Couple turned 'a blank canvas' into a lavender oasis

Killingworth — The world doesn't stop when one drives into Lavender Pond Farm, but instantly it becomes a more beautiful place.

On a Monday morning in July, after the weekend crowds had gone, dragonflies, bees and butterflies danced among thousands of blooming lavender plants swaying in the breeze. Cheerful employees greeted a guest in the farm shop. The resident Labradoodle — Flora — romped outside. A giant, flower-shaped, sculpture opened its petal-shaped panels fully to smile at the sun in one corner of the farm. A fountain bubbled in the 1½-acre pond. Colorful chickens, each named for a Broadway character, clucked contentedly in their coop.

Denise and Chris Salafia have created an oasis of serenity on 27 acres, 7 of which boast 12 varieties of lavender plants laid out among paths perfect for strolling visitors. The lavender blooms in June and July, and sometimes there's a second bloom of the English variety in the fall. The aromatic, purple buds are useful year round.

The Salafias snip the blooming lavender strategically so that the fields retain their wispy, fragrant beauty. They feed the buds into a de-budding machine and use the crop to make a growing list of products. Inside the open air farm shop, where the aroma of lavender is strong but not overpowering, they sell lavender honey, essential oils, pillows and dog bed inserts, insect repellent, lotions, candles and more. There's lavender lemonade and cider, so popular as a homemade item the owners now take the ingredients to the Norwich Beverage Company for bottling.

Even this season, when persistent rains over the fall, winter and spring killed many of the drought- and drainage-loving lavender plants, there's an aura of peace at the farm and plenty to please the senses. The owners are pulling out the damaged plaints, raising up the beds and replanting.

This past spring, Yankee Magazine named Lavender Pond Farm one of the five best flower farms in New England, calling it a "little slice of Provence in Connecticut." It also won the designation "Best Connecticut Attraction" in a USA Today reader's choice poll in 2017.

Five years ago, the couple purchased the farm property all because, as Denise Salafia tells it, her husband didn't want to renovate the kitchen at their last home so that she could have a farm sink and a double oven. He told her there was this property at 318 Roast Meat Hill Road he was eyeing, and asked her to hold off on the kitchen renovation.

Denise Salafia, who taught dance for many years but has since sold her studio, immediately saw the property as a blank canvas full of possibility. The town zoning board was supportive, and the idea of Lavender Pond Farm became a reality.

The farm may seem remote to a city dweller, but it's not technically off the beaten path. It's on a section of Roast Meat Hill Road, one of the oldest throughways in town, whose name is derived, perhaps, from the smell of cooking meat of American Indians or early farmers. Accessible via state routes 80 and 148, Roast Meat Hill Road is a curvy country road with masterfully constructed stone walls and, near the lavender farm, a Colonial era cemetery.

After purchasing the property, the Salafias refinished the existing barns and outbuilding and prepared the land for the lavender by importing soil and digging raised beds. They established bee hives for pollination — and delicious, lavender infused honey — and continually added amenities.

Denise led a lot of garden clubs on walking tours of the property and noticed it was too tiring for some of the guests. These days, guests can see the farm from aboard the LPF Express, an electric train with lavender trim and a working smokestack. At one point along the half-hour tour, the train chugs over a covered bridge built by master bridgewright Arnold M. Graton out of Douglas fir and cedar that is held together with giant wooden pegs, called trunnels.

Chris Salafia owns PowerPhone Inc., a software company in Madison, and says a capable staff keeps the company running during the summer so he can devote time to the farm. Denise and Chris have two sons, ages 12 and 15, who help out with a level of enthusiasm that depends on the nature of the chore.

Some summer weekends, when cars turn past the sign that promises Lavender Pond Farm is "A more beautiful place," and snake down the driveway toward the parking area, Chris Salafia said, it feels like the line from the "Field of Dreams" story: If you build it, they will come. Six people were needed to staff the parking lot one day and 87 people came to one of the Saturday morning yoga-in-the-fields sessions. 

The Salafias employ a farm manager and 20 local college students.

"There's a purity to what we're doing, and I think people respond to it," Chris Salafia said.  

"I think you can feel the love that's gone into the farm, and the purpose and thought and meaning," said Denise Salafia.

She takes inspiration from a children's book called "Miss Rumphius," written by Barbara Cooney, about a woman who sought to make the world more beautiful by scattering lupine seeds in the wild. She read the book to her mother, a woman who would "literally bake 5,000 cookies for every dance recital," and now donates all of the proceeds from copies of "Miss Rumphius" sold in the farm shop to Smilow Cancer Center. So far, the farm has donated $15,000 from the sales of the book and from another, "Ferdinand" by Munro Leaf, which is about a bull that would rather smell flowers than fight in bullfights.  

Denise Salafia, who counts sewing and embroidering among her creative talents, was in her production room one day wondering what to do with a swath of material when a tragic event came on the TV. She created a lavender-filled "Hope Doll," with embroidered hair and a sweet, hand-drawn face, carrying a purse of lavender. The dolls, now on their third edition, are individually numbered and stamped on the back with the saying, "All you need is love."

One customer whose sister died in a horrific car accident came into the shop one day and asked if she could put wings on one of the Hope Dolls. Salafia went up to her production room and made the wings.  

She still doesn't have her farm sink or double oven, but she doesn't seem to care.

"We're really trying to make the world a more beautiful place," she said. "It's really personal to me. I make everything, and everything has a meaning behind it."

k.florin@theday.com 

Lavender Pond Farm

What: Lavender Pond Farm

Where: 318 Roast Meat Hill Road, Killingworth

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, rain or shine during the summer; check with the farm for off-season hours

Admission: free; train rides, $5

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