Think Spring

Two small-scale New Jersey gardens will be ready to wow visitors in just a few weeks. (Photos by Laura Moss)

Although her family bought a farm in Monmouth County when she was just 12, Ellen Karcher took a detour to the statehouse in Trenton before turning to her true calling back home. Karcher began planting lavender plugs in the dirt of her family’s 10-acre spread five years ago; at the time, she was still serving as state senator from the 12th District. After losing her bid for re-election in 2006, Karcher hung up her business suits and turned to full-time farming. Today, Pleasant Valley Lavender boasts nearly 3,000 fragrant plants.

Karcher was inspired by a trip to Sequim, Washington, a remote area on the Olympia Peninsula dubbed Lavender Capital of North America. Learning that lavender thrives in sandy soil and salty air, Karcher decided to recreate a bit of Sequim at her own farm. After leaving the Legislature behind, she tapped a new staff; twin daughters Aviela and Lael, now 16. (Older son Ben is off at law school. Husband John Hochberg helps out as much as his schedule allows.) Together the three women farm and, using the fruits of their labor, create dried bouquets, sachets, soaps, cookies, lemonade, honey, tea and spices. “The scent of lavender infuses every part of our life,” says Karcher.

Pleasant Valley Lavender is the state’s first lavender farm and is open from May through early fall for U-pick customers. Visitors can stroll through the fragrant fields and create their own bouquets from a variety of English and French species. “I’m shocked by how many people come,” says Karcher. “I get up on a Saturday morning and look out, and there are 40 strangers walking around my lavender field. They enjoy it as much as I do.” Pre-made items are also available for purchase.

Lavender is a perennial evergreen, Karcher explains, with a 15- to 20-year life-span. Its blooms peak in early June. When that happens, she says, “It’s a huge burst of color.” Karcher says the farm will feature a lavender labyrinth this summer.

As for her Trenton days, Karcher laughs, “My daughters always tell me that this sort of mud-throwing suits me better.”

Pleasant Valley Lavender
288 Pleasant Valley Road
Marlboro; 732-740-4832
Open May 14-July 17, Tuesday through
Friday, 10 am-6 pm, and weekends
10 am-7 pm; July 19-October 9, weekends
10 am-7 pm, and weekdays by appointment.


Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, in North Wildwood’s historic Anglesea district, is 125 years old but still offers a beacon of pleasure to its 30,000 annual visitors. The chief attraction is a charming public garden that surrounds the lighthouse with more than 200 plant varieties, clumped tightly together Victorian-cottage style.

Built in 1874, the three-story Victorian lighthouse, which still serves as an aid to navigation, has undergone a series of improvements, including a $450,000 restoration scheduled to be completed in time for spring visitors. Taken together, the lighthouse and garden offer a tranquil retreat from the bustling Wildwoods.

Originally the grounds surrounding the lighthouse were ungroomed sandy mounds, often flooded. Then in 1986, Steve Murray, who served as superintendent of North Wildwood Parks, designed the one-acre garden. Just steps from the ocean, the tiny plot has sandy soil supplemented by tons of topsoil. “I lost track of how many tons I brought in,” Murray says. Winds are almost always strong, and the air is quite salty. Still, the garden thrives, thanks to the perseverance of Murray, who retired last year but continues to serve as lighthouse chairman and historian. “I still tend this garden 100 percent by myself,” he says.

“Gardening at the seashore is not an easy task,” Murray says. “I’ve learned a lot, mostly through my mistakes.” The many species planted include colorful flowers such as pansies, impatiens, dianthus, tulips, anemones, crocus, hyacinths, daffodils and marigolds. Indigenous shrubs—bayberry, beach plum and viburnum—create a barrier and protect the more delicate flower species from the ocean breezes. An herb garden holds basil, spearmint, rosemary, fennel and other fragrant plants. It’s a riot of color seven months of the year, drawing butterflies and hummingbirds along with two-legged nature-lovers.

“This garden brings so much joy to people,” says Murray. “It’s a haven for them. People who don’t even know me say they come here because it gives them a sense of peace.”

Hereford Inlet Lighthouse
111 North Central Avenue
North Wildwood; 609-522-4520
Lighthouse: Open May 15-October 30,
9 am to 5 pm, seven days a week.
Call for off-season hours.
Garden: Open daily, dawn to dusk.

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