Field of Flowers: PepperHarrow Blossoms in Madison County

By Ann Thelen

PepperHarrow has blossomed into a destination spot for visitors to walk among a rainbow of flowers. The farm features seven acres of colorful and fragrant blooms and delights with a sea of botanical and eye-catching wonders.

Famed American poet Edwin Curran once wrote, “Flowers are the music of the ground. From earth’s lips spoken without sound.”

While countries like Japan, Costa Rica, the Netherlands and Spain boast some of the most beautiful flowers in the world, an Iowa farm has sprouted into a flower lovers' paradise. Producing hundreds of stems of stunning florals, PepperHarrow sings with notes of harmonious, gorgeous petals.

On 20 acres in Winterset, cozied amongst the covered bridges of Madison County, PepperHarrow has blossomed into a destination spot for visitors to walk among a rainbow of flowers. Featuring seven acres of lavender, dahlias, zinnias, snapdragons, peonies, and a variety of other colorful and fragrant blooms, the farm delights with a sea of botanical and eye-catching wonders.

Fans of PepperHarrow flock to the farm or places like the Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market to purchase big bouquets that add fragrant beauty to their homes. The farm has also become popular for its high-quality lavender. Whether purchased in bunches or as an essential oil, the flower has become a signature item for PepperHarrow. Lavender’s distinctive scent is light and fresh, floral but not overwhelmingly heavy. 

Lavender Grows Here

“We love growing lavender in Iowa and the joy it brings people through so many diverse products,” says Jennifer O'Neal, who owns PepperHarrow along with her husband Adam.

Lavender is native to the Old World and is often found in Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, and Europe across to northern and eastern Africa, the Mediterranean, southwest Asia to India. Beyond planting the right variety, the O’Neals have found that the nutrient-rich soil of Madison County also helps the plants thrive. The couple works hard to preserve the thriving ecosystem by using sustainable practices on the farm.

“This is the first year we shipped fresh lavender bouquets to customers. The flowers were shipped to people across the country. It was fun to see where they went and how people used them, either for themselves or as gifts,” Jennifer says. 

Distilling lavender into water and essential oils has become an integral part of PepperHarrow’s business. In 2020, the couple began distilling lavender using a small 1-gallon still. After spending time distilling hundreds of batches, sometimes up to five batches in a single day, to get the amount of needed end products, the O’Neals knew it was an inefficient process.

“We decided to run a Kickstarter campaign to help us purchase a 50-gallon, hand-hammered copper distiller from Italy,” Jennifer explains. “The new still enabled us to scale our business and to do the distillation process more efficiently, consuming less energy and taking less time from an operational standpoint.”

Lavender essential oil distillation happens through a process called steam distillation or sometimes wet steam distillation.

“With each batch, we place about 150 pounds of lavender in the distiller,” Adam explains. “From the batch, we get about 5 gallons of lavender floral water and between 16 and 20 ounces of lavender essential oil.”

PepperHarrow’s lavender essential oil is unique because it comes from one type of lavender distilled by hand. According to Jennifer, many lavender essential oils found in the commercial marketplace are blended oils from several different varieties and farms.

The couple uses the water and oils to create luxurious and relaxing lavender-based products, including sprays, bath salts, salves, roll-ons, tea, candles, insect repellent and more. For gardening enthusiasts, PepperHarrow also offers online classes on growing and distilling lavender, seed starting, pest management and flower arranging. All classes are listed on its website.

Summer and Fall Blooms and Activities

During the late summer and fall months, the farm, which is the O’Neals place of business and family home, will be in full bloom with sunflowers, dahlias and other seasonal flowers. The dahlias will be blooming until mid-October in every color of the rainbow, and the sunflower variety is targeted for mid-September blooms.

From tea mixology classes, coffee tastings and a floral retreat to a VIP sunset farm tour, watercolor painting classes and a soap-making workshop, PepperHarrow offers a variety of experiences for those who love flowers and want a taste of farm life. While the classes often fill up quickly, the couple continuously adds opportunities for others to experience their working farm. Because PepperHarrow is also the family’s residence, the couple is deliberate in having visitors come only for scheduled opportunities.

“I inherited my grandmother’s love of flowers and enjoy sharing that passion with others,” says Jennifer, who spent much of her childhood on her grandparents’ farm and in their garden. She would help her grandmother arrange flowers for competitions and events, soaking up the precious knowledge that traveled across a generation.

Adam is originally from south Louisiana and spent his childhood days playing in his backyard, the swamps of a nature preserve. He spent his young years working in a neighbor’s flower and vegetable garden every day that he could. That early exposure to the wonders of nature and gardening grew into a passion for being outdoors and growing things. Adam continued the gardening path and has been a master gardener for many years. After years of study, tending heritage gardens and farm management, he and Jennifer finally found the wonderful land in Madison County to build their dream farm.

“We both have such a love of flowers and enjoy growing them so much. We genuinely adore the joy that flowers bring people,” Jennifer says.

PepperHarrow has also started a you-cut flower program on Saturdays. Tickets are posted on their website during the week, and then on Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m., visitors can come to the farm, cut their flowers, and then go into an air-conditioned barn and make a beautiful flower centerpiece.

“It’s been a new event for us this year, but we learned during COVID that people really want to have amazing experiences, and we want to share the beauty of our property,” Jennifer says.

“We love seeing people take advantage of it and have the best time. People come out for daytime dates; husbands and wives usually bring picnics out and enjoy the afternoon. Parents are coming out with their children, taking their pictures and having the children engage in flower gathering and arranging, which is really fun to see.”