Day Trips

Jeannie Ralston's new book, The Unlikely Lavender Queen, is all about life, and love, and lavender, of course

Jeannie Ralston in a lavender field, 2004
Jeannie Ralston in a lavender field, 2004 (Photo by Gerald E. McLeod)

The Unlikely Lavender Queen by Jeannie Ralston takes the reader on an adventure from New York City to Blanco, Texas, and beyond. Ralston took the idea of growing lavender in the Hill Country and turned it into an agri-industry in the sun-baked, rocky soil west of Austin. Who would have thought you could grow lavender in Texas?

Robb Kendrick, Ralston's husband, might not have been the first to consider turning his hay field into a lavender field, but the couple's Hill Country Lavender was the first pick-your-own lavender farm in Texas. Blanco County has grown to become "the lavender capital of Texas," with seven farms open since Memorial Day 2001, when Ralston first opened her front gate to the public. There are now another half-dozen lavender farms in neighboring Kendall and Gillespie counties.

Casual acquaintances of Ralston often don't know that she had a successful writing career with national magazines before becoming the lavender queen. She never had the dream of being a farmer, much less a farmer's wife. Too often her accomplishments were overshadowed by the beautiful artwork of her National Geographic-photographer husband. Her new book sets the record straight in a fast-paced narrative that shines a light on some of life's little mysteries, with humor and the advantage of hindsight.

The first time I met Ralston, she was juggling three minor crises, and I was the fourth. Despite her hectic schedule getting ready for her fourth spring harvest, she showed me around the farm. It was late May, and the purple buds were barely beginning to show on the rows of lavender plants that looked like long, greenish-gray caterpillars stretching across the field. Even early in the season, the air smelled of the faint hint of lavender.

When Ralston told me with a laugh, "Robb had to drag me out to the country kicking and screaming, and now I can't imagine living anywhere else," I had no idea how serious she really was. The book lays bare the ups and downs of married life and farming, neither of which is easy; but both can be very rewarding.

The lavender farm was Kendrick's idea, after he noticed the similarities in climate and soil between Provence, France, and their land outside of Blanco. After extensive research and experimentation, he planted 4 acres of lavender in front of their house. As the plants matured and thrived, Ralston juggled dealing with contractors converting an old barn into a showcase home, raising two young boys, maintaining a career, and building the lavender business in a small town as foreign to her as New York City would be to her new neighbors: All while her partner traveled the world shooting photographs. Ralston turned out to be stronger than even she thought she could be, and her story is an inspiring adventure that turned out to be more successful than her wildest dreams.

Ultimately, the lavender farm became a victim of its own success. "In order to continue, we would have had to take it to the next level," Ralston said over barbecue, after she and Kendrick had sold their house and farm in order to move to Mexico and a new adventure. "[Robb] got me into the lavender farm, and he got me out of it," she said with a laugh. "On the surface, the book is about lavender, but it's about more than that. Sometimes you don't get what you want in life; sometimes you get lavender."

The Blanco Lavender Festival takes place on June 14 and 15. Besides pick-your-own open houses at the farms, there will be a lavender market on the grounds of the historic Blanco County Courthouse. Along with vendors and artists selling a wide range of lavender goods, Ralston will be among the speakers discussing a variety of herbal subjects. There will also be live music and cooking demonstrations using locally grown products. For a full schedule and maps to the farms, go to www.blancolavenderfest.com.

For information about The Unlikely Lavender Queen, go to Jeannie Ralston's website at www.jeannieralston.com. She'll be in the Austin area signing copies of her book and at the Lavender Festival, at least one more time.

883rd in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

The Unlikely Lavender Queen, Jeannie Ralston, Robb Kendrick, Hill Country Lavender

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