It was great to hear from all of you who responded to my last newsletter about wisteria. Thanks to Nia who shared a picture of her son's artwork of Japanese wisteria that he gave her as a mothers day gift years ago. Liz wrote about an herbalist who told her stinging nettle is good for arthritic joints. You just have to allow the nettle to sting the affected knuckles of the hands. I want to try it out as I have achy fingers, and think about it every time I walk the trail and pass by some nettle. But I can't quite bring myself to do it....yet. I always appreciate updates and notes from readers. I especially appreciate all of you who responded to my invitation to come and plant chamomile!
The picture above is of Jason and Jenny and their adorable kids and their day as they planted chamomile at Willowbrook. I have more pictures of our planting parties toward the end of the newsletter, so make sure to scroll to the end. But first I want to share the story of how the chamomile field came about. It is a story about an unexpected roadblock that actually turned into an avenue.
Story Time ~
There is a scene in my favorite musical, The Sound of Music, where Maria is leaving the security of the convent to become governess to seven children. As she leaves the convent, guitar in one hand and her bag of belongings in the other, she pauses. The cinematography carries the emotion of longing as she looks back and says, “When the Lord closes a door... somewhere He opens a window.”
My story is about how, when a well-planned and hard-worked-for door closed, a beautiful and totally surprising window opened.
It started in 1996 my then-husband and I purchased a nine-acre pasture four miles east of Sedro-Woolley. We slowly planted, built, weeded, and built more until we created an estate that felt like it was transplanted from England a century ago. Our plan was to raise our six children and have the house be a gathering place for grandkids for decades to come.
Sometimes plans are forced to change. When I found myself a single mom with five kids still at home, I had to figure out a way for the farm to eventually support itself if I wanted it to be the gathering place for future grandchildren. The kids and I set about augmenting the grounds and gardens every summer with the aim toward making it a wedding venue.
After six years of projects, I felt like we were ready to begin marketing, and I took the concept of ‘Willowbrook Manor, Wedding Venue’ to the County for approval. You can imagine my shock, after years of hard work, to be told I wasn’t zoned to be able to host weddings.
I was dumbfounded. The winery across the road hosted weddings. Why couldn’t I? It was then that I learned that my agricultural zoning required my business to be based on what I produced. The winery could host weddings because the wedding parties had to purchase wine for the wedding.
A six-years-of-hard-labor door had closed. I had to look for a window.
On our farm we always had a large garden, fruit trees, berry patches, and grapes. We hayed the pasture every summer, but we didn’t really have a ‘crop’ per se. My mind went round and round about how I could produce a crop that would allow a business to grow from agricultural-zoned land. One night it came to me as I was sipping on my chamomile tea. Tea! That was it!
When I researched what kind of tea to grow, I came to the conclusion that Roman chamomile would be the best fit. A soothing herb, chamomile is a hardy perennial that will grow and blossom year after year. As I studied about it,I felt it would be the perfect fit for our property. It was then that Willowbrook Manor English Tea House and Chamomile Farm was born.
I purchased a tractor and started plowing, planting, watering and weeding. The plan was to have the farm centered around tea with Tea and Tour (scenic and historic bicycle tours), Tea and Tulips (English Tea and garden tour), Weeding and Tea (English tea and weeding the chamomile field), and other tea-related events.
I opened my doors to the public in April of 2018 during the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival with Tea and Tulips. People from all over the country came to have English Tea overlooking the chamomile field. They wandered through the gardens and took pictures of the tulips.
I was a bit nervous about turning the privacy of my home over to my business. I will never forget reaching for the doorknob when the first tea guests arrived. My mind said, “What in the world am I doing?!” But all of that washed away when I discovered my first guests came from Palmer, Alaska, where my mother went to high school. Charles and Bonnie were celebrating their 50th anniversary. After enjoying tea, they spent time thumbing through my mother’s book The Alaska Years. I could not have asked for better first guests. It was a tender way to begin a beautiful business venture.
I look back on my desire to host weddings and think of the large crowds that would have descended on my home. I much prefer the smaller groups that come to my door, and I marvel at how a road-block became an avenue to a much better business model for me.
Julie Andrews said it well. “When the Lord closes a door....somewhere He opens a window.” Mine was a ‘window of opportuni-Tea.’
A Field of Dreams ~
My vision of a lush chamomile field has been challenged by prolific and tenacious competition of other plants. The clover, buttercup, canary grass, and horse tail spring up vigorously before my chamomile can take hold. It actually makes for a beautiful field, with the daisy-like chamomile blossoms, purple clover and yellow buttercups, not to mention the lacy-green horse tail. But the menagerie of plants in the field is not what I envisioned and makes harvesting the chamomile impossible. So instead of seeding directly into the ground (which I tried two years in a row), I decided to plant chamomile starts in trays, then put them in the ground through a weed barrier. It makes for a LOT more work initially, but makes for a lush, weed-free field of chamomile in the end.
Do you remember my newsletter from February where I wrote about my 'Seeding and Tea' event? (Click HERE to read). To celebrate Valentines Day, I invited ladies to bring their friends for tea and scones and then plant chamomile seeds into trays. It was a great event and so much fun that I will do it again next year.
The trays were put in the greenhouse to sprout and grow. In my last newsletter I put out the invitation to anyone who wanted to come and plant the starts into the chamomile field. (Click HERE to read). I was delighted with the response and appreciate the hours of work that went into planting the chamomile starts these past couple of weeks
A Bit of a Back Story ~
So, for the next part of the story, I have to go back in time almost 30 years, and introduce you to my dear friend, Tara. We were both young mothers, putting our husbands through school when we first met. My oldest son, Derrill, was not even a year old. Her daughter, Lauren, was the same age and they became the best of friends during the four years we lived in Seattle. Tara and I did a lot of field trips with kids in tow, starting with just Darrell and Lauren and adding more kids every couple of years.
After graduate school, they moved to Corvallis, and we moved to Sedro Woolley. Even with a five-hour drive, we made sure to get the kids together to play and give us the opportunity to reconnect. Tara and family moved to Florida, and it was too far to meet for play dates, so we both went on with our lives.
Tara came to visit me last summer! It had been almost two decades since we last saw each other and I relished being with her. This time we didn't have to worry about taking care of any kids! We enjoyed biking and having tea together. When I told her of my plans to plant chamomile starts through a weed barrier, she and her husband, Jan, went to Thompson's Greenhouse and got me a gift certificate for chamomile starts! This past February, I ordered 30 flats of chamomile and was able to pick them all up two weeks ago. I must say it felt like Christmas! Together with all of the flats I had growing in my greenhouse, we were able to give a good start to the chamomile field.
I couldn't help but think of Tara with a heart full of gratitude when I picked up the two pickup loads of lacy, aromatic, chamomile. Driving down the road, wind in my hair, my mind remembered trips to the zoo with Tara and all of our kids, feeding the ducks, pushing strollers for exercise together and doing step aerobics with babes in arms. Somehow those little chamomile starts held a connection to that friendship and the era of little ones all around us.
The Rest of the Story ~
Tara's daughter, Lauren, is now in the same phase of life that Tara and I were in when we met. She and her husband live in Seattle and they brought their adorable children for an overnight stay at The Loft here at Willowbrook recently. It was wonderful to visit with them and hear how they met and their journey together. I could still see bits of the 'little girl' Lauren in the beautiful grown woman who showed up at my door.
The story comes full circle as Lauren and her family spent the morning planting chamomile together in the field. Little did I know when I dreamed of my chamomile field, that it would reunite me with a sweet connection from my past. I loved being a young mother, and caring for little children. It was sweet to bring those years to the front of my mind as these tender young plants were being placed into moist rich soil. (I get kind of gooshy about it all, you know.)
I went out just this morning and found a bud about to blossom on one of the transplants.
Can you see how chamomile has become more than just a soothing cup of tea to me?
A Few More Flats Left ~
I am so grateful for all of you who read my last newsletter and emailed me to schedule a planting and tea party.
It was so fun to have you come to Willowbrook to help plant chamomile!
I still have about 20 flats of chamomile that are waiting to go into the ground. If any of you would like to be part of the planting, email me HERE to schedule a time.
I only schedule one planting party at a time for social distancing and provide work gloves, garden seats, kneeling pads and planting tools.
I also have sun hats and umbrellas for hot days and a canopy for rain. Gary and Debbie were the heroes who braved planting on a rainy day!
As a thank you, I serve tea and scones in the garden after planting. There is no charge. I am grateful for the planting help.
This week I am making little name flags for all of you who participated in planting, and I will place them in the section of field you planted. My hope is that when you return to Willowbrook, you can wander the field and find the section of chamomile you planted. Every year I will plant more, and eventually this little chamomile patch will grow into a beautiful field. You will be a part in the making of it all!