The World of Lavender

Everybody loves lavender in a garden. It’s one of the standard requests I get to include in a garden design. But we picture the lavender fields we seen in famous gardens not the spindly, woody plants we often end up with in our own gardens. With so many kinds to choose from and endless growing tips here is Lavender 101 from The Mountain Gardener.

Lavender farm- Whidbey Island, WA.

Lavender needs good drainage. Incorporate organic matter if necessary to make the soil loose and friable. Compost is the best amendment because it is fertile and the uneven particle sizes create better air spaces and give the roots better anchors to attach themselves to. Check the soil’s pH (potential hydrogen) to make sure it falls somewhere between 6.5 and 7.5. If the soil is too acidic the lavender will not thrive. If the soil is too alkaline, the nutrients are ‘tied’ up in the soil and the plant cannot use them. Yellowed growth can be indicative of a soil that is out of balance. Adding compost can help to balance the pH.

Mulching with a fine mulch or compost after planting helps with the weed control. Avoid mulching right up to the stem of the small plant. Instead, leave a collar about two inches wide around the plant.

If planting in pots, make sure to repot every spring into a larger container with fresh soil to allow the plant to continue to mature and to provide as many flowers as possible. A good, coarse, potting soil with organic fertilizer mixed in works best.

Grosso lavender with mixed lavender varieties

In the ground or in a pot, full sun is a must. In hot areas, some late afternoon shade can be tolerated without effecting flowering. Lavender in the field rarely needs fertilizer, especially if compost is applied as a mulch. More often, problems arise because the soil is not healthy. Avoid chemicals in pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that kill or starve the beneficial organisms in the soil.

While Lavender is extremely drought resistant once established, it grows larger and produces more blooms with regular watering. This means that when it is dry, water it then let it dry out a bit before soaking again.

Plants should be pruned every year immediately after bloom. Pruning should not be confused with harvesting. Pruning is necessary to extend the life of the plant. Lavender flower wand stems are usually a bright green while lavender leaves are gray. Cut back not only the flower stem, but also about a third of the gray-leaved stems as well. If the plant has been neglected, it can be cut back further, but avoid pruning back so far that only woody stems with no leaves are showing. A plant pruned into the wood may push out latent (sleeping) buds or it may die.

It’s possible to have a lavender blooming in your garden most of the growing season. Here are my favorites.

Spanish lavenders start blooming early to mid spring. All of these do best with a good pruning about four or five weeks into the bloom cycle, which discourages these large bushes from becoming untidy and sometimes encourages a second sweep of blooms. Spanish lavender is sometimes referred to as French lavender since it grows wild in France.

lavender farm-San Juan Island, WA

French lavender has the more traditional gray leaves but with serrated edges. This large, fast growing shrub is sometimes referred to as everblooming lavender. French lavender does best when kept at no more than three feet, including blooms. The large, blocky flower heads can be dried if picked before any of the little flowers turn brown. Goodwin Creek lavender is a hybrid of French Lavender with a shorter growth habit and a darker purple flower head that is held on a longer wand. It makes a nice border or edging plant.

English lavenders (Lavandula angustifolias), like English, Munstead and Hidcote start flowering in mid to late spring and are finished by late spring or early summer. They look great when they flower, and after pruning, remain a compact ball or hedge with exotically fragrant leaves the rest of the year. Hidcote is famous for its dark purple flower. Like most of the English lavenders, Hidcote is not as drought or heat tolerant as the lavandins.

The English hybrids, sometimes referred to as lavandins, come in third in the bloom cycle, starting just as the the English lavenders are finishing, and continuing to mid summer. These are the workhorses of lavender. They do it all: bloom lots, grow just the right size, and smell wonderful. Provence and Grosso are the best known of these, but there are many others. These are the ones to line the drive or border the garden with.

Grosso lavender is cultivated for oil used mainly in the cosmetic industry. It makes great lavender bouquets and wands as the flowers stay on the stem better. It has beautiful purple calyxes instead of the normal green calyx of most lavenders. Provence has a long, slender flower wand that is useful for dried bud collecting. The buds come cleanly and easily away from the stalk.