I fall in love with people all the time. It’s the nature of the beast when writing about artists and makers in this community. But I have a special kind of love for Bonny Doon Farm.
America’s first English lavender farm measures only 5 acres, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in the details. Founded in 1972 by Diane and Gary Meehan, Bonny Doon Farm is an old-world timewarp built on community, love and the kindness of others.
Diane inherited the land from her parents, then began growing lavender in the sandy, oceanic soil that English lavender thrives in. After learning how to make tallow soap from the man at Shopper’s Corner, she started making lavender soap to sell alongside lavender bunches at the original Renaissance Faire.
Although she passed away in December, Diane’s legacy lives on in the farm, which sells goods at the Goat Hill Fair, Saratoga Blossom Festival, Bonny Doon Art & Wine, and Capitola Art & Wine festivals. After a 25 percent crop loss following the 2008 Martin Fire, the small team that runs the farm is in the process of planting more lavender, which they expect to bloom this summer.
“There is something about lavender, more so than other oils, that relaxes us,” farm manager Anita Elfving says. “Linalool is a component of lavender that relaxes us, and that’s a good thing.”
Linalool contributes to lavender’s distinctive flavor and scent. The plant is popular for aromatherapy, sleep aid and anxiety relief, but also as an insecticide and mosquito repellant. Bonny Doon Farm uses it to make shampoo, conditioner, salves, lotions, and oils.
While the soaps are no longer made from tallow, the location has retained a sense of enchantment and wonder. Scottish moss blankets the paths to the large, Japanese maples that were just sprouting their first baby spring leaves on a recent visit. Careful where you step; there are rodent-sized salamanders meandering around minding their own business.
My first encounter with Bonny Doon Farm’s soap was at the Tea House in downtown Santa Cruz. I used to rely on commercial products from CVS but was on the lookout for natural alternatives after reading an ingredient list one day in the shower. Paraffin wax (a petroleum-based candle wax derivative) and silicone-based polymers, among many other things, didn’t sound like something I should be lathering up with daily.
It feels selfish to keep Bonny Doon Farm a secret. The land is surrounded by the 500-acre State of California Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve. It’s not open to the public, but this is a special farm—mostly because the folks running it are the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
“We are mountain people and Santa Cruz people” Anita Elfving says, handing me a cup of Irish Breakfast before she goes to prod the fire. “We aren’t foo foo Santa Cruz people. We are real.”
Elfving says a lot of people call them to create their own scents, given that they compound many of their own perfumes and colognes. Elfving’s daughter Caitlin makes salves out of cocoa butter and beeswax. They are also wading into CBD salves, “because everyone wants them,” Elfving says. They get their honey from hives onsite, though Elfving says years of drought didn’t do them any favors.
“Our honey is one-source honey, which is very rare,” Elfving says. “Most honeys come from a conglomeration of honeys. We could tell you exactly which hive the honey comes from.”
On the rainy afternoon when I visited, what started as a fine mist turned into soft drops, making our walk around the garden more of a slow stroll over the mossy bricks. If it weren’t raining, I wouldn’t have watched where I stepped and may have missed the personalized bricks—an homage to family and friends cemented into circles and squares around a fountain.
“There’s nowhere like it, this place,” Elfving says. “We all share in the bounty.”