thirty feet wide and I have purchased them as kits that we set up.
This year I bought a new pipe bender and started bending chain link fence pipe. The hoops from this setup are twelve feet across, not as roomy as our other hoop houses, but are still well suited for many needs.
Our new still house is open on one side and plastic-covered on the other three to block the wind. When the weather turns sunny, I add shade cloth that block most of the sun’s rays. Wind, rain, and sun can have a big impact on a distillation run. A brisk breeze or a mild shower can strip heat from the copper still, slowing the distillation and using up extra propane. With the new still house, my distillation runs are more similar from day to day, reducing that source of variability in the product. Comfort for the still operator is also important. Tending the still is hot work, and adding shade cloth over the still house greatly improves working conditions.
This year, in part due to the new still house, I was able to complete several first-time distillations. I did trial runs of cinnamon basil, shiso, and Melissa lavender, and a production run of Maillette lavender. The Maillette lavender essential oil is a new customer favorite, as I discussed in the fourth highlight in this series.
The new still house is also a great place to give demonstrations. We put out straw bales for seating and suspended a shade cloth canopy for the audience. In addition to my giving a number of essential oil distillation demos, Teresa and Carol gave Dutch Oven Cooking with Lavender demonstrations during our July Lavender Celebrations.
I also made a rain shelter for the Funky Pumpkin Face Trace activity in the Farmyard. The stencils just don’t work when wet, and pumpkin season is usually also the beginning of the fall rainy season.
Look for new hydrosols and essential oils in 2014. Also, I have ideas for one or two additional bent hoop shelters for 2014. Come and see what we dream up.
Highlight 10: The Goat Walk Maze
The Goat Walk Sunflower/Cornfield Maze honors our ever friendly and curious goats. The striking maze graphic is one of my most popular designs. Starting with a favorite photograph of our African pygmy goat, I transformed it into the centerpiece of the maze.
I continued our tradition of embedding mini-mazes inside the big field maze, along with corny farm jokes and farm question-and-answer stations. This year I added a new twist, the Crossword Hunt, hiding the clues to two crossword puzzles throughout the big maze.
In 2012 I added a few sunflower seeds when planting the corn and was pleased with the results. In 2013 I added a much higher percentage of sunflowers for a more striking effect. With the addition of the sunflowers we were able to open the maze earlier, on August 23.
Of course few things go exactly as planned in farming and in life. While the sunflowers bloomed nicely, a variety of circumstances stunted the corn. Very early hard frosts blackened the sunflowers right at the beginning of the big pumpkin season. Many visitors still enjoyed the maze, but it was not the experience I imagined as I planted the corn in May. As we say in farming and baseball, just wait until next year.
And there will be some changes next year. After thirteen years in the same field, the big maze is moving to a new location on the farm! Our neighbor farmer-renter has moved on and we have rented his parcel. The field maze will be relocated past the far end of the Farmyard. You will walk past the Music Garden and the Lavender Labyrinth to reach the 2014 Sunflower/Cornfield Maze. We will be growing pumpkins on the original field maze field.
So come on down to the farm in 2014. We’ll have all your favorite crops and activities, but I expect a whole new set of highlights in the new year.