Provence in Rural Arizona

Red Rock Ranch & Farms, believed to be the first commercial lavender farm in the state, hosts a fragrant festival each summer when the fields are in full bloom. Tours of the front acreage are available during the two four-day weekends of the Arizona Lavender Festival, as are cooking and craft demonstrations, growing tips, picnic lunches, and the opportunity for guests to harvest their own bouquets.

Nevermind the bees, operators Mike and Christine Teeple say. Lavender’s naturally calming effect—a reason its essential oil is prized in aromatherapy—disarms even insects.

The Arizona Lavender Festival is a celebration of the scent that the purple flower contributes to massage oil, and the flavor it adds to roasts and bakery. It’s also a hearty high-five to the plant itself as a reliable, high-altitude, desert landscaping element. The landscaping use is in fact where the lavender/Concho story began.

The unincorporated community of Concho sits inside an imaginary triangle linking three north-central Arizona forests: Sitgreaves, Apache and Petrified Forest National Park. Viewed from State Routes 61 and 180A, it appears to be a place where residential “landscaping” is limited to tool sheds, pickup trucks and propane tanks.

Inside the fences of Red Rock Ranch, fields are blanketed in purple plants and dotted with rust-colored boulders. The July sun is intense, and a clear decanter of lavender-ginger lemonade is drained as fast as it’s refilled. Arizona Lavender Festival guests first thrill to the refreshment’s deep pink color. Then they notice that they can recognize each of the three flavors distinctly, and some fantasize about spiking a batch with vodka for a swanky pool party.

In her requisite light-purple T-shirt, Christine Teeple is the belle of the indoor portion of the lavender ball. She hugs repeat visitors, neatens stacks of retail balms and bars of soap, and laughs with cooks in the exhibition kitchen.

“The Lavender Cookbook,” first published in 2004, is a guest of honor at the festival, although author Sharon Shipley has since passed. Select recipes are demonstrated and sampled, and tins of culinary-grade lavender buds are for sale. The Herbes de Concho blend mingles Red Rock lavender with a locally grown, heirloom strain of medium-spice chile pepper, and Christine says the combined flavors work well with pork, chicken, beef and vegetable dishes.

“Kick it up a notch with a light spiciness!” she cajoles.

Outside, Mike basks in full midday sun and the eager attention of 30 or 40 visitors at a time. His remarks are well-organized, but his presentation is matter-of-fact.

He had spent 20-some years in the construction business at the head of a high-end, high-stress firm. Thoughts of retiring early kept him sane, and he did so at age 45, intending to spend his days growing organic produce on land he’d purchased years earlier in Arizona.

Using construction contacts and know-how, he brought phone lines, electricity and high-speed internet access to the undeveloped tract in Concho. While framing the first residential structures on the property, he considered lavender as a landscaping plant.

Mere groundcover, he thought, that’s all.

He’d been warned that newly planted lavender typically took two or three years to find its stride. But when the 300 plants he’d gotten from a greenhouse in Santa Fe—with no guarantee of viability in Concho’s untested soil and altitude of 6,000 feet—bloomed within their first year in the ground, news traveled, and minds changed.

“Turns out this is pretty much a farmer’s dream soil,” Mike says. Industry brethren asked to visit the farm and conduct independent soil, field and lab tests. One researcher told him, “These are some of the finest lavender flowers in the world.”

With enthusiasm from culinary, aromatherapy and landscape users of lavender, the Teeple retirement compound and produce grove was rebranded Red Rock Lavender: a flower farm, product line, and landscape-consulting service.

For the 2012 growing season, Red Rock Lavender has 40,000 plants in the ground. Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix will acquire some of them for its semiannual plant sales, delighting professional landscapers and home gardeners unable to find certain specialty strains elsewhere.

“Red Rock Lavender plants are excellent in quality and usually are a sell-out for us,” says Starr Urbatsch, senior horticulturist at the Garden. “We usually order a mix that includes Provence, Grosso, Dilly Dilly, Blue Cushion, Vera and Jean Davis.” Different names correspond with different best-uses; not all lavenders have the same color or smell, produce the same intensity of oil, or are as delicious as the next.

Some plants will be harvested and pressed in-house for use in Red Rock Lavender-brand body products and gifts, which are among celebrated local inventory from Candle Factory & Mercantile in Lakeside to Maynards Market & Kitchen in Tucson.

And some specimens will be delivered to aspiring lavender farmers that Mike takes under his wing. Recent tutelage of farms in Antelope Valley (northern Arizona), Skull Valley (central Arizona) and Tucson (southern Arizona) makes him think his “retirement” state of Arizona may have a fragrant future in agritourism.

“Each of these places will bloom at different times of year,” he calculates. “We could become the premiere ‘lavender-festival’ state.” Red Rock Lavender’s 2012 festival is June 21-24 and June 28-July 1.

In the meantime—or down time, if there is such a thing—he has organic produce to tend. That fantasy wasn’t lost in the bloomin’ shuffle. Toward the back of the Concho property, he’s raising loquats, figs, bananas, all sorts of beans, and at least five types of peppers for which he can readily recommend recipes. A pair of ponds hold trout and black crappie.

The Teeples consume what they can. Their personal visitors are treated to grand dinners of just-picked or netted fare. And sometimes landscaping clients from afar, fortunate to be offered one of the property’s detached guest houses while they learn, find themselves bonused with extremely fresh food for thought.